Academy Award winning director Chloe Zhao’s eternals is a movie at war with itself. It is at turns a momentous and dramatic work similar in scale and tone to Villeneuve’s Dune and a light-hearted family adventure carefully designed to appeal to large audiences. The two can sit comfortably together, creating an experience that is both provocative and exhilarating, but there is a schism here in the heart of the film. It would be easy to assume this represents a tug of war between Zhao and the big bosses at Marvel, but the film’s crisis of identity runs a little deeper and suggests an overall lack of conviction, but it is far from a failure.
The film’s story concerns a team of immortal beings called “Eternals” charged with protecting mankind from a race of vicious predators named deviants. Having defeated the final deviant, they scatter, awaiting orders. When one of the Eternals, Sersi (Gemma Chan), is attacked by a new deviant she must assemble her team seven thousand years after their initial arrival on the planet to face a new threat and discover terrible truths about the real mission of the Eternals.
Almost immediately Eternals feels different from other Marvel movies. The text crawl, a first for the franchise, introduces key concepts but also sets the stage for a grander story. The ambition of the story is truly admirable, seeking to portray the Eternals encounters with the great civilisations of mankind with a quieter, slower and more experimental story than previous films in the MCU franchise. We’re not necessarily talking about visual experimentation, there’s nothing here that tops Doctor Strange’s reality bending physics, nor in terms of the film’s concept which falls short of the madness of Loki, for example. Eternals is instead experimental in it’s thematic concerns. Immortality is the crux of the film’s narrative, specifically the cost of it and how it forms an essential aspect of the human experience.
Therefore, those expecting the far more conventional charms of Marvel’s approach to the summer blockbuster, may be frustrated by it’s seeming lack of drive. There’s more disaffection and divergence than would be expected by an audience used to being catapulted through a ramshackle narrative where the stakes and villains are typically clear from the start. Eternals experiments with moral ambiguity, with pragmatism and the value of life. It takes on the “trading lives” concept from Infinity War and builds a much stronger argument for the antagonist’s perspective. There are truly wonderful sequences that effectively communicate the idea of whiling away the centuries on a world the Eternals love but can never fully relate to. It may also be the most naturally beautiful Marvel movie filmed to date, with breath-taking images from pre-historic earth to the cosmos.
The result is compromised by the approach. It cannot be argued that Eternals is a great film that has been unfairly maligned by a fanbase who expect something much more ordinary. This isn’t The Last Jedi. Fans of Zhao’s character driven and deeply personal cinema shall be disappointed to find that her sequences of introspection and empathy are not only broken up by the noisy and weightless CGI slugfests and frequently cringey comedic relief but are also glossier and emptier than her previous works. This is through no fault of the performers who all avail themselves well, especially Barry Keoghan, Richard Madden and Lia McHugh who communicate, but never overplay, their alien otherness. Instead it’s the script that prioritises exposition over character that really compromises the film. One could almost imagine Zhao making a low budget film about a lonely immortal travelling the world, reuniting with old friends who share her pain and have attempted different approaches to surviving the endless, finally challenging the disparate characters with a moral dilemma that will test the humanity they’ve acquired during their journey. At times, Eternals is that film, but not quite often enough.
Is Eternals a case of ambition exceeding grasp? A bold vision that accidentally emphasised spectacle or story over humanity? If so then this is the kind of mistake it would be good to see Marvel make. Consistency is anathema to great cinema. There should never be a safe bet for film makers or for audiences. There should always be the chance to be challenged or unsettled or even just left cold. If however this is actually a case of a brilliant piece of blockbuster provocation undermined by a studio mired in ritual then it is a tragedy, as the potential is plain to see. Whether the awkward comedy and uninvolving action comes from Marvel or Zhao (who is fairly untested in both action and comedic relief) it is still disappointing to see the film compromised with these elements.
Eternals is very far from Marvel’s worst, but might be it’s biggest missed opportunity. It’s more interesting than Thor: The Dark World, more coherent than Avengers: Age of Ultron and there’s far more of it’s potential on screen than with Ant-Man. Zhao’s natural approach finds moments of the sublime, whilst the marvel machine manufactures a few genuinely engaging spectacles. Hiring great filmmakers like Chloe Zhao is exactly the kind of risk that Marvel should be taking, trying to bring humanity to the biggest blockbuster franchise of all time is the kind of risk filmmakers like Chloe Zhao should be taking and going to the cinema hoping to, but knowing if they shall, enjoy the product they have paid for is exactly the kind of risk audiences should be taking. If Eternals is a mistake, it is a rare instance of Marvel making the right mistake.