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Review: Eternals

November 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Eternals is both the newest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also the latest project from indie filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who of course is fresh off of winning the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Nomadland.

If it seems like a strange mix of styles to have the filmmaker behind that stripped down road movie directing a big budget Marvel flick, that’s because it is, and Eternals is a big swing for both the director and the studio. Zhao is known for her intimate, minimalistic character dramas that embrace natural light and employ non-actors, which are far from the types of films that Marvel is in the business of making.

Their two styles do sort of merge in Eternals (which was initially supposed to come out last year), as the film plays out as a mix of superhero movie and sprawling character drama, shot primarily in real locations. It has some good moments, and I can admire some of the risks that Zhao takes in trying to craft a more spiritual, high-minded entry into the MCU, but it also feels overstuffed.

From its “in the beginning” opening text, Eternals sets itself up as a quasi-Biblical epic, and the film is ambitious to a fault. First introduced in Jack Kirby’s comic books, the Eternals are a group of powerful, immortal beings who were sent to Earth by the Celestials thousands of years ago to protect our planet from demonic monsters known as Deviants. There’s Ajak (Salma Hayek), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee).

After defeating the Deviants, the Eternals have been living among us for centuries, following strict orders not to interfere with any wars or human conflicts unless Deviants are involved (which is the explanation we are given for why they didn’t step in to stop Thanos). Sersi and Ikaris have had an on-again, off-again relationship spanning the past five thousand years, with Sersi now working as a teacher in London and dating a mortal (Kit Harrington). But when the Deviants reemerge, Sersi must reunite with Ikaris and get the team back together.

Much of the film’s first half is spent on introducing all of the characters, with flashbacks showing where they were at different points throughout history. The film employs a non-linear narrative that at times feels overly convoluted, punctuated by more formulaic Marvel beats. The screenplay, which was co-written by Zhao, is a bit of a mixed bag, with some mediocre dialogue and awkward attempts at comic relief that don’t always work. The few callbacks that we get to other films in the franchise also feel somewhat shoehorned in.

The film is heavy on exposition and mythology, broken up by a handful of somewhat generic action scenes featuring the Eternals doing battle with the CG Deviants, and there are some pacing issues throughout. It feels overlong at 157 minutes, yet it also feels like it would have needed to be even longer to fully develop all of the characters and different story threads. In many ways, the finished product feels like a several hour miniseries that has been condensed into a feature film, giving us bits and pieces of storylines that often end up feeling underdeveloped.

While the washed out Marvel colour grading gives the images an overly dark and muddy look at times, Eternals does have some visually impressive moments. Working with cinematographer Ben Davis for the first time (with her partner and usual collaborator Joshua James Richards serving as a main camera operator), there are still some of Zhao’s signature visual flourishes visible in the film, including handheld shots, close ups on faces, and sweeping natural landscapes.

It is easy to admire the ambition and scope behind a film like Eternals, which is perhaps the biggest creative swing that Marvel has taken so far. Zhao is trying to balance a sci-fi epic with a more intimate character drama about an estranged family coming back together. There are a few effective moments, and the film does introduces some interesting moral questions in its second half. Zhao also deserves credit for pushing the franchise forward in a few small but significant ways, including the MCU’s first gay, Black character in Phastos, their first Deaf character in Makkari, and even a brief sex scene.

But it’s a big budget gamble that doesn’t entirely pay off, and I’m sad to say that the film doesn’t quite come together in the end. Either way, this is sure to remain one of the most divisive films in the MCU (it’s currently the first in the series to have a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes), and I can see why some viewers will be quite taken by the experience, while others will find it to be even more of a slog than I did.

I am personally right in the middle. I definitely didn’t hate it, but didn’t love it, either. For a film that spans thousands of years and multiple geographic locations, and introduces an array of new characters into the cinematic franchise, I found Eternals to be somewhat of an underwhelming experience. It was a bit of a letdown for me, both as a Marvel movie and, more specifically, as a Chloé Zhao film.

Eternals opens in wide release on November 5th.

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