Everything Everywhere All At Once
Emoji summary: ⛰🌎🚷
I feel bad every day in a way that has become damp and normal. But today, for the first time, I forgot to take my medication so I am even worse. I only realised what had happened when I was lying perfectly still in the bath and felt my heart pounding. It was like someone was knocking on a door inside my chest telling me frantically to get out, quick, there’s a fire in the bath right now. I stood up faster than I should have, which didn’t help, and then I dripped my way through the house. I swallowed the pill without a drink and then returned to my original position underwater where I could still hear my heartbeat vibrating the water around me. I am the wave machine, I thought; my blood is probably thick enough to ride.
Yeah, things are fine on the surface, fine as long as I stay reactive to the situation, or opt out completely when I don’t have it in me; I have been trying to let my body find its routine but so far there’s no pattern to my chronic illness at all. I know that as the summer sets in, the heat is making me worse though. I hate the inconsistencies (and the aesthetics of that broken pattern). If only there was order in the world and in my body too. Maybe that is why I spend so much time in fiction, because order is always restored after the hero finally saves the world.
So it goes, I feel bad every day in a way that has become damp and normal. I felt bad when I sat down to watch Everything Everywhere All At Once recently, even though I was on the couch at home, still and flat like I had been in the bath. I mean, I laughed a lot as I watched it. I felt every movement in the fight scenes like they were happening in slow-motion, in bullet time; I tried to keep my eyes wide open to catch every image in the fast flashing montages because I knew each shot had been designed, chosen, and it must have meant something that I needed to know, even subliminally. I was impressed by the actors, of course, for giving the performances of their lives. I held on to the race of it all wondering which way their story would go. I can see clearly why it is now A24’s highest grossing film of all time. It is very good. It is deserved.
But when it ended, I felt flat in that other way, in my secret emotional state. I don’t know if I can easily say why I felt that way, hence the slippy review. I always hope that the process of writing will trick an opinion and its explanation out of me in a neat package but the thoughts are just a wet tangled mess, like the hair that slipped off my head after I finally climbed out of the bath to write this to you. If I say too much, you might be able to see the patch on my head where the hair came from. (Is there even a patch yet? I don’t know because I don’t want to look). I watched a film everybody loved and I know it was good but I also know that I resented it; and all of these things are true at once in the tired little multiverse inside my head.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a sci-fi adventure. Big film, big new film. Michelle Yeoh’s weary character Evelyn runs a launderette with an overwhelming tax issue. She doesn’t know she is about to be served divorce papers on top of that, and she has a daughter called Joy who is so done being stuck with a mother who does not accept her having a girlfriend. So, they’re clashing. Every part of her life is reaching its boiling point and just as it’s about to bubble over, she is magically pulled into another reality. There, Evelyn learns that there are many parallel universes where she became many different people after she left China, or after she decided to stay — the other Evelyns are powerful, creative, highly skilled, happy. She must quickly connect with all these different versions of herself to absorb their knowledge sets because she has a task. She is told that she needs to defeat an even more powerful entity who is threatening to destroy the entire multiverse.
That powerful entity turns out to be her own daughter, and she doesn’t actually want to end all life as we know it. It’s more like she wants to end her own life. Even if that’s never said explicitly, it’s there in the polite sort of way you’d talk about this stuff with someone you didn’t want to admit it to, like a therapist or a parent who you never hugged. See, when Joy learnt about the multiverse, she took it as proof that nothing matters. She says to her mum, ‘It feels nice doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away.’ Everything Everywhere All At Once is an atypical hero versus villain story where the villain is asking her mum to convince her there’s a reason to live; a reason to stop the mayhem she’s causing precisely because she believes there’s no reason for any of it. ‘I’ve been stuck like this experiencing everything. I was hoping you would see something I didn’t… that you would convince me there was another way.’
The film is a long exploration of nihilism, using genre-jumping, absurdism, and a hyperactive style to keep the story and the mood completely unstable. By keeping the film on the edge of meaninglessness, it keeps us wondering if the villain, who isn’t even really a villain, has a point after all. Maybe everything is pointless. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we do. But in the end the mum and the daughter make up and everything, everywhere is fine and there’s a happy ending and the world is at peace and the science-fiction is all over now and the actors have done their job and the audience can breathe out and it’s time for the film to take a bow. That’s when I felt flat. That’s when I felt a little bit of resentment. I was not convinced. I think I wanted the villain to win this time but I can’t say that can I? Because again, that is revealing too much. (I promise I am fine, or as fine as any of us can be right now).
It’s just that if I had the option to swap universes with somebody else, I would. Why would I stay here? I live in England. My rent is paying off somebody else’s mortgage, and I’m paying more each month than I would be if I had a mortgage of my own. Nobody on my street talks to each other. Every time the smart meter bleeps for more money I want to run away. I can’t run away because Covid has given me an insane long-term illness that means I can’t run at all. Every friend but one lives in London or somewhere better across the world, not in Liverpool where I’m trapped. I like my job — I love writing — but I hate that I have to use social media to tell people I’ve written something new; the only posts that people engage with on our Instagram are memes, and I don’t think that memes are enough. In fact, I think I might hate them (and the algorithm). My cat attacks me when she sees me working and it feels like it’s a sign. Oh and my Nan is in hospital and she has been in hospital so many times before but this time feels different. When I went to visit her yesterday, the woman in the next bed was laughing hysterically the entire time; she had had a stroke, and when I turned to look at her, I saw two bright red eyes and the longest teeth I’ve ever seen on someone, while she continued to laugh straight at me. The hospital they’re in is due to move into another building across the road but nobody can move yet because after it was finished, they found huge cracks and realised the foundations were all wrong. The thing is, that new building has 180 fewer beds than the current hospital, so where will all the sick people go? Into another universe if they were given the option, I reckon; I’ll ask if I can go with them.
In all the hopping between places in Everything Everywhere All At Once, there is one setting the film visits that is barren and vast. Evelyn and Joy are there but they have taken the form of two rocks. Their conversation isn’t spoken through the actors, it’s written in subtitles on the screen, and the camera turns to each of them as they speak. Joy explains that this is ‘one of the universes where the conditions weren’t right for life to form. Most of them are like this, actually.’ Joy says that you can just sit down and everything feels so far away, and they both agree that it is nice.
Slowed down, with text instead of voices, rocks instead of actors, fixed cameras, no real sound except for the soft push of invisible wind, this moment is so delightful to me. Everyone close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think about it. There aren’t any problems in a place where nothing happens. Nobody can get sick if there are no bodies. There aren’t any problems where there are no people to make them.
A subtitle hangs over the misty desert horizon. It is Joy’s rock saying, ‘For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise. That is, until we discovered that the Earth is actually revolving around the Sun, which is just one sun out of trillions of suns. And now look at us, trying to deal with the fact that all of that exists inside of one universe out of who knows how many. Every new discovery is just a reminder—,’ and Evelyn cuts in that, ‘We’re all small and stupid.’ Joy underlines the sentiment by saying, ‘Who knows what great new discovery is coming next to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.’
And I’m nodding at the rock’s unquestionable logic like, yeah. Who knows what a politician is going to do next, who knows what virus is going to evolve to murder us, who knows what other symptom my body will decide to check off to make me feel like an even smaller piece of shit. Every time I read the news, and unfortunately I read the news every day, somebody has killed a toddler in England, and in America — well, we know what happens there.
When the film ends with everybody back to real people in the real universe we know and love and hate, I am not satisfied. How can I be? I wanted Evelyn and Joy to stay in the world with nothing but rocks because that’s where I want to be — that would be my happy ending. Dry and quiet. No money. No Boris Johnson. At peace. They all go as a family to the tax office, and the conversation from the beginning of the film rolls round again at the end. There are piles of receipts on the table and Evelyn is zoning out while the staff speak to her about numbers. It is the ending of the film but true order has not been restored, it has been ignored. Order would be living as a rock. No thoughts, no mindfulness. I don’t want to go out and touch grass, I don’t want to be someone who can feel anything at all. Take my nervous system and cast its net into the sea. The fact a film so committed to its own emotional, stylistic, fast-paced circus ends so completely normally kills me. It’s a cop-out. Go back, you cowards. I don’t want a hard cut to the real world, no gradual lifting of lights after the film has ended, just the sun in my eyes and it’s time to go. I want to be a rock. That is order. That is heaven on earth.
I lie in the bath, a real girl. It’s been two weeks since I watched the film and whenever I hear people mention it, it’s only to gush. But I haven’t thought about the characters or the things that they said. I haven’t marvelled at the way it was edited or the artistry in how it looked. I have only thought about the rocks on the planet with no life. I don’t want to tell anyone that I have only thought about the rocks. It is a secret I keep to myself. I lie in the bath and I imagine dropping to the bottom of the bathtub, small and hard. It’s not that I want to die, honestly, because a rock cannot breathe underwater or above it. Fiction is the easy way out but I need fiction that really knows how I feel.