Newly minted best picture writer/director Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) is the latest filmmaker to take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Eternals. The MCU has always mashed up different genres with a superhero twist and Eternals turns out to be the MCU’s attempt at a picturesque art-house indie with a lush visual tapestry mashed up with space Gods. The result is wobbly with lots of chit-chat, tons of characters, and an overtly long running time that rivals Avengers: Infinity War (the title Eternals is apt). The Avengers movies work well because audiences already know who the characters are with the world-building already established. Eternals strains excessively as it is doing all that work from the start. Still, Eternals does look fantastic and has a few solid, unexpected twists that make it unique. It’s different from most of the MCU, even if it is uneven.
Thousands of years ago the immortal Eternals landed on Earth, sent by the gigantic space Gods the Celestials. The Eternals are to protect Earth from the Deviants, big nasty creatures that snack on hapless humans and Eternals. The Eternals have sat on the sidelines of the various conflicts, under orders to only intervene when the Deviants snap their giant, drooling maws. Eventually, the Eternals clean up the Deviants and hide amongst humanity for a few centuries. In the present day, Sersi (Gemma Chan) is dating the oblivious human, Dane (Kit Harington). Things go promptly sideways when a Deviant attacks, bringing the attention of Sersi’s former romantic interest, Ikaris (Richard Madden). Ikaris, Sersi and the perpetually youthful Sprite (Lia McHugh) find wayward Eternals like Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and multiple others to stop the Deviants. But a bigger plan is underway, the birth of a new Celestial at the centre of the Earth and its emergence will destroy the world; a plan that the Eternals unknowingly have been facilitating for eons.
The Celestials plan of Emergence from Earth is remarkably similar to the Celestial Ego’s plan of the Expansion from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. It’s basically the exact same plan except Ego wanted to expand only himself because he’s a narcissistic toolbag. In one way, it’s clever usage of the MCU mythos that Celestials always create a new being from the ashes of a planet. In another way, it’s just kind of lazy writing. It would have been more interesting if the Celestials Emergence wasn’t basically what Ego wanted.
There’s a decent amount of drama wrung out of the Eternals’ predicament as their existence is based upon the arrival of a new Celestial. They’ve spent thousands of years trying to guide humanity only for it to end in flames. One of the movie’s better scenes is a long but elegant exposition drop with lots of cool visuals when Sersi is told what their purpose on Earth is. How and why upends several of their beliefs as Chan sells the dawning realization how much she was manipulated. A lot of the movie is big exposition drops and this is one of the better ones. The worse exposition drops are basically just them talking about who they’re going to find next. There are so many new characters introduced here it’s hard to keep them straight. At least they each look distinct and have unique power sets.
The film only teases out a few references to the MCU which seem kind of forced. Harington’s character is just there to set up something else teased in a post-credit scene. Nanjiani’s character seems to solely be around so he can make cracks. Kingo has spent a 100 years being a movie star, saying he’s the grandfather / father / son of the same family and it’s made him a bit of a snob. He has a sidekick valet (Harish Patel) who is also there for one-liners. Henry’s Phastos also delivers some good snark that is hiding pain as his job was to teach humanity technology which they would ultimately use to destroy themselves.
A big thematic thing is about the ravages of time and what that would do to an immortal psyche. The warrior Thena is having a centuries long mental breakdown and Jolie plays her with strangeness. Chan’s Sersi is in love with Ikaris so they get a lot of scenes where they stare lovingly and talk quietly. All the sunsets and natural-light photography contributes to the indie-art movie vibe. At least at one moment, their quiet musing is interrupted by a very cheap but very well-done jump-scare Deviant attack. Ikaris becomes more interesting by the end which is a big improvement over the moping. Sprite is also just kind of there, ticked off about being stuck in a child’s body for eons. There’s even more Eternals. Probably too many. Like the mind-controlling Druig played by Barry Keoghan who is ticked off they’ve been sitting on the sidelines for centuries. Cool thematic notion but ultimately pointless.
There are so many characters that Eternals doesn’t have the impact of the Avengers movie it’s trying to be. Eternals is incredibly talky for a few hours but it gets truly epic by the third act as they fight against seemingly inevitable doom. Visually, the film is powerful, and when the action, twists and unexpected ending kicks in it can be badass. It’s just kind of a drag to get there.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie