Written by Chris Narine
Chloé Zhao has made perhaps the strangest, most ambitious MCU movie to date. Exposition-heavy dialogue, a nonlinear narrative, and a set of characters that are all set up as nothing more or less than pawns, in the grand scheme of all that occurs in such a dense plot filled with perhaps the franchise’s first successful attempt at depicting truly surreal, striking imagery. Naturally then, one should only expect that such drastic choices made for a Marvel outing will stir up divisive reactions for those more accustomed to the more traditional outings from the MCU. If nothing else, Zhao’s attempt seems to be the kind of film destined for cult status in years to come, no matter how few and far between its shortcomings seem to be.
Our story begins with a text-on-screen account of the history behind our characters. Audiences, who are assumably coming in blind to the lore of the Eternals, are provided with a lot of context and details that set our story into motion. Within minutes a dazzling sequence shows our characters in action, as they fight against the Deviants. Making effective use of Pink Floyd’s “Time” during its opening credits sequence the narrative switches over to the present day where one of the Eternals, played with gravitas and depth by Gemma Chan, is centered in the middle of London as she watches her surroundings through her iPhone. It’s a clever choice; it signifies that although times and technology have evolved, the history of our species cannot be undone.
It’s themes like this that Zhao chooses to explore in Eternals, where its characters find themselves constantly musing over existential matters that plague the world as they know it and heighten their concerns for the ones they love. If only Zhao could’ve found a better balance when it comes to the way she handles such a tone, as oftentimes the pace of the film gets disrupted by the narrative’s reliance on flashback sequences. The scope of Eternals is undeniably impressive, as is Zhao’s clear vision for such a story is certainly unique, but decisions such as these often feel frustrating; making for a superhero film that while certainly feels as subversive as it is wholly entertaining, ultimately feels disjointed as a whole.
The entertainment value of Eternals is largely successful due to Zhao’s commitment to making the action sequences feel so vibrant and alive. The way she shoots the Eternals working with one another to fight off the Deviants is impressive; never steering away from the powers that unify them as a team, filming them in such a confident manner, that it’s easy to discern how much she believes in the strength that their harbor, as they prepare for their inevitable plight. Zhao shows so much love and adoration for these characters, that she assembles a cast that, while inconsistent in terms of the effectiveness of their performances, feels eclectic enough in its ensemble to sell the film’s idiosyncrasies.
Our leads Sersi and Ikaris are played respectively, by Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. While Chan effectively brings an emotional depth to a character whose own powers and arc fail to fully cohere, Madden’s performance is perhaps one of the film’s biggest red herrings. As Ikaris, Madden’s stiff, one-note approach to the character lacks the necessary nuance to convey what on paper, serves as the film’s most detrimental and complex character. Elsewhere, the supporting cast works in spades, with Barry Keoghan and Kumail Nanjiani, in particular, providing terrific work, while other actors either feel wasted or are given material that feels below their standards.
With an ensemble cast so large, certain narrative choices are made to exhibit rather bold characterizations resulting in a conclusion, that while enjoyable, feels somewhat rushed. So much of the exposition in the film relies on our characters’ moral conflict that by the time the climax comes into fruition, too many storylines end up feeling either haphazard in their approach or simply too convenient. There is a truly groundbreaking superhero film inside here that is yearning to come out, one that evokes the very best qualities of a Zack Snyder film, only this time rehashed through Zhao’s unique sensibilities. While her sensibilities work in favor of telling a narrative that has lots to say of faith, it’s a shame that these ideas were not told with a better, more concrete focus. Ultimately that leaves Eternals a film that, while not without its successes, ultimately leaves much room for improvement.