Title: The Eternals Director: Chloé Zhao Writers: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok
The godlike Celestials created the Eternals to protect intelligent life from the ancient enemy, the Deviants. This movie focuses upon one such band of Eternals assigned to Earth – where they have protected humanity for thousands of years.
We soon learn that the Eternals killed the last Deviant over 500 years ago, and since then they have split up – going their separate ways. If your first thought after reading that was, “I bet they will discover that not all Deviants are dead,” you’re absolutely right. Eternals commits two major movie sins, the first one being that it is utterly predictable. Its second sin is its inability to get me emotionally invested in the plot, characters, stories, or stakes.
Then, it is not a surprise that an “unexpected” tragedy forces the Eternals to reunite. Neither is it a surprise that the Deviants now have new tricks and powers up their sleeve. And it came as no surprise at all that not all of the Eternals would see eye to eye and might not agree to some of their supposed common goals. It is as if the screenwriters consulted the “big book of movie cliches” for this one. The only real surprise here is that so many competent actors (the cast is impressive) can come together to produce something so utterly dull.
The cast is excellent, with solid names playing roles they are well suited for. Angelina Jolie plays the quiet but very deadly warrior Thena, weighted down by the memories of the ages. Richard Madden is the powerful Ikaris. Ma Dong-Seok plays hard-punching Gilgamesh, Lia McHugh portrays the illusionist Sprite, Salma Hayek is the leader Ajak, Kumail Najiani plays the energy-blasting, Bollywood-dancing Kingo, Brian Tyree Henry plays the engineer Phastos, Lauren Ridloff plays lightning fast Makkari and Barry Keoghan mind-controlling Druig. If all these characters’ names sound familiar, there is a reason for that. In the mythology of the Eternals, they were the inspirations for Earth’s ancient legends. The always graceful Angelina Joile is excellent for Athena, the warrior Goddess of ancient Greece. However, in this ensemble film, it was hard to start caring for any characters at any point. Even if comedian Kumail Najiani’s act as the immortal Bollywood action star Kingo made me chuckle.
The most interesting character is Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman, the love interest of the Eternal Sersi (played by Gemma Chan). However, in the Eternals’ 2 hours and 37-minute runtime, he’s in it for about 5 minutes. At times, it felt like both the Eternals and I had been trapped in the cinema for 7000 years.
The emergence of the Deviants after an “unexpected” tragedy is an excuse to put the band back together again, with Sersi driving the process. This lets us be introduced to each Eternal in turn, seeing their backstory and what unique abilities they each bring to the team. Unlike many other ensemble movies, this is well handled and does not weigh the movie down. Neither is it expected of you to know about each of the Eternals before watching the film. It is all taken care of. One after another, we get scenes from ancient Babylon, Hiroshima, India and so on, something that also cements the idea of the Eternals as watchers and protectors of humanity.
It is impossible to talk about this movie without talking about its director Chloe Zhao. The woman behind Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider, Nomadland. Films that all bear her trademark thoughtful, almost meditative approach to storytelling and visuals. For the life of me, I can’t imagine her as someone who gets excited by synthetic-feeling CGI and big superhero fights. This movie proves that assumption correct. The battles against the Deviants feel like an obligatory exercise that we must push through before coming to the stuff she enjoys, like gorgeous vistas and character relationships.
In some ways, it pays off; this has the best use of locations in any Marvel movie. All those scenes in ancient historical locations make it feel like a movie set on Earth rather than shoehorned into New York. Sadly, the relationships and characters feel synthetic. Making a major Marvel movie at this stage is like following a well-established recipe, making hiring a director who gained fame from telling stories in a new and unique way a questionable choice at best.
As the film heads to its climactic ending (this is a Marvel movie, after all), it comes down to the obligatory boss fight. But in Eternals, Chekhov’s gun does not fire; it splutters. And by the end, I wasn’t thrilled or excited. Instead, I even found myself pondering how the resolution of this story would affect the prices of marble stocks in this fictional world of too many superheroes.
Eternals gives us the most diverse cast of any Marvel movie, on-screen sex, luscious gorgeous vistas, great actors, and a strong female director. Still, it is all squeezed into the same sausage shape as most other superhero movies, which does not suit it at all. Even the ancient enemy, the Deviants, feel more like a CGI-driven dud. I want to love it, but I can’t.
At the very end of the closing credits, it is promised that the Eternals will return. I can’t help but ask, “do they have to”?