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

Heaven’s Design Team: God’s Blessing On This Wonderful Worldbuilding

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

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.  Then he outsourced the animal stuff.

That’s the Pratchett-esque premise of Heaven’s Design Team, an anime series based on a popular manga.   The story centers around Shimoda, a young angel assigned to relay God’s instructions to the titular Design Team.  Playing Metatron to a group of creative personalities ensnares our bean-bun loving protagonist in both office hijinks and hard-science explorations of how animals work.

It’s also a show that worldbuilders and writers should at least check out.

Creation Is A Double-Edged Comedy

The series episodes have a mostly familiar arc, but one that is varied enough to stay fresh.  Shimoda comes to the team with a vague request from God.  This request is relayed to a colorful group of beings named after the planets, each with their own specialties, obsessions, and neuroses.

The result is a fun, broad office comedy with some real-world teeth.  If you’ve ever worked on a complex creative project it will be more than familiar.  Prototypes fail, creative bickering ensure, and bright ideas burn out fast in the light of reality.  The likeable cast of characters is enjoyable, and the humor is refreshingly free from jokes about genders, sexual preferences, etc.

This office comedy part fuses seamlessly with hard biology.  The Design Team has to temper their enthusiasm as ideas run into real science issues and the advice of their engineering expert, Mars.  Brilliant ideas wither in the harsh light of reality, and when that reality is designing a surviving being, mistakes become painfully obvious.

This is where the show becomes something more than just a wacky comedy – and something for worldbuilders.

Weird Science, Weird People

Heaven’s Design Team’s first season is packed with many bits of great ideas falling apart due to biological truths, but the most illustrative is the team’s attempt to make a unicorn.  “Horse that fights with a horn” sounds good, but the various metabolic, psychological, and physical tradeoffs produce problems.  The final result is an aggressive idiotic beast with navigation problems – though it is salvaged to create the Narwhal, so cuddly-animal loving Neptune is thrilled.

The show is thus a spiritual cousin to Cells At Work, being both educational, funny, and using a given genre to explore science.  The continual theme of “how animals work” and “why some ideas are good and some not” takes it to another level – and it’s why any worldbuilder needs to give it a look.

Heaven’s Design Team covers many kinds of animals and animal traits, and manages to keep it fresh and interesting.  One episode explores reproductive habits, another is about dolphins, and a third sees goth queen of grossness Pluto creating a surprising animal from her requirements.  Though the show has a pattern it usually hews to, it’s an educational one that often surprises.

If you’re a worldbuilder, you’ll quickly get ideas of what to think about what to do, and what not to do.  Because the show is about trial, error, and prototypes, it’ll help you think about animal biology.  It’s not hard to imagine how the Design Team might respond to you playing God – and how your requests might go awry.

The Whole (Earth) Package

I can heap praise upon Heaven’s Design Team, but the end result is “if you like worldbuilding and office comedy, you’ll probably like this.”

Can I say it’s “good?”  To that, I would say “yes” for two reasons.

First, the show knows exactly what it wants to be – an office comedy about biology with a bit of supernatural humor.  The show reaches the goal it sets for itself.  One might say it’s “well designed.”

Secondly, the show has a sweet, genial nature, much like the angelic protagonist.  Characters may argue and snipe, characters have flaws and quirks, but there’s no bullying or cruelty.  Even when bird-loving Venus and snake-creating Mercury square off for obvious reasons, it’s rivalry not meanness.  It’s a pleasant watch.

If you like worldbuilding (or indeed just science, but I know my audience) check it out on Crunchyroll.  It might be a creation you appreciate.

Steven Savage

Dogs In Space: Dogs With Something To Say

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

A good piece of fiction is alive.  It has a personality, a sense of being, and like any living creature, it surprises you.  Those living fictions are the ones that reach us and make an impression, often one that surprises us.

This is why I’m reviewing Dogs in Space.  Not the 1980’s slice-of-life band move.  I’m reviewing the Y7 Netflix series literally about dogs traveling in space to find a new planet for humans.  Truth in advertising indeed.

In Dogs in Space, humanity sends genetically uplifted dogs into space to find a replacement for our used-up Earth.  The story focuses on excitable be-thumbed Corgi named Garbage, captain to an equally eccentric crew of explorers.  Many episodes parody or refer to classic SF tropes, ranging from mildly amusing to laugh-out-loud funny and clever.  The pinnacle of these call-outs sees most of the cast turned into puppies and the adorable chaos that genetically enhanced puppies can get into.

Entertaining enough, but these shenanigans take place in a continuing plot and established world.  Our canine heroes are just a few of the crew of the giant mothership M-BARK, which boasts an entire city of evolved dogs.  Discoveries reveal a larger universe, from powerful aliens aware of Earth to Garbage and company finding another uplifted dog sent on an earlier mission.  There’s a living world inside the colorful and cute cartoon tale – one that could easily spawn a game or spinoffs.

Such a detailed world raises troubling questions, and the show is happy to follow these troublesome threads.  Each uplifted dog has an owner they pine to return to – but are humans manipulating them?  Are humans really worth saving, considering what we did to Earth?  Like any good fiction, Dogs in Space will surprise you and make you think – and throws in some surprises.

Dogs in Space holds a funhouse mirror up to SF, but sometimes it holds a mirror up to you and me – while keeping it’s Y7 rating.

This is why it deserved a review because it’s a fun little show that is well done.  I’m sure that many of us would enjoy a Y7 show (if only with our kids or young siblings) that had dogs making fun of SF tropes.  Instead, the show goes all the way to creating something alive, something good that makes an impression.

I can’t say it’s as good as the Netflix CGI He-Man.  The former is a masterclass in redoing a property and good, concise writing and pacing.  Dogs in Space is more a good example of bringing an idea to life, even with a few clunky or breezed-over bits.

Plus Dogs in Space has adorable dogs doing everything from piloting robots to pulling heists on alien space stations.  It’s just much more than that, its a piece of fiction that comes alive, and that warrants a review.

Steven Savage