Becoming Everything Everywhere All At Once

by Jack McKevitt on 18 July 2022
Becoming Everything Everywhere All At Once
What does the film’s success reveal about the way we consume film in the internet age?

As filmgoers creep back into cinemas, the thrill of an unexpected hit film is once again possible. One of these post-Covid ‘hidden gems’ is Everything Everywhere All At Once. A storming success, it has coopted water-cooler conversations across the world. The most noteworthy thing about it, though, isn’t its content or aesthetics. It’s the meta commentary inside the film that addresses the changing ways that filmgoers consume content in an age of short and super-short form media packed with cultural references and memes.

Nowhere in particular, but heading somewhere

An unexpected success, yes. But if you look at the germination of the film, it is less surprising. In 2018, burgeoning film directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert decided to piggyback on the modest success of their quirky debut, Swiss Army Man, to make a daring, original film about ‘the multiverse’ (def. ‘a realm consisting of a number of universes, of which our own universe is only one’). Little did they know that, upon its release in May 2022, Marvel Studios would have released their own multiverse interpretation just the day before (Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). Direct and favourable comparisons with other superhero films and significant financial backing from the Marvel house directors contributed to Everything Everywhere All At Once becoming the third highest-grossing original film of 2022 in the US. Retailers are selling out of the film’s much-flaunted googly eyes, and lead actress Michelle Yeoh has been flung into Oscar contention as the beleaguered laundromat owner Eleanor.

Immediately overwhelming and constructed with an extraordinary attention to detail, the initial setup wheels out concepts, twists and turns that are meant to confuse us just as much as they do Eleanor (the main character) and her daughter Joy. The narrative travels through a cascade of versions of Eleanor’s life through various universes, with a pretty terrific Ratatouille gag along the way. These gimmicks are expertly boiled down into a thrilling, intimate concluding question: is it better to have the choice (like Joy) of which version of yourself to become, or is it better to live one life, relishing the dry, duller moments? Despite containing a pastiche of acclaimed films from the past (The Matrix, In the Mood for Love) much of Everything Everywhere All At Once is strikingly original.

This level of success for an original, independent film, is increasingly rare, as franchises come to dominate the film market. Franchise films released since the start of 2020 make up 44% of all releases, and dwarf non-franchise box office revenue by nearly ninefold (compared to a 50:50 split 20 years ago). Now, Netflix has decided that the era of ‘vanity films’ is over. YouTube, TikTok and other ultra-visual media trends have veered away from traditional film/TV productions towards shorter bites and more amateur-produced content, utilising established cultural references to retain audience attention span.

This is just one way in which our lives are literally becoming “everything everywhere all at once”, with such an extraordinary array of stimuli available at any moment. The logical endpoint of this is TikTok, where anyone can upload anything within seconds, and – God damn it – if I don’t see a reference I know within one second, I’ll just skip ahead. Even Everything Everywhere All At Once, in all of its 150-minute glory, relies on an extraordinary array of visual and auditory stimuli to keep us going, alongside innumerable cultural references to keep us chuckling knowingly.

It can be humbling watching our attention spans creep away from long-form media in real time. The director of Free Guy, a film stuffed full of cultural artefacts and references from lightsabers to portals, described it as “maybe the last chopper out of Saigon” for original film – before fleeing to Netflix himself. Even the last vestiges of original film can be self-consciously filled with references to what we know and are comfortable with, and directors struggle to stay out of the clutches of the homogeneity of Netflix, Apple, and Disney. Even ‘arthouse’ film studios such as A24 rely on their work being meme-ified and promotional material going viral to remain solvent.

Why does this matter?

The ability for any visual media to be circulated to millions of people in seconds is nudging long-form content out of our brains. On one level, perhaps this keeps us switched on and informed. Footage of natural disasters can be uploaded to the internet and go viral, President Zelensky appealed to TikTokers to “end the war in Ukraine”, and videos of football fans being tear gassed in Paris were key to disproving the French government’s line at the final of the Euros in June 2022… Maybe the slow decline of original film is collateral damage as we harness visual media to solve some of the more existential challenges facing society.

Or…maybe the more we see and the more we know, the less it matters. I will readily admit that, following a recent disaster in the US, just two hours later I found myself thinking of it as ‘old news’. Perhaps, like Joy becoming overwhelmed to the point of boredom once she realises she can see everything everywhere all at once, we are becoming desensitised to all these shocking events happening across the world, until less and less of it matters. As we crave more content per second per square inch of screen, maybe there is less room for us to analyse it critically, until the mix of entertainment, information and hard evidence provided through modern video sharing platforms makes truth, fiction and fake news all blend into a single sensory array.

And so two multiverses are opening in front of us. One where we use the information we have at our fingertips to do something about the problems we face. Or, one where we know and see so much that nothing really registers, and we’re reduced to crawling from one dopamine hit to the next without being able to look up. The conclusion of the film at hand is an optimistic one: we can use all this wonderful information we can access to benefit each other. But this makes the concept of the film itself a contradiction: if this is the future of original cinema, that means the only way to be in any way original is to springboard off other ideas to be seen in the first place. We have too much information to do or think anything original any more, and what is still seen as original relies on constant references to what we already know and love.

If one thing is for certain, it’s that this isn’t the first time that the film industry has been said to be in crisis. Francois Truffaut once claimed that 1962’s Dr. No was the death of cinema. Yet undeniably, a hell of a lot of good has come out of the medium since. And a hell of a lot of good will come out of TikTok, and other visual media, before articles decrying their deaths in turn are inevitably written. The world will march forward and we will have access to all the more information and to all the more opportunities to doom scroll ad infinitum. All we can hope is that, like Eleanor in Everything Everywhere All At Once, we use this information about everything, everywhere for our own good.