Directed by Chloé Zhao — Screenplay by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo.
Although their films are immensely popular, it isn’t every day that Marvel Studios work with Academy Award-winning film directors, which makes Eternals special even on paper. Chloé Zhao, the Chinese-born acclaimed filmmaker behind Best Picture winner Nomadland, did, however, choose to have a major superhero blockbuster film be her follow-up to her poetic Oscars-favorite. In my experience, Zhao’s films (of which I think The Rider is probably her best work), which often feature non-actors, are defined by their open landscapes, contemplative themes, and an unshakable feeling that her narrative films are documentary-like. Therefore, this superhero epic is almost certainly her most accessible film, but it is also true that it feels different than most Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. Frankly, while there is a lot that I like here, I think Eternals ended up being a little bit too ambitious for its own good.
Chloé Zhao’s Eternals immediately feels different than the other films in the MCU, since it includes a very formal and serious opening crawl that tries to introduce you to the idea of Celestials, Deviants, and, yes, the Eternals. The Eternals are these human-like superpowered individuals that have been sent by the powerful ancient entity known as Arishem, a so-called Celestial, to defeat, and rid our planet of, Deviants, which are these invasive and monstrous creatures. While protecting humanity from these creatures, some Eternals have become quite attached to the people of Earth and have decided to use their powers to protect and guide humanity, while others have become increasingly cynical about our species.
In the present day, after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the Eternals are scattered all over the planet and live among humanity. Like Sersi (played by Gemma Chan) with the power to manipulate and transform matter, who is now a museum curator and in a relationship with professor Dane Whitman (played by Kit Harington). When she is attacked by a Deviant, a species that the Eternals believed to now be extinct, she decides to track down her old Eternals friends to find out what exactly is going on. But when she finds her old leader, Ajak (played by Salma Hayek), lying dead, Sersi starts to slowly uncover that the Eternals were, in fact, sent to Earth with a different mission entirely, and this mission threatens the human race.
As you may have gathered from that run-through of the basic premise, this is a fairly complex film that I think is arguably the most difficult Marvel Studios film to settle into. Part of this, I think, is by design, as this film never feels as safe or as straightforward as other MCU films. It doesn’t follow your average origin story superhero movie formula and that is a refreshing thing, if nothing else, even if it doesn’t all work.
What was immediately fascinating about this film, though, was that Chloé Zhao, an immensely talented and critically acclaimed filmmaker, was going to have the opportunity to add some of her sensibilities and trademarks to the already established cinematic universe. I think one of the ways in which this film looks different is in the lighting. The use of natural light enrich certain scenes and make it so that there are some breathtaking shots here and there. Lighting-wise, it doesn’t feel like an assembly-line film, like some may argue some superhero films may feel. I did, however, think that its visual effects left something to be desired
I do want to praise the ambition of the film. Zhao is clearly going for something epic and for relationships that can transcend our understanding of time, and this sometimes does feel like her superhero-take on Prometheus. I think the film is the most engaging and visually interesting when it takes place in the past, such as the scenes in Mesopotamia, Babylon, and the like. Again, this film is hugely ambitious and it does a lot of heavy-lifting for this corner of the MCU, but I think it can also sometimes feel structurally confused as it jumps back and forth. Frankly, I think the writers bit off more than they could chew, because it almost feels like this one movie is telling the story of two films or even a trilogy of films over the course of its overwhelming 156 minute runtime. A part of me wishes the film would’ve just been set in the past, so that this epic story wasn’t this rushed and underexplained (which isn’t to say that the film lacks expositional dialogue, because it definitely doesn’t). It would’ve just been nice, if we cared about some of these people before the action starts.
And characterization is really one of my major problems with the film. I don’t think we really have a main character that is easy to latch onto. Gemma Chan certainly doesn’t have that role and Richard Madden’s Ikaris is perhaps too stoic for that. Many of the other characters feel thinly written, even when their interpersonal relationships are fascinating (I wanted so much more with Barry Keoghan’s Druig, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos). I feel like one of the film’s great mistakes is not having Kit Harington’s character tag along with the Eternals, because he was a fun audience insert in early present day scenes, and I think it definitely lacked some of that playful energy later in the film. However, I do want to highlight Kumail Nanjiani and Harish Patel, whose characters and comedic rapport I greatly enjoyed.
Ultimately, it feels rushed in spite of its surprisingly slow pace, and it is difficult to really become fully engaged with the film. So, Chloé Zhao’s structurally confused and overstuffed Eternals is probably, at the end of the day, a lower-tier Marvel Cinematic Universe film, but I greatly admire the filmmakers’ ambition, as they tried to take an established cinematic universe in a different direction. Also, I will say that I loved all of the little details it added to the overall mythology and lore of the MCU, it is a very rich film in that regard.
6 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.