MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Superhero/ Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Haaz Sleiman, Esai Daniel Cross, Zain Al Rafeea, Harry Styles; Voices of: Bill Skarsgard, David Kaye, Patton Oswalt, Mahershala Ali/ Runtime: 157 minutes
I think it can safely be said that word “ambitious” has for quite a while now been the best way to describe the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I mean it might be hard to believe, but back when it first got underway there really was no for sure guarantee that this cinematic universe, especially one that didn’t have at that time such iconic characters as Spider-Man, would even be able to work on a creative let alone commercial level. However, in light of this franchise becoming a global triumph, we see that the creative drive kept moving forward and also inspired Marvel Studios to place their bets on both more little-known heroes and film helmers who you might not have heard of before since they hope that the film maker will bring their own distinct vision to the project and that the audience will have the faith to go down the roads they want them to thanks to their past successes. I think it can easily be said therefore that the latest entry in the MCU, 2021’s Eternals from film helmer Chloe Zhao is most assuredly the best example of this idea since James Gunn gave us the first Guardians of the Galaxy film all the way back in 2014. That’s because despite there being fans of this particular superhero team, there really isn’t that many people in the larger realm of pop culture who know about them. Likewise even though Zhao is known by film scholars as the 2nd of only a pair of women to nab the Best Director Oscar, she was also brought on to make this film before the film that got her the Oscar started rolling before cameras thus making her a bit of an enigma as well. Suffice it to say that three years after Zhao was brought on as director, I think “ambitious” can still be slapped on to this film, but now I think I’ll add an asterisk to it as well. I mean don’t get me wrong: the film does operate with some intriguing philosophical questions, the cast of characters are fairly riveting, and the scope is quite bold. At the same time though, this is also one film that sadly takes on more than it can handle. A fact that becomes quite apparent when you see that alongside a “team reassembling” storyline with no less than 10 main characters where the fate of the world is at stake, this film also gives us a grand romance and non-linear narrative regaling and it all proves to be a bit much. Yes this slice of cinema is to some degree successful in its execution, but when you can see just where it is spinning all these plates it really does deter you from what this film is trying to accomplish.
The plot is as follows: Taking us further back in time than we have gone before, the film is our intro to a group of heroes who are cosmic entities who first came to our planet over 7,000 years ago in order to fulfill the various machinations of beings known as Celestials. We soon their main objective is to aid mankind in evolving without intervening in any big or meaningful manner. At the same time they also must take care of creatures known as Deviants which threaten to annihilate mankind whilst it is still in its growing stages. Thus we see that, in the aftermath of indirectly helping mankind become the dominant species on the planet, the Eternals are given the freedom to live their lives on Earth as they see fit…or at least until their boss needs them again. In the aftermath of the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame however, we see that things begin to change. A change that gets underway when two Eternals living in London are ambushed by an especially powerful Deviant despite previous belief among the group that they had annihilated all of them. Comprehending the peril that these creatures are tied to, we soon a mission get underway to bring the team back together again only for the emergence of a much more ominous secret to emerge. One that has the potential to both change the lives of our team of heroes, and also to put all life on Earth at risk once again…
If it could be put into 5 words or less in regards to where this movie really goes astray, those words would simply be “it operates with too much” Indeed even though a trinity of our main characters come back together in the beginning, they still have to traverse to no less than 6 distinct locales on the planet in order to bring the rest of the group back together. Yet whilst this would be more than enough material for one film to work with from a narrative perspective, this slice of cinema then tries to give us more. As a result we see that this film also fairly often gives us flashbacks to expand on the saga of the core characters, their assignment on our planet, and the conflict-stricken romance between Sersei and Ikaris. Suffice it to say therefore that this is quite a bit for any film, even if it is given a 2 and a half hour runtime, to try and operate with. At their finest, these side moments help to flesh out the cast of characters, but at their worst they can be jarring to such an extent that there will be times you have no idea just where in the narrative you are. I mean it most assuredly is never dull since it does have that distinct and wonderful Marvel blend of comedy and action, but there are points where this film does give off the vibe of being too complicated for its own good. A level of complicated that tragically stricken this film’s ability to deliver on the more significant thematic concepts at play. This aspect is especially sad because the concepts that this movie tries to operate with are actually quite intriguing to see a blockbuster film of this scale attempt to play with. This includes a fairly surprising degree of religious subtext as we see that the relationship between our core group of heroes and their “boss” Aramesh is, for all intents and purposes, a relationship that resembles the one that religion holds that we have with God. The key distinction being however that whilst we as people continuously ponder the reasons for our existence, this group is completely aware of why they exist and that in an out of itself is quite the intriguing point of view for a film to analyze and inspect. Yet despite being the most potent ingredient of the film it is tragically time and time again significantly muddied up by this film’s narrative.
Ultimately, I guess you should know that the components where this slice of cinema is able to triumph the most are the ones you would expect for it to do so. This starts with the performances from this top-flight cast. Yes the amount of people in the cast is too much for this narrative to handle by and large, but the group that’s been brought together here does have personality to spare and each character has been wonderfully cast. Even with that in mind there are standouts however with Kumail Nanjiani a delightful example as Kingo as we see the film is able to utilize his delightful talent for comedy without negating the emotional skirmish he undergoes during the film as well as Gemma Chan who, in the role of Sersei, is technically this film’s protagonist and is wonderfully charismatic and dynamic in equal measure. As for the rest of the gifted cast they too also provide intriguing shades to their distinct arcs both individually and with each other with particular regard to Richard Madden who I feel not only was brilliantly cast in this as Ikaris, but with the arc his character has in this (no spoilers) shows why he would actually make for a phenomenal follow-up to Daniel Craig as iconic secret agent Bond, James Bond. I also think it should be said that from a visual perspective Eternals is not only downright jaw-dropping, but it also looks like nothing the MCU has given us to date. Indeed there seems to be an integral emphasis on getting as much natural beauty in this as possible and the movie’s massive amount of utilizing shooting at actual locations rather than on a green screen permits for beautiful work from the cinematography department that rivetingly showcases the beauty of our planet in a way that is equal parts riveting and narratively appropriate. Yet even in the moments where the film does choose to utilize a fair amount of visual effects work, film helmer Chloe Zhao is still able to root it all in in such a manner that it gives this film a wonderful degree of gravitas to the proceedings taking place.
All in all I’m not gonna lie to you dear reader: when looking at this from a perspective of encompassing quality, the slice of cinema that is Eternals is very much a mixed affair to behold. At the same time however, this is also a slice of cinema that I can say I definitely appreciate for what it is trying to be (even if that 2 hr and 37 minute runtime is way too long for the film’s own good). That’s because even whilst this film does manage to have some creative DNA that you have seen elsewhere, this slice of cinema does also try to bring some novelty into the mix with such spirit and heart that even when things don’t click entirely on the level that they should, you are still at the very least able to respect the try plus are left with something to ponder. No this film is most assuredly not the best of the best when it comes to what Marvel has given us, but it also is not as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score might have you thinking. Thus, this slice of cinema by and large is still a fairly intriguing film that is definitely worth seeing at least once. Whether you see it more times than that however I will leave entirely up to you. On a scale of 1-5 I give Eternals “2021” a solid 3.5 out of 5.