Eternals movie review: Chloe Zhao’s Marvel

In the opening moments of Eternals, the familiar Marvel logo sequence plays out on screen, showing flashes of beloved characters and iconic moments. It is a showcase of what has come before. But curiously, the music accompanying the logo is not the same tune we have heard time and again. Like the movie it introduces, it is a quieter, more patient, more specific theme that suggests we are about to experience something… different.

And on paper, there is much that is different about Eternals. Aside from further expanding the horizons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and introducing us to a new crop of all-powerful superfriends, Eternals is co-written and directed by Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao (Nomadland). Arguably one of the most intriguing Marvel directors yet, Zhao is an auteur with an affinity for capturing the beauty of natural settings and telling intimate, deeply personal stories.

Here, she takes on the story of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who have secretly lived on earth for 7,000 years. They have been sent here by their deity and leader Arishem (all-powerful galactic Gods who we have come across before with Peter Quill’s evil dad Ego in Guardians of The Galaxy 2). The Eternals’ mission is to keep humanity safe from the Deviants, a race of CGI monsters who are here to be mean, destroy, and generally, wreak havoc. But beyond this, the Eternals know little of their purpose on Earth, and are expected to blindly follow orders from Arishem, the benevolent higher power they know nothing about (much like the Time Variance Authority in the Loki series). They are also strictly told not to interfere with humanity’s problems, which is why they did not swing into action with Thanos or any of the countless other world-ending supervillain crises over the years. When a new threat emerges, and the long-defeated Deviants return, the Eternals are forced to get the band back together again after centuries and reunite.

As the customary opening action sequence tells us, they’re a group of 10, each with specific abilities. There is the mother of the gang, Ajak (Salma Hayek), Cerse (a movie-stealing Gemma Chan), Ikarus (an impressive Richard Madden), badass warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), and energy-blasting Kingo (a newly -ripped Kumail Nanjiani). There is also mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), charming speedster — and the MCU’s first deaf superhero — Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the brains of the group Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and super-strength-swag machine Gilgamesh (well-cast South Korean cinema star Don Lee). Curiously, they are all immortal but certainly not invincible. Nor are they particularly all-powerful. In fact, many of them could definitely be taken on and bested by the Avengers.

What does it mean to be human? For some amongst the immortal group, it is falling in love with humanity while discovering their own. For others, it is struggling with the firm instruction of not being allowed to interfere with the plights of people. For others, it is giving up on humanity due to their affinity for destruction and hate, whilst asking whether there is hope for us as a species and whether we are worth fighting for.

In terms of its promise of something that stands out amongst its Marvel blockbuster brethren, Chloe Zhao’s film does deliver. It has qualities that most MCU films have desperately needed in the past — patience, and stillness. The time and space to breathe, and focus on its characters. It is for that reason alone that this is a movie I can see myself defending for years to come.

And yet, despite its sense of quiet and ambitious ideas, it is a movie that does not quite come together, failing to do justice to the absolute basics. It is almost impressive how, despite its exhaustive 2.5-hour runtime, wonderfully diverse, sparkling cast, and all the breathing room a saga like this could ask for, I came away feeling very little. There are massive action set pieces, timeless love stories, and love triangles within the group, fraught friendships, ego clashes, backstabbing, double-crossing, loss, grief, death, and more. But despite really wanting to, I never really cared for them. So much so that I would not mind never seeing these characters again.

A key contributor to that is the flat, lifeless dialogue that does not do justice to these towering figures or the heavy ideas the film tries to wrestle with. If anything, all it does is ensure the Eternals share a largely tepid chemistry with each other. The exposition is spread thick, fast, and frequently, and the tell-don’t-show writing from Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo ensures characters explain themselves to us rather than show us who they are.

Eternals also has a humour problem with hit and miss, forced jokes that try too hard to infuse the film with a fun, light energy it does not have. And in a movie that does not do justice to the jokes, the comic-relief character was never going to come off well. Nanjiani’s flamboyant Bollywood actor Kingo is rarely as enjoyable as the narrative needs him to be. If anything, it is his valet, Karn (Indian actor Harish Patel) who steals the best comic moments in a role you suspect is far bigger than it was on paper.

Essential to this story also is the weight and burden of time. These are 7,000-year-old beings, and yet you rarely feel the passage and distance of time in their arcs. Something perfectly captured in a scene that does not nearly have the weight it hopes to, where Thena and Gilgamesh are sitting by a tree reminiscing on their life together. She thanks him for staying with her, as if they’ve known each other for days, not centuries. That idea of the weight of immortality and burden of memory and purpose was far better examined in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s deeply underrated Netflix action movie The Old Guard.

Jolie’s Thena is also inconsistent in what the story wants from her. She is the unstable, wounded warrior scarred by years of battle but, when it is convenient to the narrative, she is fighting fit and ready for battle. But it is in Druig where the film has the most wasted potential. Despite setting a very promising foundation of a cult-leader-like mind-controller who tries to impose his will on the human race to make them less destructive, they do not do anything with it. Even the Deviants have little impact. While I appreciate the effort to rise above the CGI and attempt to make them sympathetic villains you feel for, they amount to little more than fodder for cool fighting. Luckily, the action certainly does not disappoint, with the female characters, particularly Thena and Makkari, getting the most badass sequences. There is also Marvel’s first-ever sex scene, after years of its characters being rightfully accused as sexless and virginal.

Eternals is a movie that so desperately wants to have a soul, and be more than a hollow blockbuster, and I am grateful for that. But that soul and those heady ideas do not shine through the watered-down, spoonfed storytelling. But I came away appreciating that it dares to be different, rather than enjoying or being particularly moved by close to any of it. What value is there in making a sensitive, soulful superhero film if you don’t feel any of it?

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