the ETERNALS
(**Ĺ)-JIM RUTKOWSKI
"...a gutsy mess..."

Chariots of the Gods is a Bumpy Ride

(021122) The Marvel Cinematic Universe tries something a little different with Chloť Zhaoís Eternals, injecting the filmmakerís trademark humanist drama into cosmic-level super heroics. There are plenty of things to like with this new approach, but much of it fights tooth and nail with the dullest iteration of Marvel formula; Eternalsí weighty themes are lost in a story that is lopsided, overstuffed, and overlong.

It isnít hyperbolic to say that Chloť Zhao is most likely Marvelís biggest ďgetĒ since the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as
Iron Man. Hot off of winning both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards for last yearís sublime Nomadland, Zhao seems like the perfect choice to infuse something new into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a painstakingly constructed Disney empire now a little long in the tooth and a little too comfortable in its own formula. Eternals is nothing if not ambitious: Aiming to combine Zhaoís specific brand of intimate, humanist drama with the galaxies-spanning scale of Jack Kirbyís cosmic creations, the film is the MCUís attempt at bridging the auteur with wide-appeal. Does it work? Not particularly, but Eternals does give Marvel a fascinating failure - a gutsy mess thatís intriguing to parse.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long had issues trusting its most impressive hires: Edgar Wright parted ways from Ant-Man over creative differences, as did Scott Derrickson with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and indie acquisitions such as Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck - who helmed 2018ís Captain Marvel - typically get their flair stomped out by the Marvel template. Even this yearís biggest hits for the studio lack their filmmakersí unique voices; Cate Shortlandís Black Widow never really feels like a Cate Shortland movie, and Destin Daniel Crettonís Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - even with its refreshing kineticism - barely captures Crettonís voice. So color me surprised that Eternals, at many junctures of its interminable runtime, does feel like a Chloť Zhao movie: From its deeply humanist themes to its South Dakota stand-in to its sprawling magic hour photography courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis, Eternals fits right into Zhaoís wheelhouse. But Eternals doesnít have a Chloť Zhao problem, it has a Marvel problem.

At any given time, Eternals has plenty of interesting things going on, but any departure from rote super heroics is always fighting tooth and nail with Marvelís formula, which has never been duller than it is in this film. Centered around a cadre of millennia-old super beings, Eternals pits its titular heroes - at the word of their omnipotent Celestial overlord Arishem - against the monstrously flavorless Deviants, CGI beasties long-thought extinguished. The film finds itself at its best and most fascinating mining hefty existential pathos from these immortal beings, wandering without purpose and squabbling over the merits and worthiness of humanity, but its primary conflict has the consistency of indigestible cud. Even the filmís surprise big bad - in an effective reveal that is fair, telegraphed, and even sympathetic - gets his storyline usurped by the bland Deviants.

The Eternals themselves are portrayed by a murderersí row of talent, rarely used at full potential because of one simple fact: there are too many of them. A crowded lineup rarely afforded room to breathe, the Eternals represent an admittedly fascinating spectrum of attachment to humanity: Thereís the empathic lead, Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has developed a deep bond with her charges over thousands of years; thereís the dutiful Superman pastiche and love interest Ikaris (Richard Madden); and thereís the hedonistic and flamboyant Kingo (a newly muscled Kumail Nanjiani), injecting comic relief and a fleet Bollywood dance number. Thereís also the jaded engineer Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), the dementia-riddled warrior Thena (a severely underserved Angelina Jolie), the requisite heavy Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the perpetually childlike Sprite (Lia McHugh), the deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and bitter mesmer Druig (Barry Keoghan), all led by the maternal Ajak (Salma Hayek). Itís a mouthful of a roster that leads to an awkward revolving door: characters disappear for long stretches of time, inexplicably sit out of climactic battles, and simply just donít have enough to do.

Itís also a shame that one of Eternalsí weakest links is its leads. Thereís a thin, fragile line between somber-slash-contemplative and tired-slash-lifeless, and Gemma Chanís Sersi and Richard Maddenís Ikaris consistently find themselves on the wrong side of the demarcation. As immortal beings having spent eons as lovers and partners, thereís shockingly little spark or chemistry between them (in fact, none of the Eternals really feel infused with any sort of wisdom or prowess that thousands of years on Earth would grant). Eternals might boast the MCUís first actual sex scene, but with its sterility and lack of passion, itís pretty much a non-event not worth the hubbub surrounding it. Gemma Chan, in particular, is capable of much more than the dry, enervated material given to her, showing more verve and bite in her starter MCU role in Captain Marvel  than she does as Sersi.

The Eternals operate under the directive of their Celestial master, Arishem, and are strictly prohibited from interfering with Earth life unless Deviants are involved. Itís a rule thatís played with fast and loose - and sometimes not at all - and it gives Eternals some of its best moments, despite its obvious inconsistencies. Comics legend Jack Kirbyís original Eternals were meant to be the originators of Earthís myths, legends, and religions, and even though the film jettisons much of Kirbyís signature bombast and eye-popping colors, it finds power in the quieter moments outside of comic book violence. From early civilization to ancient Mesoamerica to the Amazon Rainforest, watching the Eternals bristle against or nudge humanity brings a refreshing dose of weightiness and existential ponderings, even if it does lead to an overwrought and on-the-nose sequence in Hiroshima, Japan. But these humanist leanings clash particularly hard with Eternalís ugliest and most weightless aspects: Any time we even get a morsel of the good stuff, weíre jaunted back to the present for another shoot Ďem up with some faceless baddies. Itís a frustratingly choppy pattern, especially across a bloated runtime.

On paper, Marvelís latest has all the requisite ingredients for a smash hit: An Oscar-winning director, megawatt star power, and a cosmic Jack Kirby veneer. Mix those together with a palpable gumption to finally do something adjacent - if not completely outside - of the the typical superhero formula, and you just might have the shot in the arm the MCU needs. Unfortunately, Eternals is all promise without the know-how of assemblage, sandbagging its most potent threads with bloat and generic formula. Chloť Zhao is trying to make the film she so wants to make within the Marvel universe while battling a frustrating inability to deviate from the 30-property-deep entity that is the MCU. Itís a frustrating, occasionally fun, at points brilliant, frequently tiresome journey that never manages to reach any of the potential it so clearly had. Itís a lopsided mess and Marvel is far from finding the right balance between auteur and blockbuster, but Eternals has enough slivers of greatness for one to hope they never stop trying.
 

Directed by:     Chloť Zhao
Written by:     Story & Screenplay by Chloť Zhao, Patrick
 Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo. Based
 on the Marvel characters created by Jack Kirby.
Starring:     Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie
Released:     101821 (US)
Length:     156 minutes
Rating:     Rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some
 language and brief sexuality.

ETERNALS © 2022 Walt Disney Productions
Review © 2022 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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