Marvel Studios’ Eternals has divided critics and audiences like no other film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Previously, movies like The Incredible Hulk and Thor: Dark World disappointed many but still managed to wedge themselves in the “fresh” category on popular review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
The Chloe Zhao directorial, however, has a score of 48 per cent, which basically means less than half of the reviews thought it was worth their time. Even most of the positive reviews of the movie read as if they are apologising for absolutely excoriating it. On Metacritic, another review aggregation site that has a more nuanced system of awarding ratings to films, shows and games, Eternals fares slightly better, with a score of 53.
Before proceeding further, here is a warning about spoilers if you have not seen the movie. Watch it, and then come back.
What went wrong with Eternals, given it comes from the production house that has fascinated this generation like few others have managed to over the years? The criticism notwithstanding, Marvel Cinematic Universe is a behemoth with acolytes across the world.
First, let’s briefly summarise what the film is about. Eternals says that the Avengers were only the second superhero team on the earth, and the titular superhuman, quasi-immortal beings called Eternals, have lived secretly among humans since 5000 BC, about 7000 years before the Avengers initiative came to be.
They were told by their Celestial overlord called Arishem that they were earth’s protectors, and were tasked to destroy the Deviants, their destructive counterparts. But Deviants seemingly died, but the good guys ostensibly received no further communication from the Celestial.
The premise certainly sounded interesting, and a capable director could have done a lot of good stuff with it. Zhao, however, in my humble opinion, is not one. I have seen only one other film of hers, the much-celebrated, Oscar-winning drama Nomadland, and have a few reservations about it.
Anyhoo, let’s begin with the positives.
Marvel directors are often not given a lot of freedom, but it appears Zhao managed to prevail, for good or bad. There are aspects in Eternals where Zhao’s indie sensibilities do enhance the product. The film looks exquisite for the most part — the immense windswept landscapes, clever use of sunlight, natural lighting, and actual locations.
Even the CGI and computer-aided visual effects do not seem as intrusive and are actually pleasing to the eyes. Zhao has said she took inspiration from Zack Snyder’s DCEU films, and it certainly feels true. Whatever your opinion of Sndyer, he certainly can create some memorable visual imagery. The action is pretty good too. In visual sense at least, Eternals is a step-up from most MCU movies.
The cast also does not disappoint, with a few exceptions like Richard Madden. The man cannot act, at all. Angelina Jolie’s character, easily the most interesting character in the film, is weirdly given short shrift for some reason.
The Celestials are suitably cosmic, and do truly feel inconceivably powerful and unknowable in a godlike way. There ends the good stuff. Eternals’ plot is obsessed with answering the question that the writers probably thought would be on every mind: why Eternals didn’t help Avengers in the fight against Thanos.
Also, why did they not interfere during numerous destructive, violent wars, genocides, atrocities, Holocaust, and so on, asks Kit Harington’s character Dane Whitman to Sersi (Gemma Chan). The answer is as insipid as you would expect, that they were ordered by Arishem not to interfere unless the Deviants were involved.
It is hard to imagine Sersi and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who are more connected to humans than their fellow Eternals, standing idly as people kill, raid, and rape each other around them, and destroy natural habitats to plunge the planet into the abyss. The real answer, of course, is Kevin Feige, the tsar of the whole thing, had not thought of including the Eternals storyline until the Infinity Saga and the whole shebang with Avengers: Endgame ended.
The film could have leaned towards making the perils of blind loyalty its central idea, in the sense that Ikaris, basically Marvel’s Superman, adheres to his orders despite every other Eternal expressing dismay at all the impending death and destruction. Then, it could have been a movie worth engaging with.
Instead, what we get is a collection of ideas, and none is explored deeper than surface level.
Zhao and other writers posit that war helps humans develop new technologies and grow, which is downright ludicrous, and this is why Arishem wanted Eternals not to interfere.
It is revealed towards the end that Arishem sent the Eternals not to protect humanity as they thought, but let it populate the planet until the point it can feed the Celestial egg inside the earth’s core. The Celestial would then come out and destroy the planet in the process. Eternals would then be tasked with helping other planet nourish life, until it too gives birth to a Celestial and is destroyed.
It seems like a clumsy nod to climate change. Clumsy because it is deeply flawed. The reason the baby Celestial would come out is no particular fault of humans, but simply because they are too many, enough to hatch a Celestial egg. Climate change, most climate scientists agree, is not because of overpopulation, it is because of overconsumption. Zhao appears to be fallen into the Malthusian trap that we saw play out in Infinity War and Endgame. While Thanos was clearly the Big Bad, his idea, that destroying half of universe’s life to make sure the other half would thrive, was shown as if it was not wholly devoid of reason.
The humour is one thing that defines MCU movies. It is the the lack of it that defines Eternals. There are the usual one-liners, but they fall totally flat for the very reason that most of them are badly written. In one scenes, Druig (Barry Keoghan) taunts Kingo by saying something to the effect of, “Kingo, the movie star.” To which Kingo replies, “I’ve directed some movies too”. The dialogue is so bad, you would feel embarrassed for the cast, most of whom belong in much, much better movies.
There are feeble attempts at representation, of course. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is superb, and is the highlight in the final act. But why did Arishem create an Eternal who is hearing impaired? Why isn’t every Eternal as powerful as Ikaris and as physically strong as Gilgamesh (Don Lee)? It certainly would have solved a lot of problems. Why do the Eternals have different accents? Why do they talk only in English when alone?
There is a gay kiss, a first for MCU, but it is shot half-heartedly, the intention clearly being to pacify the members of the homosexual community but without discomfiting the predominantly straight audience. The kiss is also marred by the fact that Phastos, the gay Eternals, was partly responsible for obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for he developed the technologies that led to humans inventing nuclear bombs.
The excuse of a sex scene everybody is talking about is so awkward and so utterly bereft of chemistry between the actors, that it had been better if it were not there. The two participants, Sersi and Ikaris, have allegedly been in a relationship for thousands of years, and yet porcelain dolls have more expressive faces.
Exacerbating every issue in Eternals is its uneven pacing, which sometimes stretches a lifeless scene for no apparent reason, and hurtles through sections that could have been thematically significant and would have given it more meaning.
The after-credit scenes do promise good things in future. But then, you know a movie is bad when the best thing about it is the stuff that comes after the credits begin to roll.
Eternals is a mess, a beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless. There is a far more interesting movie under all that flotsam. In better hands, the movie could have been something special. All Zhao has provided is a bland, dull film.