Eternals (2021)

Eternals (2021)

A cast of diverse actors are totally crushed in this pompous, dull Marvel film

Director: Chloé Zhao

Cast: Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Lia McHugh (Sprite), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Harish Patel (Karun), Kit Harington (Dane Whitman), Salma Hayek (Ajak), Angelina Jolie (Thena)

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time… Marvel had already turned one little known gang of superheroes into a huge hit with The Guardians of the Galaxy. World defining stakes had been the core of most of The Avengers films. An ensemble cast of diverse actors were pulled together with an acclaimed (and now Oscar winning!) director at the helm. They only forgot one thing: to make the final film interesting, engaging or feel in any way original.

Our heroes are a group of very serious God-like Aliens called Eternals, who have been sent to Earth thousands of years ago by even more God-like Celestrial Aliens to protect humanity from savage monsters called Deviants. By 1521, the Deviants are defeated and our heroes are left unsure of what to do. Ordered to never interfere in the events of humanity, they go their separate ways and settle down into life on Earth. But in the present day the Deviants return – and the Eternals start to uncover dark facts about their mission.

All of this takes place over a runtime which feels pretty bloody eternal itself. Essentially the film opens with an info-dump, then spends a couple of hours getting the gang back together (interspersed with occasional additional info-dumps) before the inevitable final-act smackdown to save the world. The stakes have arguably never been higher: but with the film’s indolent pace and thinly sketched characters it sure-as-hell doesn’t feel like it. There is a lot of uninvolving world-building and its ends up feeling every bloody minute of its epic runtime.

With its group of characters, essentially a loving family that has fallen out, this should really be an intimate, character-driven film. But it never balances the huge cast, the epic action and building relatable characters swiftly. Instead the Eternals rarely seem like anything more than heavy-handed sketches defined by basic character traits: a caring empath, a warrior princess, a slightly austere would-be-leader, a mentor destined to die, an eternal child frustrated about never growing up, a natural showman, a cold mind-controller, a deaf athlete and a gay guilt-ridden inventor. The cast (as very proudly trumpeted in its marketing material) is on paper the most diverse ever in Marvel. But it’s like simply making it representative was enough and they didn’t need to bother creating rich, engaging and multi-faceted characters.

All of them are squashed into a film that really feels like it could have been made by anyone. For all Zhao’s occasional indie visual beauty, this is totally free of authorial voice, with completely routine action set-pieces. There is the odd joke, but Zhao’s attempt to put her own mediative personality on the film only really ends up making the bits between the fights dry and boring. Put quite simply, Marvel seems to have rather crushed any life out of her. We get endless solemn moments, as characters watch with horror the results of the development in mankind they have encouraged (from the genocide of the Incas to the bomb at Hiroshima). These nearly always feel on-the-nose and obvious. It all stems from Zhao failing to make us care about these characters.

So, when they find out they have been betrayed by their masters – that their purpose is to fatten the Earth for feasting, not raise it in good health – its rather hard to feel the impact of the betrayal. The film isn’t even smart, or daring, enough to acknowledge that the same manipulative Gods who have used the Eternals have done the same thing to the Deviants. The film continues to treat these as wicked killers, when in fact they are as much victims as everyone else. Would it have killed Eternals to acknowledge this for a moment, to explore the implications of this more?

Especially since it’s so bloody long. It takes almost two hours for the film to bring the gang back together. Each reunion with a new Eternal is basically played the same – a brief bit of banter and then a horrified reaction as they discover the truth. Which means we basically see versions of the same scene play out six times, with diminishing levels of interest. Can’t these guys conference call?

There is no momentum to this ever. Where is the pace? Where is the urgency? The Eternals have been told they’ve only a few days to save the Earth, but they seem to spend most of it ambling around chatting and catching-up. Even when the end-of-the-world starts, most of them still sit around starring at the middle distance sadly and bemoaning their lot. This – and soft spoken intensity and lackadaisical wandering – are constantly used by the film as a short hand for seriousness, a self-importance the film wears very, very heavily.

All of the actors get crushed under the weight of the film. Nanjiani stands out pretty much as the only one having anything approaching fun while only Lee gets to show some sort of warm, uncomplicated human connection. Keoghan, Ridloff and Henry do decent work, but the rest of the cast seem hampered by how very, very, very serious they need to be all the time. One of them, of course, is a wrong ‘un (you can make a pretty decent guess early on which in it will be), but they turn out to be the dullest most stick-up-the-butt character of the lot. Despite the huge amount of time we spend with them, lead characters like Chan’s Sersei and Madden’s Ikaris remain enigmas we can’t be bothered to find out more about.

Eternals is pretty much a failure. It’s long. It builds an expansive universe with a series of clumsy lectures and fails to make any of these interesting. It’s got long battle scenes which feel like several other films. It’s got no personality or vibe to it. It sets up the odd interesting idea then takes it nowhere. It makes the end of the world a massive yawn, while telling you it’s a hugely important and daring film (it’s neither of those things). You end up feeling this might be the most forgotten Marvel film since The Incredible Hulk.

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