Movie Review ~ Eternals

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of ancient aliens known as the Eternals have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years. When an unexpected tragedy forces them out of the shadows, they reunite against mankind’s most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Bill Skarsgård, Harish Patel

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: A year ago at this time I was getting so burnt out on the Marvel adventures that were coming at us left and right (and center and above and below and diagonally) and, not that I didn’t find them entertaining, but I just felt like they were all starting to blend together into one amorphous mass that looked like a large black hole where a franchise used to be.  The kick of the discovery was gone and what remained were good guys and bad guys, buildings falling, worlds ending, then not ending, and happy finales for a moment until the post-credits scene revealed something we needed to start worrying about six months or more down the line.  It was just a constant state of “NEXT!” before you’d even had time to digest the meal you’d been served.

Announcing indie director (very indie) Chloé Zhao as the director for Eternals, a film that represents a significant shift in tone and temperament for Marvel isn’t all that out of the ordinary.  The studio has done a good job over the last decade at picking interesting (read: new) filmmakers to helm their movies and the bet has largely paid off in spin-offs and major pivots that have their own style and calling cards.  You can bet the studio heads were jumping on their gaming chairs when Zhao rode a tidal wave of good notices in 2020 to an Oscar win for Best Director and another one for producing Nomadland, the quiet Frances McDormand drama about a woman traveling the country not quite aimlessly but without any true destination. It’s a feeling the superheroes at the heart of Eternals are familiar with.

Instead of losing that indie vision and voice, Zhao applies it liberally to this superhero film which feels altogether different and quite special, and one that will certainly divide many.  For starters, and this isn’t a bad thing, its pacing is off from your typical Marvel film.  It’s not that it’s too long, it’s as long as a number of its brethren, but there are long stretches where its characters are allowed to be human as well as superhuman and use their words instead of their wonder.  Drama instead of dramatics doesn’t always sell tickets or inspire amazement in those that come for hyperbolic extravaganzas and while Eternals does have some incredible moments of special effects wizardry, it’s far more interested in what can be created through connection.

Five thousand years before the birth of Christ, ten beings from a distant planet arrive on Earth to rid the still developing world of creatures known as Deviants.  Sent on a mission from a powerful ruler and waiting for their next message delivered to Ajak (Salma Hayek, Savages), their leader on Earth that will send them home, they remain on our planet over the next seven thousand years, watching humankind evolve but barred from using their advanced knowledge to help them progress in their growth.  Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Eternals picks up with Sersi (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) living in London and dating Dane (Kit Harrington, Pompeii) while watching over Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge). 

When a Deviant emerges unexpectedly from a canal in the River Thames and goes after Sersi and Sprite, old friend (and former Sersi flame) Ikaris (Richard Madden, Rocketman) flies to their rescue just in time.  The three decide this Deviant appearance isn’t a coincidence and set out to reunite the rest of the Eternals who have scattered across the globe…but not all want to be reunited and as the Deviants grow stronger the race is on to protect the humans from a global extinction event that makes The Snap look like child’s play.  Mistrust, old grudges, and their own failing health keep the Eternals from full strength, and it will take their collective energy to stop an enemy that feeds off of their power.

Even as some will convince you otherwise, there’s a whole lot going on in Eternals.  Like, a whole lot.  First off, the representation on display here is wonderful and doesn’t feel forced in the least.  Diversity in casting is joyous, as is the normalcy in characterizing Brian Tyree Henry’s (The Woman in the Window) Eternal Phastos as a married gay man living with his husband raising their son.  You have Lauren Ridloff (Sound of Metal) as hearing impaired Eternal Makkari, Kumail Nanjiani (Dolittle) as an Eternal now living as a popular Indian Bollywood actor, and Angelina Jolie (Those Who Wish Me Dead) playing Thena, an Eternal waylaid by a disease that comes across suspiciously like early onset Alzheimer’s.  Add to that the conflict between the never-aging Sprite and the love triangle she creates in her head with Sersi and Ikaris and there’s enough drama off the battlefield to keep things hoppin’ even with a well-designed Deviant breathing down their neck.

The well-utilized visual effects pair nicely with Ben Davis’s (Captain Marvel) gorgeous cinematography (absolutely the best in any Marvel film, period) and you’re crazy if you don’t see Eternals in IMAX where you can enjoy it to the full extent.  What I noticed early on was how “small” the movie feels in comparison to others. This could be the Zhao effect, but for much of the movie it’s really just the main characters and that’s it.  There’s not a lot of swarming extras (real or computer generated) and when there are large crowd scenes, everyone looks to be really there and present.  That energy helps fuel all who are on camera, giving it all a reality bounce that pushes the movie ever forward.

I haven’t checked recently (I just can’t bear to) but shortly after seeing Eternals I read it was the lowest rated Marvel movie to date and had heard about all these negative reviews that were coming out – and I was stunned.  Near the end, there are moments of such transformative beauty that are simply not in the scope of presence in Marvel films to date…and this is the movie that gets ravaged?  I can’t help but feel like it has something to do with the diversity of the cast and its far-reaching scope of inclusivity – I thought (and hoped) fans that celebrated light triumphing over dark would be better than that.  I hope these early reviews were just the loudest voices of a minority of viewers that have seen the film so far.  On the eve of the release, here’s wishing Eternals and future adventures eternal good will.