Eternals

2 out of 5

Directed by: Chloé Zhao

There are some core movie sins that make the memory of a bad movie worse. Within the MCU, Black Widow was, by my take, a bad movie because it was offensively dumb, and that made a bad movie – which can ideally be at least a successful waste of time – worse, causing me to keep a mental list of every infraction, and thus probably making a very tall mountain out of several molehills.

The Eternals isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it does commit a sin that’s on an equal level: it’s disappointing. I say this without any particular affinity for the comic book characters, or even for the MCU – strictly based on the potential of the idea, and how it was represented on screen, the movie is sadly incompetent almost from its first scene onwards, only briefly coming alive nearly an hour into its 150+ minute runtime when director Chloé Zhao and the script (from Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo) finally allows the movie to deliver on some reliable film tenets, which the flick otherwise seems to casually ignore in an attempt to affect epicness.

…And I can appreciate that approach, and do want to encourage the general tone Zhao used, which thank-god got rid of the cookie cutter banter that’s scripted into nearly every single MCU flick since phase 2 onward – Eternals actually makes a bid to sound and feel serious, saving the predictable snark for key moments instead of being the de facto – but the construction of the scenes in support of this tone are a flimsy whirlwind of wishy-washy decision making, trying to map big-scale blockbuster and historical sweep to a contemplative character piece that cannot possibly exist in a 10+ character ensemble. (I mean, I’m sure it can, but maybe not when those characters are each deserving of some introduction beyond showing up 2 seconds in and laser-finger blasting goopy dragon monsters.) This results in absolutely no connection with those characters, whether between each other or with the viewer, and no connection to the overall stakes that are attemptedly lain down, despite several on-the-nose explanations of those stakes, just in case you missed it.

This general blandness extends across all aspects of the movie.

We open with what’s essentially a universal retcon for the MCU via text scrawl: that sitting atop the heroes and villains you know are these godlike Celestials, and they created their immortal warriors the Eternals to battle vague villains the Deviants. I’m down with this text intro: it’s a gauntlet, knowing fans and followers are now inured to Captain Americas and Kree and Thors mixing it up together, so this is just another step. Unfortunately, right after this is when that blandness kicks in, as our opening scene approaches these mythological constants – Eternals, Deviants – as just another group of capes and cackling baddies, CG battling away in ancient Earth times. There’s zero gravitas. And the filmmakers gave themselves an extra challenge by making the Deviants indistinct: they are vague animal shapes with no defined silhouette, and as they’re introduced to us, no leader. They are treated as canon fodder. So when we flash forward to present day (like 30 seconds after this opening battle), the reappearance of a Deviant doesn’t especially feel like a big deal, though it’s treated as such.

But let’s rewind: we are told that Eternals are created by these Celestial gods, and are appearing at the dawn of humanity. Why were they “created” by different powers – super speed, healing, etc. – and why do some of them have Irish accents, or look Indian? Wouldn’t a race of protectors likely be built with a homogenous power set, and to look alike? Now there could be some interesting explanations behind this; that the film doesn’t even attempt some throwaway lines toward explaining it feels like a missed opportunity for ingratiating the Eternals to us as viewers. When the I-was-created-by-an-omnipotent-being-to-look-Indian Eternal ends up as a Bollywood star, it starts to feel even lazier.

To try to step in front of this a little, the casting should have been diverse, and I can think of some great ways of touching on that within the movie, especially given its expansive runtime… This is the cause of my disappointment: there are so many fantastic possibilities for world building throughout the flick, and it just leaves them there. Zhao maintains the somber vibe, and I think the overall visual aesthetic for wide scenes and settings to vibe with the expansiveness of the cast was interesting, but all of that space and weight isn’t filled with anything. Sets feel fairly empty; dialogue is embarrassingly wooden at points. The film takes a structure of setting up a new Deviant threat in the modern era, and then flashes back to various points across history to fill us in on some relevant developments between then and now, but it’s generally a poor combination of showing and telling the same information, or annoyingly telling, and then cutting to something that hardly feels like it relates at all…

Seemingly in opposition to all of this: the film isn’t necessarily boring. It’s well cast, and because we’re not sifting through forced jokes every 30 seconds, we do get to sense the humanity in the characters – the actors are able to bring this to life – even if / when stuck with rote dialogue. The fallback to Deviant fights between any given scene is very repetitive, but it does kind of force the film to keep moving. This is important because we’re drip-fed hope of things turning a corner throughout, so instead of wasting time on a romantic subplot, a Deviant pops up, we scuffle, and then we get another drip-fed plotpoint. When these congeal to some reveals – woodenly scripted as they are – it reaffirms that sense of possibility, and kept me watching without yawning or turning away for the majority of the film.

Whether or not that’s “worth” a viewer’s viewing time is a matter of opinion. I started out by naming disappointment as a key sin, and so I’d lean toward the movie not being worth it, unfortunately, but it’s a valid experiment toward working out more mature and emotionally varied Marvel movie. Alas, given the movie’s middling reception, it might end up hurrying the company in the opposite, cookie-cutter direction, so in that sense… everyone should watch Eternals; bump those viewing numbers up and get the brand to consider more attempts in this fashion. Maybe some of them will fail, but it will be really satisfying when that’s not the case, and then worth it to go back and watch Eternals as one of the starting points for that eventuality.