Review: Eternals (2021)

Eternal sunshine: Marvel/Disney

Remember when I said not to worry about a distinctive director’s style being smothered in a huge Marvel project? Well maybe we should have worried about Chloé Zhao’s distinctive director’s style being smothered by a huge Marvel project. Whatever the intention, in its final form, ETERNALS is a fascinating misfire. It’s by no means a disaster but probably has too much crammed into it even for a 2 1/2 hour movie.

Thousands of years ago the Eternals – ten immortal, superpowered aliens – arrived on Earth to guide and nurture humanity’s development for an unknown purpose in the far future. In the modern day we find the group scattered, disillusioned and living in secret among ordinary people when an ancient enemy re-emerges and new instructions from their cosmic masters, the Celestials arrive…

I really liked many of the individual performances in this ensemble cast – Gemma Chan’s slightly awkward, very reluctant de facto leader Sersi, Don Lee’s gentle brick shithouse Gilgamesh and Barry Keoghan’s morally grey emo Druig all stand out. But the team chemistry and interactions doesn’t quite ring true for a group who have known each other for 7000 years and too often are characters stuck with a metric tonne of exposition to deliver while trying to look interested. Marvel films are often accused of relying too much on humour that doesn’t fit, and here that’s definitely the case. It feels like an afterthought to provide jokes and knowing banter for the trailers.

The Eternals’ power sets vary wildly in terms of usefulness and coolness, from standard flight and laser vision to mind control and illusion and energy knuckle dusters. Kumail Nanjiani gets literal finger guns and it must’ve been so tempting to go pew pew while doing the hand gestures!

The action scenes are polished but unremarkable, pretty standard superhero stuff in general. Chloe Zhao has name checked THE REVENANT as an influence, does she just mean the forest scene where Ikaris (Richard Madden) is being shaken on the ground by the bear-like deviant? Only during a battle towards the end of the film where the Eternals have to work together does all the superheroics, the unique combination of insane powers, really dazzle.

The big question – why didn’t such powerful beings who have been nurturing humanity’s development for thousands of years, help in our darkest moments in history, or when half the universe was snapped away? – is definitively answered and, if we’re being honest, the answer is mildly disappointing. The significant moments of human history we witness the Eternals not interfering in are an interesting selection, but they’re just brief stops in time like the TARDIS is showing us a promo reel of a tour of time and space.

There are lots of massive sci-fi concepts from Eternals creator Jack Kirby, the writers who influenced him and those who have written the characters since. It’s impossible to really talk about which are executed particularly well or have the most impact on this group of characters and their sense of place and purpose in the universe without going into spoilers, but they are all pretty well visualised at the very least, tapping into a scale hitherto unheard of in the MCU. Yes I just said hitherto.

Representation matters and it’s great to see a diverse team headlining a blockbuster. Gender-flipping and colour-blind casting have made the lineup far less vanilla than it otherwise might have been and everyone brings something special to their role even if some struggle to fight for screentime. Lauren Ridloff’s deaf speedster Makkari easily steals her scenes and could very well encourage likeminded casting of blockbusters in the future, but Marvel patting themselves on the back for Phastos’ (Brian Tyree Henry) brief gay kiss is laughable (though this token acknowledgment of gay people still got them banned in some countries).

Eternals is ambitious and pretty visually spectacular, but with the amount of world-building, plot and characters to do justice it would have probably been better served as a miniseries. You can’t begrudge Chloé Zhao her paycheque but personally I can’t wait to see her return to the kind of grounded filmmaking she excels at, which doesn’t have to compete with the audience’s expectations of the latest shiny blockbuster. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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