“Everything Everywhere All at Once” Rides a Space Horse and Tests the Limits of Imagination

Everything Everywhere All at Once has action, laughs and heart, but where's the balance between unfettered creativity and reckless abandon?
May 18, 2022

(Courtesy of A24)

Front and center on the movie poster of director duo the Daniels’ (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) Everything Everywhere All at Once reads the idiom 天馬行空. This isn’t the Chinese version of the title — it’s a part of the film’s brand, its DNA. A literal translation of the idiom suggests something to the effect of a celestial steed, galloping across the skies, and most commonly, it’s used to describe something as beyond imagination, free and unbridled, (as space horses are, presumably). But there’s also another meaning, entirely dependent on context — 天馬行空 can also suggest impulsive neglect until after the fact (which is, I guess, also what space horses are about). 

There’s a price to be paid for Everything’s out-of-this-world imagination. In a film jam-packed with multiverses, multi-genres, multi-generations and multi-moral-of-the-stories, how much of Everything’s thematic makeup is unfettered creativity and how much is reckless abandon?

Hardworking immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is gasping for air — between operating a laundromat business, throwing a Lunar New Year party and sorting through a tax audit, she hardly has the time or the wherewithal to consider the problems within her own family. She knows her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) will be introducing her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to her impossible-to-please father (James Hong) at the party; she also knows an appointment with IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) is around the corner — how can Evelyn afford to stop and breathe? Mild-mannered husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is trying his best to hold the family together, but he too is on his last legs, divorce papers ready and on hand.

Evelyn’s entire world shatters when she receives and activates an ominous Bluetooth earpiece — the screen literally cracks like a mirror as she is violently displaced into another dimension. There, she meets Alpha Waymond, a gallant iteration of Waymond from a different universe, and learns that it is her destiny to defeat Jobu Tupaki, an all-powerful cosmic being and imminent threat to the multiverse. Channeling the possibilities of infinite versions of herself, including a wuxia master, Benihana chef, sign spinner, movie starlet, hot dog finger housewife and nth others, Evelyn fights the good interdimensional fight — not just for the fate of the multiverse, but for her family and for herself.

Beat after beat, you’re pummeled with vibrant, studio-grade animation and loony, surrealist humor — all in true Daniels fashion. Best known as the creative force behind the viral music video “Turn Down for What,” the Daniels guaranteed, for better or for worse, that Everything is also flavored with their unmistakable signature: a dash of wacky, a pinch of vulgar and a whole lot of bizarro ingenuity. When you leverage the might of a green screen and surround sound on top of that, you get a cinematic assault of the senses; there is hardly a quiet moment, and if you’re seeking respite in Everything, you’re better off looking anywhere else.

(Courtesy of A24)

From a narrative standpoint, Everything is many things: sci-fi thriller, family drama, martial arts melee, absurdist comedy, coming-of-age bildungsroman and even a mini-thesis on nihilism. From a production standpoint, the film is a genre-mashing, physics-bending spectacle — a true moviegoing experience full of action and laughs. Everything tries hard to be different, but when you sift away the dazzling theatrics and the bawdy phallic jokes, what remains is a tried-and-true story about one woman’s failure — as a mother, daughter, wife, a self-actualized individual — and her glorious redemption. 

The most familiar moments in the film are also its most memorable. When Evelyn surrenders her grip on Joy and accepts that to let go is also to love; when Evelyn hugs Waymond tenderly and realizes that his quiet company is the only life she ever needed; when Evelyn takes a stand against her overbearing father and asserts her will — these moments are just variations of the same platitudes we’ve all seen before, but they work because of a host of exquisite performances from the cast. Michelle Yeoh, undeniable legend, is down to try anything; Ke Huy Quan, pipsqueak voice and all, is the film’s guiding light; rising star Stephanie Hsu’s Joy is equal parts spicy and endearing. Under their care, they make the cliches cathartic and tropes true.

You’d think that with a classic thematic template and sensational acting talent, Everything would be able to tell a cross-generational family story with spirit and soul. But the distractions are just so loud — Everything is too many things at once, sacrificing structural cohesion for flashy explosions. 

If only Everything gave Evelyn and the rest of its characters enough runway to properly grow, how sweet it would’ve been to witness their healing in earnest! While we get plenty of (necessary) exposition about the mechanics of the multiverse, relationships that are equally foundational are quickly brushed over. Why did Evelyn and Joy’s relationship become so tense? Why did Evelyn and Waymond’s marriage fall apart? Why does Evelyn need to stand up to her father? These very questions make up the actual heartbeat of Everything — sadly, they are hardly explored, their emotional impact obfuscated by all the noise. 

Evelyn’s redemption is the film’s most vigorously beating pulse, but the noise snuffs that out too. When Evelyn channels other universes, she literally lives a life entirely different from running a creaky laundromat with a docile husband while doting over an angsty daughter and a disapproving father. What if she were a movie star? Or a sentient talking rock? The multiverse provides Evelyn the omnipotence to see these possibilities and every other one, some glamorous, some humorous, many others ludicrous. None of these possibilities are nearly as pathetic as Evelyn’s; life simply hasn’t shaped out the way she’d liked. Each left turn and every trivial decision has led Evelyn to her current existence, where potential is left unfulfilled and life is left unlived. 

But it’s okay — Everything shows us that it’s not too late to apologize, to profess, to arise. That there’s still a chance to forgive — mostly herself — for her just desserts. 

It’s a wonderful and hopeful message, but one that’s backloaded behind all the theatrical trimming and firework fanfare. The fights, the jokes, the psychedelic animation are tasteful in the right amounts, tiring when there’s too much. Yes, Everything’s premise is built on top of the multiverse, but the beating heart of the film — Evelyn’s tangling and untangling of a life that had come to be — was lost in the process. In perhaps the most affecting scene in the film, Evelyn and Joy are in furious word-to-word combat. Joy, in tears, says: “You’re gonna just ignore everything else? There’s only a few specks of time where any of this makes any sense.” There were only a handful of moments in the film that made any sense to me, too. 

In that liminal space, between action and plot, muscle and soul, Everything’s precarious balance falls by the wayside. Without a doubt, the film uses the multiverse to frame an archetypal story in a fresh new way, and cool fights are always welcomed. But you can’t have it all — there’s a trade-off between narrative harmony and over-the-top creativity, and Everything went past the tipping point. 

The Daniels made a choice to emboss their film with an innovative cosmic mythology and tons of zany fun — this is right in line with its brand, after all. Everything is, at its core, a high-throttle popcorn flick; meanwhile, the most heartfelt parts of the film were exploited for its convenient characterization, then left behind as an afterthought, a nice-to-have.

But you wonder: if there was one less CGI-powered montage, one less branch in the multiverse, would Everything have the time and space to more fully develop its thematic cornerstones? If the unbridled imagination of 天馬行空 was exercised with a touch more restraint, would we be able to more convincingly come along for the ride?


Ryan Chen

Film and TV Editor

Ryan Chen is a Film and TV editor for Hyphen. His writing has appeared in the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and other outlets. He was born and raised in San Francisco and currently lives in New York.