Director: Chloé Zhao
Writers: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Harish Patel
Cinematographer: Ben Davis
Editor: Dylan Tichenor, Craig Wood
Perhaps it was too big a burden for one film to bear. The origin story of 10 superheroes. An entirely new mythology about godlike aliens called Celestials who create the Eternals to protect humanity from monstrous beings called Deviants. A laudable attempt at inclusivity and representation – one of the Eternals is hearing impaired, another is in a same-sex relationship and yet another is a Bollywood hero. An Oscar-winning director, Chloe Zhao, attempting to seamlessly blend the demands of making an MCU movie with her own artistic instinct for sweeping landscapes and intimate human drama.
These varied strains tug at the film’s screenplay which hopscotches across several millennia – the story takes place over 7,000 years. It starts in ancient Mesopotamia at the beginning of civilisation, then moves to ancient Babylon in 2500 BC and we even get a few scenes set in the Gupta Empire in 400 AD. Other than English, the languages spoken in the film include Babylonian, Sanskrit, Spanish and Hindi. Eventually it all proves to be too much. Eternals is a lumbering, mystifying film that occasionally sparkles but never soars.
The film is part of the MCU’s Phase Four. It’s based on Jack Kirby’s 1976 comic series and takes place after Avengers: Endgame. In fact, the events in Endgame act as a catalyst for Eternals. The Eternals have been silently keeping watch over humanity for thousands of years. Some have integrated into society. Sersi, played by Gemma Chan, works as a museum curator while Kingo, played by Kumail Nanjiani, is a Bollywood hero. It’s a lovely idea to acknowledge and include another style of mainstream moviemaking. Besides, the traditional Bollywood hero is a superhero without a cape, so a superhero playing a superhero has wit baked into it.
But the film doesn’t do enough with this. Kingo is introduced with an insipid dance number. I have no idea why Marvel didn’t just hire Farah Khan. The film exhibits the most superficial understanding of the Hindi film industry but Harish Patel playing Karun, Kingo’s valet, infuses some fun into the plot. And Kingo, who has been posing as his own great-great-grandfather to explain his longevity, gives a whole new twist to the nepotism debate. Does the same person pretending to be different people related to each other over hundreds of years qualify as nepotism?
Not all the Eternals are having this much fun. The leader, Ajak, played by a somber Salma Hayek, lives alone in the dusty outback of South Dakota. Gilgamesh and Thena, played by Ma Dong-seok and Angelina Jolie, are also stationed in the middle of nowhere because she can get violent. And then there is Ikaris, played by Richard Madden, who was once married to Sersi but then disappeared for a few thousand years.
Essentially, it’s a large dysfunctional family with wounds and grudges being nursed over millennia. The screenplay by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo juggles between setting up the various tensions within the group and their relationship with Arishem, the celestial being they take their orders from. Like the Greek gods, the Eternals are powerful but flawed. They are wrestling with the burden of immortality, their role as protectors, their desire for love and happiness and their ultimate destiny as pawns manipulated by Arishem. The story throbs with ache in a way that MCU films rarely do. Zhao has an uncanny talent for locating the poetry in loss.
But she is unable to effectively marry these moments of emotional stillness with the cacophony of three-eyed CGI beasts or the more down-to-earth comedy that is a part of the MCU DNA. The Deviants are personality-free bad guys and the battles with these creatures soon become eye-glazing. The film also has too much exposition. The various complicated relationships are explained rather than shown. And then there is the figure of Arishem, a rock-like being with holes where a face should be. Arishem is designed as an imposing patriarch but he comes off as petulant and slightly silly. The screenplay isn’t able to imbue him with enough gravitas or menace.
Ramin Djawadi’s haunting background score adds scale and sweep to the stunning landscapes captured by DOP Ben Davis. In interviews, Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige talked about Zhao fighting for practical locations and practical elements. The film has been shot mainly on location. In the production notes, Davis explains that wide-angle spherical lenses and deep focus were used “in order to explore the relationship between the characters and the world they live in.” When the Eternals gather against the horizon, Zhao constructs the required majesty. There is an imposing beauty about them.
But the film never finds its pulse. By the time we get to the idea of the Uni-Mind — the ability of the Eternals to connect and amplify the power of any single Eternal — deep fatigue has set in.
There is ambition and beauty here but despite its many singular traits, the film feels bereft of a singular vision. It’s neither properly a Chloé Zhao film nor an MCU film. The film is the cinematic equivalent of the proverbial dhobi ka kutta. Na ghar ka na ghat ka.
You can watch Eternals at a theatre near you. Don’t forget to wear a mask.