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by Peter Sobczynski

"Oh Gods!"
2 stars

“Eternals” is easily one of the more ambitious entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe—now at 26 films and counting—to come along in quite some time. When I say “ambitious,” by the way, I am not taking about the amount of money spent nor the amount of visual gimcrackery on display—though both were clearly in abundance—but about the ways in which the filmmaker nominally in charge, reigning Best Director winner Chloe Zhao in this case, has tried to take the usual MCU formula, which at this point is so rigid as to make a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross seem loose and improvisatory by comparison, and do something different with it for a change. It doesn’t change things too radically, of course, and its ambitions cannot quite make up for its conspicuous flaws in other areas. Of course, those who might appreciate it the most—people who have either burned themselves out on such things or who never developed an interesting in them in the first place—probably will not be willing to give it a chance while those looking for yet another helping on the same old thing will no doubt grow frustrated by its refusal to give them the usual thrills.

Based upon the comic book created by the legendary Jack Kirby, “Eternals” posits that the universe and everything in it is the work of a race of enormous ageless beings known as Celestials. Among their creations are a group of super-powered demigods known as Eternals who were sent to Earth eons ago to oversee the development of mankind, offer the occasional nudge of help along the way and, perhaps most importantly, protect them from Deviants, a group of nearly-indestructible monsters that the Celestials accidentally developed along the way. Our band of protectors is led by Ajak (Salma Hayek) and also includes matter-manipulator Sersi (Gemma Chan), the Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden), the energy-projecting Kingo (Kumail Nanjiam), the illusion-creating Sprite (Lia McHugh), the technology inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the super-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the mind-manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan), the super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Thena (Angelina Jolie), a fierce warrior who boasts the twin abilities of forging any weapon out of pure energy and of jump-starting puberties in anyone who gets a load of her in her spandex outfit.

Anyway, the Eternals eradicate all traces of Deviants from Earth but with nothing else to do while waiting further instructions from their Celestial leaders and with personality conflicts already beginning to develop between some of them, they begin to drift apart and spend the next several thousand years doing their own respective things. The story picks up in the present day with Sersi living in London with Sprite, who eternally looks as if she is 12 years old and is none too happy about it, and dating a mortal, Dane (Kit Harrington), who has no idea about her secret. That is, until he, Sersi and Sprite are attacked by what appears to be an advanced Deviant and are only able to stop it with the nick-of-time arrival of Ikaris, whose return is also more than a bit fraught because of his long-ago romance with Sersi (leading to the first thing resembling a conventional sex scene in the MCU to date) that broke up when he just took off one century and never returned. Suitably unnerved, Sersi, Ikaris and Sprite set off in search of their fellow eternals so that they can catch up on what they have been doing (Kingo is now a Bollywood star while Phastos, horrified by the horrors his technological gifts have inspired, has settled down to a life of domesticity with his husband and young son), work through their own interpersonal issues and, time permitting, uncover who is behind this new threat and stop them before Earth is destroyed.

To some observers, the notion of having all of this epic-scaled adventure brought to the screen by Zhao, whose previous films “The Rider” and “Nomadland” were not exactly celebrated for the kind of big-screen spectacle that one normally associate with the MCU experience. This is true but selecting a filmmaker of her pedigree for the job is not that outlandish of a proposition. For example, Ang Lee followed up his Oscar-winning breakthrough “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” by directing an adaptation of a Marvel property back when such things were far less commonplace than they are today and the resulting film, the wildly misunderstood “Hulk,” remains one of the most unique, compelling and lyrical superhero movies ever made and one that looks better and better with each passing year. Besides, times have changed and while it might have once seemed odd to find the likes of Kenneth Branagh directing “Thor,” recent years have seen indie darlings like Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, and Destin Daniel Cretton helming their own superhero epics.

Not counting Lee’s outlier effort, the best of these seemingly odd combinations of filmmaker and material—I would submit Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” and Coogler’s “Black Panther”—were due to the fact that the directors in question were able to negotiate the tricky balance between satisfying Marvel’s requirements for a product that would fit comfortably within their rigid parameters while at the same time retaining the kind of personal touch that presumably got their work noticed in the first place. The problem with “Eternals” is that Zhao never quite manages to hit that balance herself and the whole thing suffers as a result. As a superhero spectacle, it never manages to catch fire because it is apparent right from the early going that Zhao has little interest in devising and executing big action beats and as a result, most of the major set pieces have a rudimentary, lets-just-get-through-this attitude towards them that is at odds with the material. That attitude also extends to its attempts to set up and spell out both its convoluted premise and the large cast of characters to an audience that is likely less familiar with them than they are with most other Marvel projects—even clocking in at a more-than-leisurely 150+ minutes, it still seems kind of rushed in this regard and unless you are very familiar with the “Eternals” property before going into it, there is a very good chance that you will be as baffled with it almost as often as I was.

The problem with Zhao’s evident disinterest in giving viewers the expected blockbuster thrills is that she hasn’t replaced them with anything that is particularly notable. There are a number of lovely visual motifs throughout that are a welcome change from the usual indistinct CGI landscapes but after a while, it becomes evident that there is not much of anything going on within those striking windswept vistas. Part of the problem is that the screenplay has to juggle so many unfamiliar characters, each one with their own distinct powers, that too many scenes begin to feel like a classroom roll call than anything else. An even greater flaw is that while the characters all have distinct powers, the same cannot be said about their personalities or backstories—these are just about the blandest array of ageless demigods imaginable and the attempts to give them some kind of depth (such as Sprite’s anger over being trapped in a child’s body for eternity or Phastos’s anguish over how mankind has misused his technological gifts) just fall flat. The reunion between Sersi and Ikaris is meant to be poignant but fails to come off because of the lack of any chemistry between Chan and Madden.

Much has been made about how the film’s casting has reached across racial, ethnic, gender and physical lines to present a far more inclusive array of superhero types than we normally get and while that is admirable (though it has predictably raised the usual array of hackles amongst people with far too much free time on their hands), it doesn’t really make a difference in the long run if the characters themselves are still blah. There are a lot of good actors here but the only ones who make any real impact are Jolie and Hayek, who are the two biggest marquee names, to be sure, but also know how to supply their characters with something resembling distinct personalities even when the screenplay hasn’t. Unfortunately, they are both closer to supporting players here and so even their efforts fail to have much impact in the end.

“Eternals” is an odd film and while I would normally celebrate such a thing in a MCU film—a franchise where even the better entries tend to boast a sameness to them—it never manages to make that oddness into something interesting. The action sequences are largely unmemorable, the characters and their conflicts are even more so and the attempts to liven things up with occasional humorous touches, mostly supplied by Nanjani’s character, who has grown so vain that he brings along a cameraman to document the reunion of his former friends, tend to fall flat. There are some undeniably striking images here and there but other than that, there is very little here that would suggest that this is the work of the same person who gave us “The Rider” and “Nomadland.” I’m happy that Zhao was given the opportunity to tackle such a project and the presumed box-office success, combined with her recent Oscar win, should make it easier for her to get the smaller, character-driven works that she is clearly more at home with financed for the next few years. Zhao is an undeniably gifted filmmaker but “Eternals” does not make effective use of those gifts and by the end, there is the undeniable sense that she became as tired of the whole thing while making it as viewers will be while watching it.

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originally posted: 11/02/21 23:03:58
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