REVIEW: ‘Eternals’

Eternals is a study in contradictions. It’s a movie that’s epic in scope and scale, which endeavors to not only detail the cosmic origins of life in the universe, but also the role of godlike beings in shaping human development and its mythologies over the course of millennia, all over the world. Yet it’s also about a family estranged, and the cleaves formed by divergences of faith, hope, and duty. In a genre driven by spectacle, Chloé Zhao delivers a film that is carried by heart and drama.

The story of Eternals centers on ten immortal cosmic characters created by the godlike Celestials and sent to Earth 7000 years ago to protect sentient life from the Deviants, a predatory race of beings bred to adapt and kill. They were once thought to be eradicated hundreds of years before, but they return in present day, led by the mysterious Kro, and as such, the Eternals emerge from the shadows and the lives they adopted to defeat them, all while a cosmic event called The Emergence poses an even more looming threat.

The outstanding ensemble cast includes Salma Hayek as Ajak, their leader and maternal figure; Richard Madden as Ikaris, the all-powerful soldier who can’t help but evoke a certain Kryptonian; Angelina Jolie as Thena, the fierce warrior woman who could stand toe to toe with a certain lassoed heroine; Gemma Chan as Sersi, the soulful, humankind-loving heart of the group, who possesses the ability to transmute matter; Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, the Bollywood star who boasts the ability to generate cosmic blasts; Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, the brilliant inventor with a penchant for fabricating highly complex machines; Lia McHugh as Sprite, who is part Loki, part Tinkerbell, and eternally youthful; Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, the speedster; Barry Keoghan as Druig, who possesses mental powers as well as a sullen disposition; and Don Lee as Gilgamesh, the powerhouse. Kit Harrington, Jon Snow himself, portrays Dane Whitman, Sersi’s lover and potential future MCU Black Knight.

Much consternation has been voiced in the leadup to the film’s release about the color palette, and I’m not going to lie to you — if you’re expecting bombastic blasts of color lifted right out of Jack Kirby panels, you will be disappointed. There are definitely visual flourishes, and the rendering of Celestials in particular stand out as true to the Marvel Cosmic we’ve seen rendered in the Guardians movies and Thor: Ragnarok. But there’s an understated nature to how these sequences are shot that give it an almost dreamlike quality. Cinematographer Ben Davis, no stranger to MCU films with five under his belt, used his camera to convey a sense of mood and connect to the characters’ respective emotional journeys.

I do think that some of the initial criticisms of the film being heavy on exposition are valid. It starts with an opening scroll, a la Star Wars. There is a lot being set up in the opening minutes, to the point that you’re wondering if there will be a test later. And the first act table-setting meanders somewhat, as the movie struggles out of the gate to show you what it is. It’s big cosmic god stuff, and if you enjoy more grounded, emotionally-driven plot propulsion, the story will lose you a bit. But luckily, Zhao seems more interested in the humanity of it all than the godliness of it all, and once the character dynamics lock-in, the need for giant Celestial godheads to regale us with cosmic PowerPoint presentations melt away, and you can invest in character stakes just as much as fate-of-mankind stakes. 

As for the characters themselves, Zhao’s script actually does justice to the star-studded cast the movie boasts. With ten named Eternals and a Dane Whitman, you’d worry about characters getting the short shrift, and this is where the movie’s ability to do more with less really shines. In its pairings and the qualities of each character that are teased out by these pairings, Eternals is able to round out these archetypes into characters who yearn, who misstep, and who regret, and do so over the course of many lifetimes.

The clear standout here is Madden, who, along with Chan, commands the bulk of the screen time. They are, more than anyone else, the “faces” of the Eternals. If you only know him from his time on Game of Thrones, you will appreciate the range he shows here, as his dynamics with each of the characters tease out a different aspect of his personality that lies beneath his stoic soldier’s veneer. It’s played for laughs in the trailer, but the notion that he can lead heroes rather than simply be a dutiful lieutenant figures prominently in his motivations, and Madden manages subtlety well. The other side of the coin is McHugh’s Sprite, who at first glance is locked in wisecracking trickster mode, but whose particular pathos as a perpetual preteen informs her character arc. McHugh does “old soul” well, and I’d love to see what the future holds for her as an actress.

Barry Keoghan’s Druig is another high point, as there’s a darkness and a danger to his performance that is really compelling. However, it is in his chemistry with Ridloff’s Makkari that we see his softer side. Speaking of Ridloff, she was by far given the least to do, but the time she was given was impactful, especially when it came to the action sequences. As to her importance as the first prominent deaf character in the MCU, her signed dialogue was seamlessly integrated and her emotions were still effectively conveyed by her expressions.

Angelina Jolie’s Thena, however, might be the stealth MVP here. Jolie’s an Academy Award-winning actress, and her ability to balance fierceness and vulnerability, to almost wink at the audience when it’s time for action, but still convey a broken, battle-weary heart in quieter moments, reminds us that she’s still got the chops. Don Lee, both in his ensemble scenes where he verbally spars with Nanjiani and his scenes with Jolie where the sparring is more literal, holds his own and brings good energy to the film.

One of the crucial themes of the movie is love, and the characters convey that well. The love triangle between Ikaris, Sersi, and Dane, teased throughout the film’s marketing, doesn’t overwhelm the plot, but the love between Ikaris and Sersi — which features the MCU’s first love scene — is central to the film’s emotional journey. Madden and Chan have great chemistry, and yet for both characters, the tension between love and duty is apparent. Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, who made headlines as the MCU’s first openly gay main character, is portrayed as a loving father and husband, and his scenes are particularly touching, as we see the extent to which he has found a family that means more to him than the one he had for millennia, and how that unlocks parts of him that seem like abstractions to the others. There are other love stories at work that I won’t spoil here, but rest assured that Eternals is a film meant to be viewed with an open heart.

Where the characterization is lacking, however, is in the fleshing out of the motivations of the villains. Admittedly, there are always narrative challenges when your primary antagonists are mindless monsters, and the movie does overcome them somewhat, as there is more to the Deviant story than meets the eye. Kro, best understood as the Alpha Deviant, gets close to becoming compelling as the film progresses but falls short. However, the movie does a fairly good job of presenting the Deviants as formidable enough for us to feel the peril they pose to humans and Eternals alike. The action sequences that pit Eternal against Deviant work as showcases for the unique power sets of the main characters, even if they don’t necessarily deliver the Holy Shit! moments we typically associate with our superhero films.

But that’s because Eternals isn’t really interested in being a superhero film. Yes, it could certainly be argued that the plot positions them as Earth’s First Mightiest Heroes, who protected the planet for over 5000 years. But it also positions them as humanity’s shepherds, with each of them coping with the various ways the human race has gone astray, and grappling with the immortal question of whether we are a people worth saving. And for a group of beings created for the express purpose of saving us, how then do they reckon with their own identities?

Is the movie deep? For sure. Philosophy majors and film students alike could have a field day exploring the movie’s themes. Is it fun? Definitely, as it delivers the Marvel quippery we have grown to know and love, mixed in with exciting set pieces and power displays. Is it beautiful? It’s stunning — whether in the day or night, in the desert or in the jungle, everyone is perfectly lit and dazzles on screen. I think it’s worth an IMAX screening to immerse yourself in the sense of grandeur and scope. Overall, it’s a strong jumping-off point for a new series of stories featuring a new series of characters, and by the end, Eternals is a worthy entrant into Marvel Phase Four.

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