A group of immortal beings sent to Earth to play their part in a grand cosmic plan question their place in the universe in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals.
It’s perhaps telling that the above single sentence summary was difficult to write as Eternals is a really complicated film in terms of defining what it’s trying to be. It definitely delivers a lot to think about and has significant scope in terms of what it sets out to achieve which is certainly commendable but it’s also a major drawback.
Part of the problem the film has is that it’s divided on where to plant its focus. Is it an introspective character story? Is it a large scale mythology driven epic? is it a superhero movie? It’s all of those things but also none of those things which definitely presents issues in terms of what the audience is supposed to invest in.
Eternals boasts a large cast but the majority of the story being told is funnelled through the perspective of Sersi (Gemma Chan). She has the ability to manipulate and change matter which lends itself to some really impressive visual transformations at different points. As the point of view character the notion of the group believing they have accomplished their mission, going their separate ways and building lives for themselves on Earth is introduced through the life she has chosen. In present day London she is a teacher in a relationship with Kit Harrington’s Dane Whitman -a character who may or may not become more important later on- addicted to her smartphone for some reason and generally trying to find a place to belong. It doesn’t take long for her to be swept up in events beyond her control necessitating a return to the life she left behind but enough is done to establish the difficulties associated with being immortal and the loneliness that can come with it.
As the film progresses, Sersi is challenged in different ways. For one thing she has everything she thought she knew to be the truth about herself, her mission and those around her upended so has to redefine who she is on entirely unfamiliar parameters. For another she has to adapt to the prospect of being the new leader when she feels completely unprepared. It’s an overwhelming prospect for her and the film continues to offer reminders of this before the defining moment where she has to prove what she’s capable of. As arcs go it’s solid and Gemma Chan more than sells it throughout. Sersi is a great point of view character because she is an active participant in the plot, has an emotional connection to the events, the other characters and the world she tries to be a part of and deals with intense major changes to her life as she goes.
The other characters are mixed. Part of the issue is that there are so many of them and the handling of them is clumsy at times. Barry Keoghan’s Druig suffers from being relegated to easily defined character traits. The same applies to Angelina Jolie’s Thena who features intermittently with a major problem associated with her that is poorly explained. Ikaris is different in that he has no defining character traits with such a flat and dull performance from Richard Madden that audiences will be left wondering if his true super power is sucking all the emotion from a scene.
Other characters fare better. Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos has a lot of heart and really stands out among the large crowd as does Ma Dong-seok’s Gilgamesh who is weighed down by a responsibility he chose for himself. Kumail Nanjiani is predictably “the funny one” but injects a much needed comedic flair to the proceedings along with his valet Karun (Harish Patel) who follows him around documenting the events. Sprite (Lia McHugh) has a lot of screen time that isn’t used well as she never rises above the main trait of being burdened to look like a teenager for eternity. As an ensemble they’re a good group but individually there isn’t always a lot beyond what is presented on the surface which is perhaps a symptom of having such a large collection of characters but even at that more could have been done with them. There are points where some of them get lost in the chaos and others where it can be difficult to remember who someone is. Ultimately the characters serve as little more than heightened metaphors for the Human condition which makes them superficial on an individual level but more fascinating when considered as a group.
Storytelling goes hand in hand with the characters as another problem this film has. It gets bogged down in mythology to the point of dragging. A better approach might have been to start with the story actually being told and bring in the historical details where relevant rather than taking time to establish details through overlong -and sometimes in poor taste- flashbacks that ultimately prove unimportant in the grand scheme of things. An attempt is made to simplify the grandiose nature of the setup by establishing the Celestials as being the top of the pyramid with the Eternals being their servants in a cosmic plan and the Deviants acting as the obstacle to be overcome to carry out that plan. It’s easy to follow and allows for expansion when the real story is revealed but when any thought is applied to the details delivered to the viewer the cracks in the logic become painfully evident. Put simply the higher level simply doesn’t make sense and opens up other questions which ends up being frustrating.
Exposition is everywhere with some of it being carefully hidden and lots of it being far too overt. References to other Marvel movies awkwardly stick out though the necessity of establishing that the Eternals are part of that universe is understood considering how distanced this is from other Marvel properties. Too much time is spent explaining why they’ve never been heard of before which awkwardly contrasts with them being the root of well established myths. Icarus flying too close to the Sun is because of Ikarus, Athena the Goddess of War is a story that exists because of Thena and so on. The flashbacks do nothing to suggest that anonymity has been maintained with the dialogue suggesting that they have been carefully hiding in plan sight this whole time. Telling the story of these characters should be a major paradigm shift for the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it strangely isn’t which only presents confusion.
This doesn’t break the film entirely due to Sersi’s aforementioned strong character arc among other things. There are broad and compelling existential questions asked throughout the film that are fascinating to ponder though the surface isn’t scratched after they have been asked. The main plot is around cycles being maintained and who has the right to decide whether they should be maintained. In essence it’s a story about confronting God which makes for a really ambitious plot at least in concept with the execution not living up to that ambition. Questions around whether Humanity deserves to continue in spite of all its flaws also exist and form the backbone of the plot to a certain extent. As mentioned the Eternals represent aspects of the Human condition so together they offer the question of whether Humanity are ultimately better than the sum of their parts. Each of them extol the virtues of certain aspects of life on this planet and in some cases decide to fight for that. The film doesn’t make the point eloquently enough but the question itself is clear enough to take notice.
Eternals focuses more on mood and atmosphere than your average Marvel movie but it still offers more than its fair share of set pieces. The Deviants are a visually impressive threat for the characters to fight against and the wide variety of powers are used really well. It does have the problem of stakes being difficult to understand as it rarely feels like the characters are in any real danger but on a purely visual level the action is very well executed. In general the visuals are excellent with gorgeous vistas, impressive design work on the alien elements and the visualisation of the powers themselves. For all its problems Eternals at least presents itself on an appealing canvas.
A flawed yet compelling entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with engaging characters and stunning visuals that gets bogged down in mythology and clumsy storytelling. Funnelling most of the story through Gemma Chan’s Sersi was a good decision that offset the large collection of characters to some degree and Sersi has a compelling arc that plays out really well. The film suffers in the handling of its characters though taken as a whole they function as heightened metaphors for the Human condition. Some stand out more than others and there are definite problems with remembering who some of them are at key points. The storytelling suffers from being bogged down in mythology with the actual plot kicking in too late into the running time. It is simplified and easy to follow when it begins to expand but it also doesn’t make sense when any thought is applied to it. Exposition is everywhere with some being cleverly hidden but much of it being far too overt. Broad and compelling existential questions are asked by the film that generally don’t go beyond the surface but are still interesting. Questioning whether Humanity is better than the sum of its parts through the perception of the Eternals themselves is interesting though very basic. Eternals focuses more on mood and atmosphere than the typical Marvel film but still features impressive action. The powers are used well but there is the problem of stakes not being difficult to understand. In general the visuals are excellent with gorgeous vistas, impressive design work on the alien elements and the visualisation of the powers themselves. For all its problems Eternals at least presents itself on an appealing canvas.
- funnelling the bulk of the narrative through Sersi’s perspective
- Sersi’s clear and engaging character arc
- some of the other characters being really engaging
- addressing broad existential questions
- stunning visuals
- impressive action
- too many character for all of them to be given more than surface level coverage
- Richard Madden’s flat performance
- far too much exposition
- being bogged down in mythology
- a plot that makes no sense when any thought is applied to it
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