Everything Everywhere All At Once: Unspoilable Lessons

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I want to do a review of Everything Everywhere All At Once, the science-fiction drama-comedy starring Michele Yeoh. I want to review it as not only is it worth reviewing, the movie has many lessons for writers and media creators. However, there’s a problem – I don’t want to spoil any of it.

There is nothing in the film I want to risk spoiling because even minor things add to the experience. Each time I think “here’s an example” to communicate the feel of the film, it would ruin some of the delights.

Thus a challenge – reviewing a film you shouldn’t spoil to extract lessons we can use. How do you review a movie this good without ruining it a bit?

In a rather Taoist/Buddhist fashion, I’m turning poison into medicine here. I will explain why I shouldn’t spoil things and what those things teach us about making good media. Its “do not dare spoil nature” is a lesson about why it is good.

So you probably know the basics from the ads. Michele Yeoh plays a woman, and somehow multiple universes and martial arts action are involved. That’s it. Now let’s see why Everything Everywhere All At Once works in a way that won’t tell you a damn thing about what happens.

Here’s why the movie works and what to learn.

The Right Cast:  Saying casting is “perfect” is trite, especially when you have, well, Michele Yeoh. But the entire cast is excellent, and dare I say at least one of them eclipses Michele Yeoh. Each person brings their all to the role and creates many personal, subtle moments. It’s these meaningful moments that are things I don’t want to spoil

Use of Location:  Locations are characters all their own as well as tools of narration and backstory. Everything Everywhere All At Once puts its locations to use, even down to the props, as they can tell stories. A poster, table, desk, or piece of junk can all say something to the audience. Location can and should matter – I just don’t want to go into detail because it spoils.

Emotional Truth: The commercials for Everything Everywhere All At Once are quite wild. But in that wildness are some core, powerful, emotional truths – “throughlines” if you were, weaving the wildness together. A good film sticks with you – and a day later, I was discussing not the scenes from advertisements but the characters and their feelings.  And I’m not telling you about those feelings, you have to see for yourself to “get it.”

The Chosen Form:  Building on that emotional truth, one fantastic thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once could be told in other genres. The chosen form (sci-fi action) was just one of many choices with which to do it. I find a good story, a good emotional truth, could exist in any form – and you can tell if it could or not. 

Use of Direction:  Everything Everywhere All At Once is exceptionally well-directed (if you’ve seen any ads, you can tell it has to be). There’s a fearlessness to the wild stylings and effects, a confidence, that makes the film work. Honestly, few directors could have done this – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were amfazing.

As crazy as Everything Everywhere All At Once may look, it is rock-solid in what it does – and what we learn from it. Have an emotionally resonant story, implemented well in your chosen genre, where location allows great actors to tell a relatable tale. There’s nothing in it that we haven’t heard before, but it’s done very well.

Now I hope you go out and see it – but afterward, don’t spoil. Leave others to be as surprised as you will most assuredly be.

Steven Savage

Double Dragon The Movie: Inside Not Out

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I have never watched the entire Double Dragon film from 1994, the infamously bad video game “adaption,” until recently. I say adaption as the movie has nothing to do with the game – a game I remember playing in the arcades. Since the film is terrible, it probably makes the game look better.

Many things that make the film bad – the acting, the effects, the script. But one of the strangest things is that the movie has an enormous amount of “plot” that has nothing to do with the game. Does a film about “two guys beat up a gang to rescue someone” need a post-apocalyptic LA, gang politics, magical amulets, and the like? It’s a story where everything is grafted on.

None of this worked, as you may guess.

I started thinking about how others might approach a property like Double Dragon’s beat-them up. I was thinking specifically about some Hong Kong b-movies studios, indie studios, and the like. The plot was a significant problem of the movie, so how might someone with a fresher, “punkier” sense make such a movie?

The original game has no plot except “beat people up until you save the victim.”  Some versions add a few simple elements – the martial arts the heroes practice, their enemies (The Black Warriors), being in a post-war New York, and the heroes’ hope to save their kidnapped mutual love interest. Not a lot to go on, right?

So let me ask, what if you ran with this paltry lore instead of piling on extra elements. Don’t add things on, but go deeper into what you have from the limited lore. Indulge me for a moment.

First, two brothers practicing a strange martial art and with a potential romantic rivalry? With the right actors, that’s a core dynamic right there! We have two talented martial artists with a great burden – and a petty rivalry eating away at them? How do they evolve and grow as they battle their way through post-war New York? There’s a story!

Now lets’ take the Inevitable Kidnapped Interest, Marian. Rescue-the-girl tropes are sexist and overdone, so let’s shake it up. Marian let herself be kidnapped to infiltrate the Black Guardians, all arranged by the heroes’ master. Only the master got himself killed before he let them in on his plan to take down the Guardians. Now Marian has to pull a Die Hard from the inside to help the two occasionally bickering heroes defeat the bad guys and get her the hell out.

So we’ve got a Martial Arts Die Hard with arguing brothers? What about the setting?

We’ve got post-war (indeed post-nuke) New York. So let’s toss in some politics, just not the egregious ones of the film. Several martial arts groups have worked to bring the city back, and some of the gangs would be up for it – except the Black Guardians want to rule. So our heroes have a chance to unite the gangs to fight for the city, and battling the Black Guardians can do it. That was their master’s plan all along . . .

There you go, you’ve got a film. There’s an epic journey across a devastated New York, with the city’s future on the line.  Two likable badasses with a weak spot for arguing, trying to save the city and their love interest while fulfilling their masters’ last wish. A put-upon and clever female lead operating from the inside, trying to corral her would-be rescuers. Gang politics as an excuse for epic fights – and of course, it must end in all the gangs attacking the Black Guardians in a kind of Helm’s Deep of epic action.

You didn’t have to add on tons of unrelated stuff. Just extrapolate and go deeper with what you have. It’s still two guys battling to rescue a girl in a post-War gang-infested New York. You add some depth to make it mean more.

Less isn’t always more. But a few things with depth can make a movie or book or whatever far better than many elements with no depth.

Steven Savage

Equilibrium and The Realism of Foolishness

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I recently got to see Equilibrium (2002), a movie best described as “a dystopian art film with gun-fu.” We follow the story of John Preston (Christian Bale), an enforcer in a future of emotion-suppressing drugs and underground smugglers of art. The film got limited marketing in the United States, and more’s the pity – it’s a beautifully done film made for only $20 million.

On the surface, the premise seems silly – to prevent war, people must take emotion-deadening drugs and avoid sensory experiences like art. Specialized enforcers known as Grammaton Clerics use gun-fu and their calculating minds to hunt down “sense offenders.” It’s a concept you’d expect on a second-tier episode of The Orville or a Star Trek series, if well done.

As I analyzed this well-done film, something haunted me. I kept analyzing the seemingly half-baked premise of “we must stop emotion and be rational. That’s when I realized – I’d seen people express similar views in real life.

Those online enough (such as myself) are painfully aware of people who declare how rational they are. Such self-congratulating would-be rationalists are quick to say how other people are irrational and emotional. These people – almost inevitably white men – obviously think they should be in charge of “the other.”

I have no problem imagining these pseudo-rationalists trying to medicate their emotions to unleash their supposed great mental powers. It takes me little effort to imagine some guru or internet personality selling them drugs or supplements to do so. The internet has produced enough would-be gurus claiming to lead people to a paradise of rational thought (again, almost always white men).

Equilibrium seems to be built on a simplistic premise, but many people base their own lives on shallow ideas. That is what haunted me about Equilibrium – the idea people would hate their own emotions and claim to build a rational world is too real.

I take this as a reminder to be careful when judging fictional settings. They may seem too simple – but forget that some people hold very simplistic views. They may seem overly complex, but life can be complicated. The question is neither simplicity nor complexity, sophistication or crudity – but do they help us think and feel.

In the case of Equilibrium, beyond the considerable artistry, it shows a “rationalist” society as a horrible place. The washed-out dark gray of the existence, the emotionally-numbed sadism, were awful. In short, Equilibrium says of its seemingly simplistic world, “yes, this would be awful, yes it would fall apart.”

Then I cast my gaze on the internet and see men declaring their rationalism, their freedom of emotion. I see them dead inside or burning in a rage they call “critical thinking,” insulting people on the internet. They would try to build a world like Equilibrium while saying it was something else.

Let us be careful judging fiction. We may find it is judging us and judging others more than we realized.

Steven Savage