Issue #77: Everything Everywhere All On Top ✈️
Everything Everywhere All at Once + Top Gun: Maverick
We’re running a little behind this week after the torrent of new films at Sundance. But we’re happy to report that this issue is worth the wait. We’re kicking off our 2023 Academy Awards coverage with reviews of two of this year’s Best Picture nominees: Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Top Gun: Maverick.
For some of us, awards season is the closest we get to organized sports (Cate) so the stakes are high! Over the next few issues, we’ll be covering all the nominees in the category — minus the two we’ve already done: Elvis and Women Talking. We hope that it’ll get you prepared to win your Oscar Party ballot. And if time permits, there may even be a bonus Sundance Dispatch in the works. It’s the simple pleasures. So as always, happy movie yelling.
Zosha on Everything Everywhere All at Once
It can be very very hard these days to not feel small. Even the act of describing the magnitude of forces pushing down on us — headlines rolling across your attention span, or obligations piling up like the print subscription you never got around to canceling — feels trite; a tiny scream in a yawning void. It’s no surprise that so much of the pop culture of 2022 was about compensating for that fact, even less so that multiverses were the device du jour to explore the idea. What better way to spin out than to think of all that could be? Perhaps even more so, it’s no shock that Everything Everywhere All At Once became the undisputed multiversal champion of the year, the little maximalist darling that could (and did, which is why you’re reading about it in the first of our Oscars issues). Maybe better than all the other versions, EEAAO understands that the beautiful, tragic, endless appeal of the multiverse is that it’s all about potential, in more ways than one.
If you haven’t heard already (and truly, what multiverse are you living in?), EEAAO is about Evelyn Quan (Michelle Yeoh), a laundromat owner and mother who — in the midst of being audited by the IRS — discovers that she’s at the center of a battle to save the universe being waged across multiple timelines. Together, she and her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) have to find a way to connect and fight parallel universe versions of themselves and (hopefully) prevent a powerful being from destroying the universe.
Evelyn is not the most exciting version of herself, something the movie makes sure both the viewer and Evelyn understand acutely. When she’s first jacked into the system that links her to the full multiverse, she sees her life flash before her eyes — it’s full of sadness, sweetness, and ultimately disappointment — as her dreams for a better and happier life turn into mundane days at the laundromat and fights with her daughter. Looking at things this way, it’s easy to see how a life lived can feel like a battle lost. But EEAAO is just getting started at this point; before too long, Evelyn is exposed to all the alternate versions of herself: a chef, a movie star, a hot-dog-fingered bisexual. Put simply, anywhere there is some place she’d rather be.
But again, EEAAO is just getting started. As the movie goes on, it’s gotta make its case for this Evelyn, and its case is simple: She’s The One because she has missed out on so much. She is seething with untapped potential. I can take or leave this plot device — it’s a smart enough flip on the chosen one narrative, but I’m more impressed with the way the rest of the movie falls in line behind it. Every time Evelyn is exposed to a new version of Waymond, or sees just how much the universe has in store for Joy, it highlights its own facet of the versions she lives with. Waymond’s kindness is his most defining feature (one Eveyln doesn’t fully appreciate as the balance to her own strength of will), but in alt-Waymond she sees how dashing he is, his charm, his power, his solidity. So much of multiverse fiction explores how parallel universes feel jarring and foreign, but EEAAO posits something else. Waymond feels like home to her in so many universes — or even just the one she’s in — because of all the things he is across them. Even when, like EvelynPrime, he’s only some of them at a time.
And so it’s important to reflect on how much of this is captured in just the opening shot. Evelyn, Joy, and Waymond (or at least some version of them) crowded around a mic singing karaoke, laughing and smiling and aghast at a possible swear, framed in a perfectly round mirror on a table surrounded by clutter. This point in time is everything and nothing, all at once. It’s a highlight in a quiet life, a fluke by some standard, the thing we’re doing it all for. It’s a small moment, and representative of all things really need to be. In the nihilistic world of EEAAO, life is the meaning you ascribe to it, the things you decide are worth fighting for. The multiverse is vast, and we are quite small. But in many ways, that story is just getting started. The grass may be greener on the other side, but that potential is always right here with you.
Cate on Top Gun: Maverick
The biggest problem with Top Gun: Maverick is that in order to enjoy it, you have to be able to wrap your head around the ceaseless military propaganda. If nothing else, this is a movie that wants you to know that the armed forces do important work that is absolutely crucial to the safety and security of the United States. Instead of, you know, being yet another cog in a vastly overfunded warmongering industry. Bombing other sovereign states? No big deal! They built a thing we told them not to. Got a couple extra tanks? No worries! Super easy to hand them over to domestic police departments across the country to help them continue their ongoing reign of stochastic terrorism against minority communities!
Unfortunately — and I may regret saying this — if you do manage to clear that hurdle… you’re in for the ride of your life. Because Top Gun: Maverick is an emotionally satisfying, visually stunning film that illuminates the true nature of Tom Cruise’s enduring stardom.
It’s no secret that they don’t make stars the way they used to. The A-list used to be made up of actors and musicians who could guarantee millions at the box office, or multi-platinum album sales. Now, the very concept of the A-list has all but lost its meaning. The most famous celebrities of our time are Tik-Tok creators and social media influencers best known for minute-long video memes and sponsored content. Naturally, they’re all vying for the same elusive fifteen minutes. But Tom Cruise has managed to stay relatively above the fray (minus those deeply concerning Scientology allegations) and maintain his cultural cache for four decades by simply doubling down on what he does best — being an action star.
By my count, Tom Cruise has been starring exclusively in action films since at least 2012. In the decade since, he’s made two Jack Reacher films, two more Mission Impossible films (with two more currently in production) and a handful of standalone action epics. Tom Cruise knows his lane. But what sets him apart is that he’s honed and refined his place within it. With Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise has found a way to build an “Oscar-worthy movie” out of the genre he’s most comfortable with. He’s an action movie star, so he made the action movie version of a prestige film.
In a way, it enables him to bend The Academy to his will, specifically because this isn’t the usual pathway an actor might take to court a nomination. With this film, The Academy is finally free to reward a film that is both a commercial and artistic success — without being browbeaten into appreciating what they might otherwise consider lowbrow fare.
And Top Gun: Maverick is very much an action film. It follows the same beats and conforms to the same genre conventions. But what makes it such an effective awards contender is that it artfully maintains the film’s commercial sheen, while shaping a beautiful and refined interpretation of the genre.
Much of that comes down to the cinematography. Claudio Miranda seems to intimately understand that every frame is a new decisive moment — a fresh opportunity to create an indelible image for the viewer. Miranda positions Maverick (Tom Cruise) as an astronaut rather than a pilot — he frames the skies with the same reverence usually reserved for epic depictions of the vacuum of space. Even an early shot of an exploding plane looks like a supernova shooting through the cosmos. It’s a handy visual metaphor for the career heights Maverick could have achieved if he’d stopped punishing himself for the death of his friend. Miranda replaces the usual clichés of frenzied, hyper-masculine set pieces with lyrical poetry in motion. The film is a genuinely stunning masterwork, and it’s baffling that Miranda did not receive recognition from The Academy. Thankfully, his fellow cinematographs picked up the slack at their own guild awards.
Overall, the movie has a romantic sensibility that recalls the Golden Age of Hollywood. There’s a grandness and theatricality to the tone that is so self-serious as to be camp. The difference is that this seriousness has not failed. It happily indulges in the very bigness it’s trying to rein in and redefine.
Another critical key to the film’s success is that despite being a sequel, it is largely a self-contained narrative. Top Gun: Maverick builds on the history and consequences of its predecessor to surface a deeply moving story about grief and forgiveness. With the help of a handful of flashback sequences, you’re given everything you need to know in order to be invested in the story — no homework required.
It’s why despite Ryan Coogler’s best efforts, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever does not rise to the level of this much-lauded sequel. Too much of making sense of the plot relies on the audience’s familiarity with not just the first Black Panther film, but the expansive lore of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that doesn’t even count the death of its star, and the film’s many production hurdles. While it also rendered a beautiful story of grief, it simply had too much else going on in its plot for the final product to properly cohere. Top Gun: Maverick avoids these complications by narrowly focusing on one man’s redemption, and making it achingly legible.
This is a story about two underdogs separated by their competing interests in grieving one man. Maverick’s journey is about finding a way to open up enough to cultivate the tender relationship he wants to have with Rooster (Miles Teller), his dead best friend’s son. The screenplay is tight, effective and judicious. At no point are you ever given more information to metabolize than is strictly necessary to bring you along for the journey into the next part of the story.
Top Gun: Maverick may possibly be the most effective form of not-explicitly-state-sanctioned military propaganda many of us will have seen in our lifetimes so far. As commendable as it is as a demonstration of technically impressive filmmaking, it is still a story where the primary stakes hinge on figuring out the most effective way to bomb a foreign nation unprovoked. It reflects a fundamentally conservative and nationalistic worldview, and it is very nearly offensive to hang a man’s emotional arc on the devastation wrought by preemptive warfare.
In fact, the movie never even bothers to explain who its foreign antagonists are, or why the airstrike is even really necessary. It’s a dance that expertly sidesteps the issue by making everyone’s motivations just vague enough to obscure the jingoism right beneath the surface. The “prize” these recruits are fighting for is a chance to embark on what is explicitly described as a likely-suicide mission. And it’s all in service of the (nefarious, let’s be real) economic and geopolitical interests of the United States.
It’s a valid critical interpretation that Top Gun: Maverick is merely propaganda wrapped in a very pretty bow. But boy, that bow is really something.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: Exploring Aftersun and its ending. Will Seattle’s mayor actually win in his crusade against graffiti tags? January is now the only good movie month. Anyway, it’s about old friends.
CATE: The UK nepo-babies are worse, reflecting on Gossip Girl 2.0, the full matrix of JLo getting married onscreen, more lies from George Santos, why we need to abandon objectivity, the most romantic episode of television you’ll see this year, all of our Sundance coverage, behind the awards campaign, my third Ambie nomination, and the podcast I won it for: Even The Rich!
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