Director(s): Chloe Zhao
Writer(s): Chloe Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Kit Harrington, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Bryan Tyree Henry, Don Lee, Lia McHugh, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan
Synopsis: The Eternals, a race of immortal beings with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years, reunite to battle the evil Deviants.
After making two breathtakingly beautiful films, Chloe Zhao wanted this moment. She wanted to be the director of a large scale, big budget, and action packed Marvel film. She wanted the challenge of trying to create a superhero story with the same amount of grace and heart that have made both of her first two films some of the best of the past 10 years. She got her wish with Eternals, and from every still, trailer, and promotional shot, you could tell this film was poised to be something different from the MCU
“In the beginning…” is the long running tagline for the film, and as those words scrawls across the screen, and in Star Wars fashion, we are given some of the backstory to the Eternals. Beings sent from the celestials to protect the planet from “deviants,” animal creatures set on killing humans.
For 7000 years the Eternals have lived on Earth protecting the human race. For 7000 years they have been waiting for a call to go home to their planet of Olympia. This also means that Zhao and the rest of the writers also have 7000 years to work with in trying to tell the story of the Eternals.
This gives them a lot to work with in the story, and honestly… maybe too much. The story is told as non-linear as non-linear can get. The pacing of the first hour of this film is undermined by the constant flashbacks whether it be “5000 BC,” “500 BC,” or “5 days ago.” There is so much back and forth in this story that causes it to feel uneven and really alters the pacing to a point where you can get left behind if you aren’t staying with it.
Chloe Zhao only has two feature films under her belt, The Rider and Nomadland, but both of them have excelled in creating a purely intimate character study of people in difficult situations. She has an innate ability to “see the unseen” and expand on them as people, but also the situations they are given. In both her first two films, she is only having to really focus on one character. This allows her to really find a place of relation between her character and the audience.
In Eternals, she attempts to do this with a much larger cast, and with vastly different personalities. This ends up causing a riff in the film where characters begin to blend together, and names get lost in the mix. I think Zhao can definitely pull off filmmaking of this level, but there has to be more developed characters to work with. I think this would have been difficult on any director to take so many different characters and try to tell so much story in so little time.
While waiting for their call to return the Eternals were able to have their own lives. The issue seen in this film is the same that we have seen in films like Justice League where you attempt to make this large scale epic with unknown characters. This film wants to be an Avengers level movie, but tries to do it without setting up these characters beforehand. This causes us to not only feel like we need to engage with the story at hand, but also learn about all of these different characters and personalities in a short amount of time.
And while we’re focusing so much on the heroes, the villains get set to the side. This film contains more than one villain, and none of them are particularly well thought out or done. The villain with great motivations and a true backstory – I think this could have been one of the best villains in the entire MCU – was sort of tossed to the side as a vengeful character while the villain they tried to expand on felt robotic in his motivations. The MCU has excelled in making relatable villains, and even if what the villain is fighting for is clearly wrong, you understand their motivations. Here, we just didn’t get that, and for these films to really work, they need that villain that can help tie everything together.
However, for how messy the film is, it really is a spectacle to see. Zhao is not with partner Joshua James Richards, cinematographer for Nomadland and The Rider, as this film is shot by Ben Davis, frequent collaborator with Marvel. While it was gorgeous throughout, and one of the better MCU movies visually, it just never felt like a Zhao movie. The on location shots were gorgeous, and most of the CGI worked, but the intimacy in the camerawork was lost, and it felt at times like it was someone attempting to copy Zhao’s style, rather than her doing it herself.
The humor of the film was a standout for me as well. I thought the jokes were much more mature and for the most part they really stood out. Harish Patel might have placed himself as one of my favorite Marvel side characters, and I hope to see more of him in the future. While I couldn’t always connect with the emotion, the humor – a Marvel staple – really stood out in a great way.
While I think some of the performances were robotic and some of the character motivations and decisions were poor, there were some good performances from this film. Kit Harrington – in his very small role – was a scene stealer, Kumail Nanjiani brought the humor we all knew he could, Angelina Jolie was fierce and powerful – even if I wasn’t a fan of what they did with her character – Gemma Chan was strong, especially towards the end of the film, but Bryan Tyree Henry was the biggest standout in my opinion. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos is the character in this film with the most amount of emotional relatability, and he is the one character I actually could relate to in any way. I think Henry did a phenomenal job at playing the witty humor as well as the more dramatic and serious moments. His range was impeccable, even if his motivations towards the middle of the film were… interesting.
There is also a very interesting story here about how these Eternals (who could also be stand in’s for Angels) are questioning their Celestial creator (which could be a stand in for God), and I think this part of the story really worked. However, I think this is the one MCU film that worked better in the moments of conversation and re-gathering of family rather than in the fighting and battles. This film was very self contained with the Eternals themselves, having almost as many references to Batman, Superman, and Star Wars as they did the Avengers, but I think when this film really worked, it worked with its reconnection of the Eternals, and not what caused their divide. The non-linear structure is what hurt this aspect for me, and I know I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I can’t help but think a chronological story might have been better. One that gets their division out of the way quickly, and focuses primarily on their return and their questioning of their entire existence.
While I can applaud the Eternals for being the most ambitious MCU property, and it isn’t the worst the MCU has to offer, it ultimately is the biggest disappointment. The hype leading into this surrounding this amazing cast and unbelievable director had it poised to be one of the MCU’s best. However, the scope of the film, and the way in which it was told, lends itself to a poorly paced and overstuffed film. While the film was gorgeous, the emotion didn’t always land and some character decisions felt as though some of this cast was wasted. I know it would have messed up the timeline, but the movie should have been told in two parts. That way the characters, stories, and even the villains could have had their time to really grow with the audiences, and we weren’t rushed to the finish line. I guess that’s the risk you take when making a Marvel film.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.