VOD film review: Eternals (2021)
James R | On 12, Jan 2022
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee
In an age of increasingly long and bloated blockbusters, Marvel calling its latest “Eternals” feels unfortunately apt. Sadly, that’s not the only unfortunate thing about it, as what begins as a bold and intriguing outing turns into a muddled misstep for the MCU.
The Eternals of the title are a group of cosmic entities created by “Arishem”, the celestial being who manages the cycle of birth and death that goes on ad infinitum throughout the universe. The Eternals have special abilities that equip them to fight Deviants, an ancient evil species that once roamed the Earth. When the Deviants unexpectedly return decades after being wiped out, the Eternals have to head into battle once more – the only problem being that they’ve integrated into our world in the meantime, and some of them rather like their new lives.
It’s certainly a different story to the usual MCU fare and Marvel signals its intent to do something different by hiring in an equally unusual choice of director: Nomadland helmer Chloé Zhao. Zhao is a master at immersing audiences in communities on the fringes of society, looking at humanity from an unfamiliar perspective. She proves just as adept here, sinking her teeth into the film’s chunky themes of love, loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, mutual support and shared strength. Set against a backdrop of infinity, this is a tale of big questions, giant ethical dilemmas and profound philosophy. Is it better to act to save a few or stand by and save many? Should one follow one’s fate or carve one’s own path? What does it really mean to be human?
All these things are on the galactic table, but the problem is that they have to compete with all the other things Marvel requires in a film. The fact that Zhao is credited as writing the screenplay with three other writers – Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo – gives you a clue as to the creative clashes simmering under the surface.
There are moments of rare soul in this superhero actioner, and a muted tone that’s quite unlike anything else in the MCU. The cast are clearly tuned into that wavelength. Gemma Chan shoulders the lead role with ease as Sersi, who can convert elements with a twist of her hand. She’s joined by Richard Madden as Ikaris, her masculine, brooding former partner, the perpetually plucky young Sprite (Lia McHugh), brainy tech-whizz Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), super-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and super-conflicted Druig (Barry Keoghan). On the cusp of the group is Thena (Angelina Jolie), a formidable warrior slowly losing her mind, and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the comic relief. Holding them all together is seasoned leader Ajak, who is played by Salma Hayek with a superb blend of world-weary wisdom and childlike wonder.
It’s a brilliantly diverse ensemble of talent, characters and experiences, from the deaf Makkari (played by a deaf actor) to a gay relationship that isn’t tucked out of sight. There’s even the MCU’s first actual sex scene. Zhao’s achievement is to weave these together without anyone feeling shortchanged – even Kingo, whose human life involves him being a self-aware Bollywood star, is more than just the token funny one.
But the storytelling never finds a way to take that tapestry and make it, well interesting or exciting. Flashbacks that aren’t clearly set up don’t help the feeling of inertia, and a rushed climax built on a bloated middle stretch leaves the movie feeling interminable in places and underdeveloped in others. That uneven feel is echoed by the visuals – the grounded landscapes and sunset backdrops are gorgeous, but the copious CGI never quite blends in with them.
The result is a film that seems unsure of its tone, and doesn’t even impress with its token teases for future MCU instalments – although it does leave you wanting to see more of Kit Harington, Sersi’s earthly romantic interest. Paradoxically for something that drags so much, Eternals could have done with another two hours to really find itself – in the never-ending web of Marvel content, it’s a film that might have worked better as a Disney+ series.