Film Review: “Eternals” Is Both Never-Ending and Ephemeral
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 4th, 2021
Eternals (Chloé Zhao, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.
Make no mistake: it is always a good thing when a franchise departs from formula to try new things. As much as we have all grown fond (if, indeed, we have) of the special sauce that Marvel Studios has added to its product for the past 13 years (starting with the 2008 Iron Man), the same old same old nevertheless becomes overly familiar after a while. So kudos to those behind the new Eternals for flipping the script to start fresh. Unfortunately, change for change’s sake never guarantees quality, and the “flipped script” here is a mess, a mishmash of competing ideas that never gel into a coherent or meaningful whole. It’s also dreadfully long, drawing out the ennui far past its due date. Still, there are some fine sequences, and a strong, wonderfully diverse cast, but those elements are not enough to overcome the pitfalls of a poorly constructed narrative.
Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has previously shone with films like her 2017 The Rider and Oscar-winning 2020 Nomadland. Here, however, she is unable to breathe much life or energy into this soggy tale of Earth-bound immortals trapped in a mission which even they fail to understand. The glacial pace of the piece makes sense, in a way, given how time must appear to those for whom it never ends. Despite the heavy use of exposition, whether via on-screen text or exposition, however, nothing else proves as logical.
Here’s a brief sketch of what happens. In 5000 BCE (written as “BC”), a group of superheroes—the “Eternals”—was dispatched to our planet to protect humans from lizard-like creatures known as “Deviants.” Receiving orders from an omnipotent “Celestial” named Arishem, they then proceed to remain on Earth in case the Deviants return. Barred from providing excessive aid to the developing civilizations, they nevertheless assist in a more nuanced manner, gently pushing forward the spread of new technologies. At various points in the story, we flash back to later and later moments in the past, seeing how their interpersonal relationships evolved and, eventually, deteriorated.
They are a varied bunch, some looking younger, some older, no one changing from how they were upon arrival. They speak with an assortment of accents (the why of which is never discussed) and each have different powers. They can be wounded, and potentially die, but thanks to the magical healing talents of their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard), are always quickly repaired. Ikaris (Richard Madden, Netflix’s Bodyguard series) is the only who can fly, but the rest have some nifty tricks, as well: Sersi (Gemma Chan, Let Them All Talk) manipulates matter; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, The Lovebirds) shoots lasers from his fists; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, Sound of Metal) is a speedster; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry, Godzilla vs. Kong) is the technopath of the group; and so on and so forth.
Years ago, Sersi and Ikaris fell in love, but then, for reasons later (sort of) explained, he took off. As the film begins, she is in a new relationship with a mere mortal, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington, Jon Snow on HBO’s Game of Thrones series), who, based on one of the movie’s many final scenes, is probably more than he appears. Dane notwithstanding, Sersi and Ikaris are still very much on each other’s minds (and in each other’s hearts), whether they admit it or not. Sadly for them, they begin to find themselves at odds as the true conflict of the movie emerges. Sadly for us, that conflict is a muddled one, filled with gargantuan stakes that barely resonate. Please, Marvel, stop making films about the end of the world or the universe; it benumbs the mind.
Remember those Deviants? They play a part, but though Eternals hints at an interesting development in their reappearance, that proves a red herring in the ensuing climax. This is regrettable, for even though that subplot bore some resemblance to that of Avengers: Age of Ultron, it was the only one for which I felt a lasting glimmer of engagement. Otherwise, as the Eternals battled forces both within and without their collective, and the movie dragged on in a never-ending chaos of CGI and dramatic disarray, I could muster but a yawn. Chan is wonderful in what becomes the lead, though, as are most of her supporting ensemble. If they’re lucky, Eternals will be only a transient blip on their résumés before they get back to more substantive material.