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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2022 film Everything Everywhere All at Once.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
By most measures, Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is an average person just trying to get by. Her laundromat business is a headache, her marriage to her beta-male husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) has lost its magic, and her relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is strained to the breaking point.
But she can’t imagine how big her problems are going to get. One day while sitting in an IRS office trying to unravel a tax issue, her husband pops up out of nowhere and asks for her help to save the universe.
Actually, not her exact husband, but a different version of him from an alternate reality, and not just this universe, but the multiple universes that make up the totality of existence.
It turns out that Jobu Tupaki, an alternate version of Evelyn’s daughter, has gained enormous power and is in a really bad (as in, reality-erasing) mood, and this version of Evelyn is the only one who might be able to stop her from ending things for everyone.
Suffice to say, things get nuts. The story proceeds in increasingly weird and wondrous ways in a style that is much more Wizard of Oz than hardcore science fiction, but the exact details of inter-dimensional spacetime travel are not the point of the story.
Right alongside the whiplash action is a meditation on how the choices we make, especially of how we treat each other, open and close all kinds of possibilities in life.
The lead actors are great. I liked how Yeoh played her character as someone who is understandably freaked out about her situation but doesn’t pull an Indiana Jones, refusing to believe the things happening right in front of her face.
I also found Hsu especially effective as a frustrated and sad young woman who is in a state of deep despair but has the power to do something drastic about it.
[Fun fact: Quan became famous for playing the characters Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Data in The Goonies (1985). He came out of a 20 year acting retirement to be in this movie.]
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert with the Russo Brothers producing, this is a kind of film I can say I haven’t seen before, at least not done quite like this.
I was thoroughly entertained and laughing out loud many times, but also inspired to think about the kind of existentialist questions I’ve seen depicted in other, much different, movies like Waking Life (2001), a film I know both of us enjoyed.
The concept of the multiverse (or alternate realities) isn’t new. I still remember an episode from the original Star Trek series “Mirror, Mirror” (S2E4, 1967) where Evil Spock’s goatee became a character all its own. And many episodes of The Twilight Zone hinge on someone’s mundane existence altering just enough to change everything.
Multiverses are also a practical way to keep franchises going. I’m thinking of the reboot of Star Trek in 2009, which I thought used the concept in an elegant way to retell a story without destroying over 50 years of real-world goodwill from fans.
Series like Rick & Morty, Quantum Leap (the old and new versions), and the various properties of whatever phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’re in now also take advantage of the concept, both as a plot device and a way to introduce new characters or replace old ones.
So Kevin, what did you think of this movie? And what do you think about the modern use of the multiverse concept in general? Is it an effective storytelling tool? In a storytelling environment where anything that can happen does happen, does anything really matter?
What if? What if...? Since you mentioned Spock, I'll quote Admiral Kirk from Wrath of Khan, when talking to Vulcan protege Saavik -- "As your teacher, Mr. Spock, is fond of saying, 'I like to think there always are ... possibilities.'"
On one hand, we're often encouraged to live with no regrets, right? But it's nigh-impossible to keep from contemplating how one's life might have unfolded if we pursued this or that particular pathway.
It's a storytelling device as old as the hills. We all know of the Choose Your Own Adventure YA book series, but there was also an adult-oriented novel called Life's Lottery, which applied the same format to everyday scenarios; it asked the question, "what are the pivotal moments in our lives which shape our futures?"
A similar plot device* was used in the underrated 2004 film The Butterfly Effect, in which a diary is the conduit for flipping back and forth through time, to see how monumental choices impacted the future. [*All these tales are descendents of the classic Ray Bradbury short story, "A Sound of Thunder."]
However, I should add that Life's Lottery and (to a lesser extent) The Butterfly Effect are grounded in reality, whereas Everything Everywhere is not. It's madcap. It's zany. I get it, and it's a stylistic choice that obviously worked for lots of viewers. But when alt-universe Waymond starts to decimate an IRS security team by way of a fanny pack, well, I begin to mentally check out.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Can I be critical of a film whose style was always going to be a tough sell for me? If someone offers me a metal album that's considered to be the crème de la crème of the genre, well... it's still metal, which means that I'm not the target audience.
You mentioned Marvel, and I should point out here that I did enjoy Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which touches on these sorts of tropes to great (and often hilarious) effect. I've wondered why I buy into the fantastical and absurd via animation as opposed to live action?
I'm all ears if you have ideas. Would we truly want to bump into the countless Clarences and Kevins inhabiting alternate timelines? I suspect not, especially if they were doing better than we were!
This reminds me of the 2014 film The One I Love, in which Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play a couple who goes to a weekend retreat... and then each bumps into a version of their partner that's 10% better than the one with whom they arrived. Do they ditch the old spouses or not?
As far as your question as to whether "choices matter" -- maybe they don't ultimately matter in the cosmic scheme of things if all possibilities can come to fruition. But each individual has to live with the ramifications of the decisions they make; we can't hop to another timeline nor reset the playing board a la Groundhog Day.
Ever play decision-oriented games where you're not allowed to save and restart? Much more drama! And what would life be like without risk? Here's a scenario. Let's say you can pick any moment in history, change a pivotal event, and then zip to the future to see what sort of world emerged as a result. (OK, anything but messing with JFK's assassination -- that's been done to death, no pun intended.) What would you pick?
When I think about that question, I can’t help but notice that what we call history is made up of so many decisions and choices. There’s no guarantee going back and changing things would make any difference.
Take out Hitler, maybe? That scenario has been examined in sci-fi quite a bit, too. In the past I’ve argued that knocking off Hitler would have made things worse for the people opposing him. Basically, he was such a bad military leader the Allies were better off with him in charge, and if he had been killed early on someone just as evil and more competent might have negotiated their way to leaving Nazi Germany intact.
In the end, it seems very few events in history depend on one person doing (or not doing) one thing. Call it the “Collective Eventuality” theory of space-time [the opposite of The Butterfly Effect], perhaps…?
As far as whether I’d want to encounter alternate versions of me -- I think I would, if only for a brief time, like what George Bailey went through in It’s a Wonderful Life, without as much drama. I would be interested to see how I’m doing better or worse at things depending on how decisions shook out, as long as I could look out for the Twilight Zone twist where I’m actually worse off despite appearances. And if I could use those observations to make better decisions or correct mistakes in my main reality, so much the better.
The only people who regularly encourage me to live with no regrets are trying to sell me something. Having a few regrets is part of the human experience, if only because it encourages us to examine our lives and make better decisions as we go on.
I feel in a general sense of movie-making it’s easier to portray fantastical and absurd stories using animation for the basic reason that it looks far more convincing than live action. At least it used to. When I first saw The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a theater it hit me how directors were learning to incorporate CGI seamlessly into the frame without the movie being entirely about “look at those effects.”
Also, when a film is animated, there’s no need to contemplate what parts of the image are real and what’s not. Since none of it is real, it’s a more immersive experience that allows the viewer to focus more on the story being told.
What are some of the best animated feature films you’ve ever seen, or seen recently, and would those films have worked for you if they were live-action? [Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse comes to mind for me, in terms of sheer spectacle.]
And do you think technology will ever get to the point where you can’t tell the difference between a real person and a CGI likeness? Would it matter to you if you couldn’t?
Seems like the Collective Eventuality theory is actually the opposite of the Great Man theory! I'm not sure which way I lean, though my hunch is that as technology has progressed, it's become harder for one person to wield an outsized influence on global affairs?
Too many competing voices, both inside and outside the levers of government. Xi and (to a much lesser extent) Putin seem to be the only current world leaders whose replacement would produce significant geopolitical shocks.
Meanwhile, you could remove the top five leaders from each of the USA's two main political parties, and I doubt the trajectory of the nation would significantly shift. For better or worse, it ain't easy to alter the course of the American battleship.
-- Perhaps the question "Did the advent of CGI mortally wound the action genre?" should be a future Fourth Wall discussion? Funny that you mentioned The Lord of the Rings -- I mentally checked out of the trilogy *because* of the CGI! Let's contrast the Battle of Helmsdeep from The Two Towers with, say, the Battle of Stirling from Braveheart. Which one has more heft? The former feels sterile in comparison, to the point where the tension is sucked right out of the proceedings.
-- I think we'd all agree that live-action versions of animated productions wouldn't work. (Case in point, the live-action version of The Simpsons' opening sequence. Pretty clever!) The question is... why? I can't quite put on my finger on the reason.
On the flipside, we have rotoscoping, which we've seen in Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, and Waltz With Bashir. How does the rotoscoping alter the theme of the narrative? Check out the original footage of Waking Life before it was thrown through the production grinder. Doesn't quite fit with the dreamlike vibe of the film, right? (Though to be fair, the footage there isn't processed at all, so it has the feel of theater as opposed to traditional cinema.)
You mentioned a very important point, that "since none of [the animation] is real... [it] allows the viewer to focus more on the story being told." When I'm watching an animated tale, I don't have to "buy in" to the world on screen -- I'll roll with everything at face value, no matter how fantastical the setting.
As soon as you jolt those films back into the "real world," then you'd expect the rules of physics (and common sense) to apply, to the point where those narratives simply couldn't exist.
Re: CGI likenesses -- did you ever see The Congress? Trippy, trippy film about a near-future where actors signed away their likenesses to studios, for them to employ in films however they saw fit. Halfway through, the film switches from live-action to animation, and then things really get crazy.
As to whether it would matter if I couldn't tell the difference... well, some folks think that our current world is a simulation! And if so, why wouldn't one try to make that simulation the best it could be?
I'll close with a quick rundown of my personal animation pantheon:
1) Mary and Max. Exhibit A for why it's so tough for adult animated films to get made: nobody knows how to market them. Seriously, a film starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette could hardly get a theatrical release in the States? Sigh. This tale of mismatched penpals from NYC and Australia is a crushing tale of comedy and tragedy.
2) It's Such a Beautiful Day. The magnum opus of auteur Don Hertzfeldt, known for his particular brand of minimalist absurdism. (He was also once recruited to provide a Simpsons intro, and the result was an unsettling bit of twisted genius.)
3) Waking Life. We've already touched on it a bit -- director Richard Linklater's collection of ruminations on existence is a more polished version of his debut Slacker. Bonus points for a short scene reuniting Jesse and Celine from his Before trilogy, films which are near and dear to my heart.
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