How is it that Chloé Zhao’s previous film “Nomadland,” about a woman wandering the Midwest in a van, is more interesting and full of life than a $200 million blockbuster filled with literal gods?
Both a coincidence and not a coincidence, “Eternals” and “Dune” share the same release window and many of the same elements. Both are technically well-crafted and beautiful films done on an epic scale featuring diversely interesting casts. Both cover vast amounts of space and time in attempts at worldbuilding for future sequels. And both share an emptiness on the page that keeps them from surviving anywhere past their runtimes. It’s a shame that prestigious filmmakers like Chloé Zhao and Denis Villeneuve chose to make their least interesting films at the same time.
But before I reveal my hand too early, let’s back things up to the beginning of time, literally. “In the beginning…,” reads the opening crawl, a Celestial by the name of Arishem created the universe and all living things that inhabit it. Like the story in the Bible, this god was not perfect, as he created a monstrous race known as the “Deviants” that threatened the natural order of life. To right his wrong, Arishem created the “Eternals” to wipe out the Deviants and bring peace. For 7,000 years the Eternals have been Earth’s watchful protectors, subtly guiding humanity to what it is today.
But Arishem’s imperfection begins to sow seeds of doubt within the Eternals. That doubt leads them to discover the real reason they have been dispatched to this planet, which is to prepare it for the “emergence” that would bring about the end of humanity. Do the Eternals go against their maker by preventing his grand plan, or do they sacrifice billions for the idea of the greater good?
Just on paper, “Eternals” is Marvel’s biggest feature to date in terms of scope and possibility. About a dozen new characters are introduced, all with unique powers. There’s one with super speed, one that can control minds, and another that flies around and shoots laser beams out of his eyes like Superman (a reference made more times than you would think within the film).
Marvel has always had a gift when it comes to casting their famed superheroes. Robert Downey Jr. being cast as Iron Man was seen as an unnecessary gamble, and more eyebrows were raised when unknowns Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were cast as Thor and Loki, respectively. Just two months ago, Simu Liu proved all the doubters wrong with his terrific turn as Shang-Chi.
But while all those risks have paid off, this large bet doesn’t bring back the expected return on investment. A few names, like Salma Hayek, Barry Keoghan, and Angelina Jolie are either miscast or not good enough for their roles. And for those that are good, such as Gemma Chan as Sersi and Richard Madden as Ikaris, their characters are too flat to inspire anything memorable about them except their names and what powers they have.
But there are a few wins within this cast that should be championed, such as the first hearing-impaired superhero in Makkari, and the first openly gay couple in Phastos and Ben. There’s also the first Marvel sex scene, lasting all of eight seconds. While celebration should be in order, these inclusionary acts are still baby steps for the Mouse House, who have always embodied the urban dictionary term of “passive progressive.”
“Eternals” is also the most interesting Marvel movie on a purely technical level. That’s not to say it’s the best, but that it’s different in a refreshing way. Zhao, newly armed with Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture, makes the most radical departure from the plastic formula that has engulfed this franchise for the better part of its life. Along with DP Ben Davis (who also shot the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” as well as “Doctor Strange” and “Captain Marvel”), Zhao leans for a desaturated, naturalistic look, similar to that of her previous features. The plains of South Dakota and the jungles of the Amazon are filled with beauty as she always seems to find and harness the magic hour
But those moments of visual originality are brief and sporadic. Once the special effects and action set pieces inevitably barge their back way in, it’s back to business as usual.
This bait-and-switch act begs the question: If even the most independent-minded filmmaker like Zhao can’t break free from the corporate chains, who can? It’s a question that I don’t want to think about, as the answer is the one I fear the most: nobody can. That gloominess I feel may not be shared by those that have stayed loyal to this rewarding franchise. For those that came into this clinging on to the last bits of hope that someone could shake things up, this movie may very well be the death knell to that. But at the end of the day, did I truly expect anything different in Marvel’s 26th entry?