Eternals ★★★★

“If this is what the end of the world looks like, at least we have front-row seats.”

For the past twelve months, I feel like all I have done on this app is bitch and moan about Marvel Studios. The better part of their original Disney+ shows have left a bad taste in my mouth, I found Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to be decidedly underwhelming and Black Widow turned out to be one of the least enjoyable films in their output. To say I have lost interest in their continuity and future slate would not be entirely incorrect.

When I heard that their latest project, Eternals, was receiving a comparatively polarised reception, however, I was intrigued. When I sat down in the cinema this afternoon to find out why, I was somewhat delighted by what I saw; Eternals is a film that challenges the Marvel Studios audience. While I do have my questions and criticisms about this latest Disney blockbuster, I am pleased to have come out of it with a reasonable positive reaction having seen a work that was taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe into uncharted waters for the first time since Ant-Man (and probably the first time since Guardians of the Galaxy that it was travelling to waters I am excited to see them to visit). 

The most exciting thing about Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is that I can describe it as such; it is very much Chloé Zhao’s Eternals. For the most part, this film is an understated, moody and reasonably cerebral experience that settles into its deliberate pace and stunning aesthetic to offer up a unique take on the superhero genre. In the least pretentious way possible, Eternals is not a film made for Marvel Studios’ accepted demographic. It is too slow paced, too co critical and generally too dull, relatively speaking, to be expected to land with the fans of Thor Ragnarok. However, the biggest tragedy of this situation is that the kind of filmgoer that this IS for, namely fans of more indie cinema and the kind of people who have been singing Denis Villeneuve praises for ten years already, have been well and truly turned off of Marvel Studios brand of filmmaking by now and likely will not see this film anyway. 

Eternals sucks you in. I found it to be deeply atmospheric with a very distinct tone that lured me in and kept me engaged for the larger part of the run time. Eternals was photographed by Ben Davis, who is the same cinematographer from Captain Marvel among any number of actually good films, and this is easily one of his finest works today. The location shooting is breathtaking and the cloudy, dreaminess of the colours in this film were really enjoyable to soak in. I am glad I saw this on the big screen because it is such a spectacle, even the CG sequences involving enormous, celestial beings look really stunning. This has the look and feel of a film that the director and her team was actually allowed to put their stamp on which, again, has not been something I have felt from a Marvel Studios film for far too long a time. I hope that this is the beginning of a new era for the company where they take a leaf out of DC’s book and hire creative artists who have their own distinct visions and just let them make what they want to make. 

They are not fully at this place yet though. By far the worst moments of Eternals are those when the Feige Formula shines through. The humour is, not only cringe-inducing but, wildly out of step with the tone and style of the rest of the film. It barely ever lands properly or appropriately within the given scene it’s been forced into. Similarly off-putting are the references to the wider universe that occasionally rear their heads into the screenplay. I do not mind the occasional acknowledgment of the wider world but I would greatly prefer them to at least be organic to the scene and conversations going on. 

Conversely, some of Zhao’s choices could understandably prove equally as off-putting. As I alluded to earlier, Eternals is very deliberately paced. This is not an action film by an stretch of the imagination but, rather, a contemplative science-fiction epic that explored the futility of life, mortality, morality and purpose amongst many other ideas to great effect. It just takes its time. I did really enjoy this but I cannot deny that the latter part of the second act was a little bit of a drag to get through. As compelled as I was, this is just a really slow film. It is all intentional, gives me Blade Runner vibes in that way, but it is potentially very draining. 

Eternals has a huge cast of characters and, honestly, I was very impressed at how well-balanced it was and well-fleshed out the whole ensemble was by the time the credits rolled around. I really liked and/or was compelled by pretty much everybody. I am in awe of Richard Madden and think he can do no wrong so perhaps it is biased of me to say that Ikaris was my favourite of the team but he was a genuinely fascinating figure, in my opinion. I loved everything about the performance and everything we learn about his character and motivations is wonderfully portrayed in its tragedy. The metaphor is deeply on the nose though. Sersi is probably the closest to a protagonist, although this is very much an ensemble film, and I thought she was a genuinely great character too. She has a solid arc and interesting relationships that really grounded a lot of the film for me, in a very good way. 

Kingo and Gilgamesh were great fun and brought some genuine levity to proceedings along with Salma Hayek’s Ajak who I thought was very endearing in spite of having very little to do. The only weak link was, surprisingly, Angelina Jolie’s Thena who contributed very little to the story and fades into the background pretty easily. Not to say that the performance is bad or anything but it was a rather bland and unnecessary character considering how interesting and well-developed a lot of the cast around her were. 

I like Eternals quite a lot. I am not somebody who obsesses over or panders to Marvel Studios and have had plenty of constructive critiques to lob at them in recent times. However, when I say that I think this film was a risk for them, I do mean that sincerely. This is not like every other Marvel film and it was an experience I did enjoy. It is not for everybody and, frankly, that is amazing. If you end up trying to pander to everybody, you succeed at crafting something for nobody. I would recommend seeking out Eternals at least once for any science-fiction fan who might be in doubt.

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