starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Angelina Jolie
screenplay by Chloé Zhao and Chloe Zhao & Patrick Burleigh
directed by Chloé Zhao
by Walter Chaw Chloé Zhao's follow-up to her Oscar-winning Nomadland is one of those movies that is more interesting to talk about than to watch--which, in the final analysis, may be the poet laureate of South Dakota's most distinctive auteur hallmark. Despite that it's the twenty-some-odd instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals is defiantly a Chloé Zhao picture, and the amount of subversion required to make it so highlights both MCU overlord Kevin Feige's desperation to shake the diversity monkey off his back and his fatal lack of understanding of women creators at the most rudimentary level. In theory that doesn't matter much if all these folks are asked to do is direct the parts that aren't generic action scenes, committee-generated in the house style and dropped into the middle of whatever flaccid drama is possible under the narrative conditions like dead paratroopers into a live warzone. What you see in Eternals is a result of what feels less like a partnership with its attendant compromises than like a quiet war waged in the spaces between a boss who thinks he knows what's happening and a hired gun who's pretty clever about having her way no matter the amount of oversight. By the third or fourth laborious exposition dump by the least comfortable, least seasoned and natural actor in the loaded cast (that would be 14-year-old Lia McHugh), it's pretty clear that Zhao's empathy for unaffected performers rambling in lingering magic-hour landscapes has won the day. Good one, Zhao.
Less endearing is how Zhao has also imported her studied neutrality--a certain unwillingness to engage entirely during a period in which the concept of neutrality is tacit endorsement of the forces pushing for the apocalypse. Take, for example, the question of climate change as it's addressed in Eternals: that it's the fault of humanity, yes, not for the things they could or shouldn't be doing, but for the fact of their existence. The critical mass described by the film isn't carbon emissions driven by capitalism and corruption, it's world population hitting the exact number to hatch a massive, celestial being from Earth's core. It's a Douglas Adams-ian twist, this reveal that the Earth itself is a machine with an arcane function, but as it's triggered here it plays into the worst, most racist and colonial theories about overpopulation in underdeveloped nations especially. In her quest not to get too involved with the crises of our modern age, Zhao kicks over a Vesuvian ant-pile of unintentional offense. On a smaller scale, take what should, for example, be a watershed moment: Marvel's first gay kiss, possible only because one of our heroes has invented the nuclear bomb that levelled Hiroshima. Yes, one of the foundational texts for Eternals appears to be Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, complete with its moony meditation on the nature of history and memory. The notion that good can come from bad and that bad can come from good is the engine that drives Eternals, though what's good as a thought exercise or zen koan is not good in a big, stupid spectacle film Frankensteined together from an indie darling's defiance at the grace of a corporate monolith insisting on prefabricated story elements and de rigueur action scenes.
Eternals is a mess with a plot that manages the trick of being at once too convoluted and too simplistic. It's not entirely unlike Akira in that respect, and both share the burden of having hundreds of pages and dozens of volumes of lore to distill into a single film that ideally needs room to be more than mere scene-setting. Akira, however, didn't dumb everything down so much as to take its audience for granted. The screenplay credits for Eternals aren't necessarily damning in themselves, but they portend the movie's disarray and doggedly auteurist bent, with Zhao listed twice--once as a solo writer and once in collaboration with Patrick Burleigh. When you place an auteur in what is essentially series television, you either get a complete smoothing-out of whatever's jagged about the auteur that you admire (and I doubt a truly Tarantino episode of "ER" would've been something anyone was all that jazzed about), or you get tissue rejection on a massive scale resulting in a painful, drawn-out death. Realizing this, some directors walk away in the middle of a production or before one starts. Zhao has decided to stand her ground. I'm not saying I don't admire her for it, I'm saying it's hard to watch. More so than usual, even. In short, Eternals is about a bunch of immortal super-beings created to fight a bunch of immortal super-beings by a Celestial god-being who makes planets and loads them with life. When monsters called Deviants appear one day to eat the life on these planets, the Celestial, Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), employs the same plan to protect humanity as the little old lady who swallowed a fly employs to rid her body of said fly. In defiance, the Eternals' plan to stop the destruction of the world is the same as Voltron's plan to turn five lions into a robot.
The big question the film tries to answer a couple of times is why these super-beings, despite being here for 7,000 years, didn't do anything to prevent Thanos from disappearing half the universe in one of the other middle instalments of this endless hell, but because Zhao has insisted on much of the first three or four hours of her film showing human populations genociding each other at actual sites of historical atrocity, the better question might be why Eternals stood idly by during chattel slavery, let's say, or the Rape of Nanking, or the Holocaust. Realizing that this is now the pertinent question on the minds of Eternals' stultified audience, Zhao provides the answer of how war causes humans to develop better medical technologies, meaning that humans will proliferate at an accelerated rate. Eternals don't prevent unimaginable atrocities that are within their power to prevent because the medical experimentation that occurs during these periods is good for growth. Pruning a tree helps it grow; raping and murdering entire cultures helps the human tree grow. That's one of those things that maybe you ought to try saying out loud before chiselling it in stone, even if it turns out that Arishem, maybe, in a classic God move, doesn't care about all that suffering in the context of his secret but grand plan. If this is really the plan, though, why aren't Eternals tasked with creating conflict among men? And if critical mass is what's required for the Celestial's plan to work, doesn't it follow that each human killed once it reaches its target will slow the target, meaning that the Eternal's non-involvement at the end when human reproduction has begun to slow and even regress (as it has) is in fact counterproductive to its plans? For an omniscient being, Arishem is pretty stupid.
The only way to read Eternals charitably, as it happens, is as a repudiation of Christianity and the death cult it has shown itself to be. If it's that, then it joins the likes of "Midnight Mass" as a real reckoning with how it is that White Evangelicals remain the only group voting in great numbers for monsters, the better to bring about the end of the world. Its bits about blind devotion to an old testament are good--this fidelity to any old iron causing a schism between Eternals who want to save the Earth and Eternals who want to trust that their god knows best. Late in the game, the most powerful of Eternals, Ikaris (Richard Madden), expresses his fanatical, fundamentalist devotion to a creed that clearly spells doom for the humans he's spent millennia protecting, and it's chilling, the analogues to our current fascistic theocratic state stark and despairing. Ikaris, for what it's worth, is essentially another of Marvel's attempts to have a Superman, and it begs the question: if Eternals are created beings, why aren't they all this powerful? In this quasi-Superman's puritanical religiosity, find an echo of DC's recent decision to change Superman's motto from "the American Way" to "a Better Tomorrow" in response to America definitively losing its way. This rebrand, and the image used to convey it (people joined together in a Buy the World a Coke tableau of manipulated uplift), rings patently trite. The way to a better tomorrow is by joining hands with people you disagree with fundamentally on the right to exist? You can shove your philosophy of neutrality up your ass.
I'm haunted by the opening sequence of Eternals, set in 5000 BC Mesopotamia, where a little kid watches his father get eaten by a sea monster before he's saved from a similar fate in one of the most un-thrilling action sequences in a franchise that has become known for unimaginative action sequences. When the dust settles, Sersi (Gemma Chan) gives the kid a dagger that is meant, I think, to represent a great leap forward for humanity into the Bronze Age. The equivalent to the monolith in 2001, n'est-ce pas? How, though, does a dagger unlock the secrets of metallurgy to a hunting/gathering society already using spears to fish and hunt? And if it's not representative of a great leap for human cultural evolution, then what is it? Is it meant to be a trinket to lessen the mourning for a kid who, frankly, doesn't appear even mildly upset that his dad was just eaten in front of him. I'm troubled by this prologue, because if it's the one thing, it's poorly thought through and, in a film that is basically a distended exposition dump, not well-reasoned; and if it's the other thing, it's callow and facile. Adding Zhao to the MCU stable was meant to introduce humanity into the proceedings, and early reviews of this film have trumpeted the genuine emotions of this story of a broken family finding one another again to fight a great evil. Yet this moment intended as simultaneous throwaway and portent is magnificently mishandled. Sersi, this ageless being, sees a boy witness an unimaginable atrocity and...gives him a pocket knife? The rest of the film's chewing over of whether or not to save humanity calls me back to this moment, in which it's clear that the fate of the planet is a theoretical exercise for Eternals rather than an emotional one.
In that pursuit, Zhao centres the four most boring people in the cast to take the lead. Bland Sersi, who meekly agrees to boyfriend Ikaris's promises to protect her; bland Ikaris, whose great moment of transformation is indicated by a few man-tears (still coded as sensitivity somehow in 2021); bland Dane (Kit Harington), a little-used human boyfriend to Sersi who nonetheless drives Sersi's key character conflict, though she doesn't seem overly tortured or interested or engaged; and poor Sprite (McHugh), who is so overmatched by the terrible dialogue she's asked to emit that it feels like cruelty. But the unpracticed child is who Zhao is most interested in, either because of her commitment to non-professional actors or because she's the one most likely to irritate Feige, who has assembled for Zhao explosive actors like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, as well as charismatic ones like Kumail Nanjiani and Ma Dong-seok. The dramatic centre of the climax, this Claudia from Interview with the Vampire or Homer from Near Dark is also the alleged comic relief. And she's the critical angle in the second of the film's two love triangles. In her almost uncannily unnatural delivery, Sprite is the physical manifestation of a feast sequence in the middle of the picture where these Eternals try their best to act like relatable characters at a dinner party while dropping contractually-obliged MCU Easter eggs like, Who's gonna lead the Avengers now that Captain Rogers and Tony Stark are gone? YOU, IKARIS? (Awkward laughter.) There's room for a gross-out gag, too, when the Asian guy reveals he's made beer using his spit (like how the Peruvians used to make chicha). Zhao isn't known for comedy, and, true to form, none of this is funny.
If Eternals is a philosophical jumble and a narrative mess, it's also overcrowded with a gallery of characters cleverly named to suggest the gods and heroes of myth--and it fails to establish them beyond the broad parameters of skill-sets that seem unbound by any rules. Sersi changes something into a tree at one point, a talent at odds with her assertion that she's only able to transmute inanimate objects. Oh yeah, Sersi transmutes inanimate objects. Like a bus into a bunch of rose petals. One Eternal punches hard, one can control every mind on the planet apparently except those of his peers, one is Superman, one is The Flash. Thena (Jolie) is Athena, goddess of war, and she is good at war, and then there's Ajak (Hayek), the Eternals' leader, who can heal people. I should mention, too, that Sprite can create convincing holograms and does so in the early going to confuse one of the Deviants, but then she reveals that she can also render herself and others invisible. Remember in E.T. when he makes the bike fly and shit? Why didn't the little fucker do that in the beginning to get back on his ship? In Eternals, that sort of thing is harder to overlook. Harder still after it's revealed what the Eternals actually are, as what they are means that they can't ever truly be killed. I do like the note that Thena is experiencing a malfunction where the weight of all her memories is driving her insane, although I don't like that a woman in this movie is insane. I've barely touched on the Deviants themselves, standard CGI bugbears until one becomes humanoid and turns out exactly like Paul Bettany's Vision character. It's hard to keep talking about this garbage.
Eternals is awful by most conventional measures of quality and enjoyment, but it carries the distinction of being weird. It's a film by someone diametrically opposed to this universe's showrunner who was nonetheless given an outsized amount of power to do whatever the hell she wanted out of respect for the social condemnation that would have accompanied her muzzling. Which doesn't mean there wasn't some muzzling. I have a hard time picturing Zhao, left to her own devices, doing a movie about ten superbots battling a god made out of rock over the fate of the world, or framing a scene in the charred aftermath of Hiroshima, where the Hephaestus character cries out in anguish over his role in this war crime, or the scene where Hayek rides a horse at twilight on a lonesome Dakota plain. Wait, that last one I can picture. Eternals is one half a studiedly, disastrously neutral movie about super-beings declining to participate in the quelling of rape and murder on a grand scale, and one half a movie about super-beings actively participating in genocide through not only their disinterest but their actions, too. It's an incurably silly film that has one Eternal hiding in plain sight as a Bollywood star, while at the same time it's a deadly serious film that depicts the conquest of Tenochtitlan by Cortés that involved forced famine, genocide, and razing. Eternals is a joke about serious things. I'm just not sure who the joke's on. Maybe Zhao is funnier than I give her credit for.