Film review ‘ETERNALS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

As we emerge from the lockdown bunker we might be thinking we’re entering a brave new world but just to prove little has changed, there’s a Marvel film waiting for us, namely Eternals.  The advanced word was that Eternals was the worst reviewed film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so far.  Given that the Marvel films have mostly been fast food cinema, this did not bode well.  While aspects of the film fail to fire,  this is by no means the nadir of the MCU and this occasionally stunning but at times silly film is actually one of the more interesting additions to this seemingly endless superhero cinema franchise.

For those unfamiliar with this lesser-known corner of the Marvel universe, the Eternals are attractive god-like beings sent throughout the cosmos by their bosses the Celestials to destroy nasty, giant, sinewy beasties known as Deviants who try to gobble up a planet’s inhabitants.  At times looking like an alternative X-Men, the Eternals include Sersi (Emma Chan) who can transform matter, Ikarus (Richard Madden) who can fly and shoot energy beams from his eyes, Ajak (Salma Hayek) who has healing powers, wonder Woman-like warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie) who forms weapons out of energy, the phenomenally strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Flash-like speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Kingo (a seriously ripped Kumail Nanjiani) who flings energy bombs at his enemies, the precocious teen Sprite (Lia McHugh) who can project illusions to deceive opponents, Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry) who conjures remarkable technology and weaponry and is the first openly gay character in the MCU and Druig (Barry Keoghan) who can control people’s minds.

Having protected earth for 7,000 years, the Eternals, who have merged into the human population and taken up day jobs – one has even become a Bollywood star – believe their task is done. The reappearance of particularly vicious, powerful and intelligent deviants, though, suggests otherwise.  As the gang reunite to battle the monsters, Sersi discovers a disturbing truth about the Eternals and their role in the universe.

With a director of the calibre of Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao at the helm we would expect something a little more thoughtful than the average superhero flick.  Etermals at least touches on some intriguing philosophical notions about the responsibilities and limitations of gods and heroes.  Like the gods of Olympus, the Eternals are superhuman beings but they also have very human qualities including compassion and empathy as well as flaws like vanity, hubris and resentment.  These traits are tested throughout our history as, according to their Star Trek-like prime directive, they are not permitted to directly intervene in human affairs short of stopping the Deviants munching on people.  When humanity is faced with an even larger threat, the Eternals must confront their purpose on Earth and the fundamental nature of their existence.

While it’s encouraging that Chloe Zhao has attempted to explore these ideas, as so often happens in these sorts of films, thought-provoking themes are only given superficial treatment. The film constantly tries to be mystical and insightful but lacks a really intoxicating sense of otherworldliness or psychological depth.  Too often, it either resorts to characters spouting clumsy dialogue that mixes technobabble with spiritual waffle or to grandiose light shows that look like something from a particularly expensive religious indoctrination film.  Consequently, Zhao and her co-writers just fall short of weaving these philosophical elements into a compelling storyline or mythology.  Similarly, some potentially compelling dilemmas for each character, including a romantic triangle between Sersi, Ikarus and Sersi’s human boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington), the fact that the Eternals never age and Sprite’s existential malaise at never being able to grow up (recalling Kirsten Dunst character in Interview with a Vampire) are never fully explored.

The film’s ambition as a sci fi adventure is, however, impressive.  As it stretches across millennia, multiple countries, different civilizations and even other dimensions, it has an epic sweep.  Also, this film looks refreshingly different to others in the MCU as director Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis (Captain Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron) create a remarkable visual style that is spectacular yet clean and uncluttered.  Also, as in Nomadland, Zhao makes wonderful use of natural vistas including the Aussie outback. She also vividly recreates some ancient historical settings such as Babylon and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

This film could have easily descended into po-faced pomposity but thankfully Zhao leavens the Wagnerian drama with some welcome humour, largely in the form of the jokey and amusingly vain Kingo and his personal photographer Karun (Harish Patel).

The monster battles are generally well-staged with the camera energetically swirling in and out of the action but without the nauseating confusion of a Transformers film.  The deviants aren’t the most impressive or convincing looking monsters, though.  A tangle of sinew and teeth, they lack organic realism and have some of the ungainly loping movement that afflicts too many CGI creations.

With this film largely sitting outside the rest of the MCU (some references to other Marvel characters have been awkwardly inserted) and as no character here has the swaggering charisma of a Tony Stark, it’s unlikely this film will connect with audiences as indelibly as The Avengers movies.  Also, some Marvel fans might reject it as too tonally and aesthetically different from the Marvel movie canon.  That would be unfortunate, though, as there’s enough impressive film making here to warrant most Marvel fans and non-fans giving it a look.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Superhero/ sci-fi/ action.

Classification: M.

Director: Chloe Zhao.

Release date: 4th Nov 2021.

Running time: 157 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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