Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Runtime: 2 hrs 37 mins
Rating: M18 (Some Mature Content)
Released By: The Walt Disney Company
Opening Day: 4 November 2021
Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ “Eternals” follows a group of heroes from beyond the stars who had protected the Earth since the dawn of man. When monstrous creatures called the Deviants, long thought lost to history, mysteriously return, the Eternals are forced to reunite in order to defend humanity once again.
It bears saying right from the start that ‘Eternals’ is Marvel’s most ambitious step forward from a post-Avengers cinematic universe.
As its title implies, the Eternals are an order of divinities with names borrowed from Greek mythology who have lived incognito among humans for millennia; among them, Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a warrior goddess who fights with weapons made of cosmic energy, Ikaris (Richard Madden) can shoot destructive beams from his eyes, Sersi (Gemma Chan) can manipulate matter at will, Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has fearsome fists, and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has a genius mind for engineering. The fact that none are as instantly recognizable as say Iron Man, Captain America or even the Hulk makes this introduction an uphill task, except for the most devout of comic book fans.
Kudos to Marvel for entrusting that mission to Academy-Award winning director Chloe Zhao, who was chosen even before she won the Oscar for ‘Nomadland’. Like many indie alumni before her chosen to helm a Marvel blockbuster, she approaches it with suitable panache; in fact, we might add that more than anyone before her, Zhao’s creative sensibilities have survived the sausage-making machine of test screening with previous MCU filmmakers as well as eternal producer Kevin Feige. Indeed, ‘Eternals’ is probably the most artistically distinct Marvel superhero epic in a long while, and we mean that both for better and for worse.
It was always an extremely tall order for any filmmaker to be able to introduce us to 10 new superheroes at one go, and Zhao is only partly successful. Together with her co-writers, Zhao struggles to weave the byzantine plotting across time, space and character into a coherent whole. Too often, the storytelling whisks us away into different points of time in history when the Eternals were tested; these include key episodes in Mesopotamia, Babylon and Hiroshima. As much as they are intended to show what has shaped these characters, they are ultimately less intriguing than distracting in the larger scheme of things.
More successful though is Zhao’s ability to inject humanity into the enterprise, especially as the Eternals grapple with the dilemma of obeying the celestial orders laid down from on high and their affinity with planet Earth’s humankind whom they have grown to love. Whilst the last two ‘Avengers’ movies grappled with questions about the worth of humanity, ‘Eternals’ poses these same questions at a much more personal level; and without giving anything away, let’s just say that it is the catalyst for not only some heartfelt moments onscreen, but also other genuinely heartbreaking turns.
That is also credit to Zhao’s ability to work with actors, which in turn reward her picture with warmth and feeling. The romance between Sersi and Ikaris brims with the palpable chemistry between Chan and Madden. Chan also shares a different kind of playful chemistry with Kit Harrington, who plays a close male friend Dane whom she reveals her identity to in present-day after the ancient evil creatures known as Deviants make a comeback. There is also surprising empathy to be found in Henry’s portrayal of the thinker Phastos, whose nice domestic life with his male partner and child has caused some controversy in more conservative parts of the world and also resulted in the uncharacteriscally mature rating for an MCU blockbuster movie here in Singapore. The fact that it works as a ensemble, with each actor taking turns to steal the scene, is testament to Zhao’s choice and skill with her performers.
Equally, ‘Eternals’ benefits from Zhao’s feel for natural landscapes, resulting in some of the most breath-taking scenery in any MCU movie. Yet these authorial touches sit awkwardly with the necessary crowd-pleasing elements of a typical MCU superhero epic. As much as she tries, the attempts at humour feel clunky and forced. Ditto the large-scale set-pieces which bring the Eternals together as well as against each other – even as the action darts quickly from flashbacks to present day, there is no one sequence that stands out for its choreography or execution, and while that may be enough for a less high-profile MCU title, it is undeniably disappointing that the superhero battles here underwhelm.
So as admirable as it may have been to choose an auteur like Zhao for a movie like this, we must say the experiment is only partially successful. Certainly, ‘Eternals’ benefits from Zhao’s preference for realism and disenfranchised characters, and thankfully, these qualities from her previous modestly scaled dramas aren’t lost here; yet at the same time, Zhao fails to fully integrate her own sensibilities with that of the usual MCU formula of irreverent banter and blockbuster-scale action. Like we said at the beginning, you can hardly argue with the ambition of entrusting “Eternals” to such a fiercely individualistic filmmaker, but we suspect the result doesn’t quite live up to the same lofty aspirations.
(A visibly ambitious attempt at taking the MCU in new directions, 'Eternals' retains its fiercely individualistic filmmaker Chloe Zhao's penchant for realism and humanity, but struggles with coherence, tone and pacing)
Review by Gabriel Chong