Eternals is a little long, slightly overstuffed, concerned with the worries of gods rather than mortals, and shot with an eye that, when its allowed to roam, occasionally captures something quite beautiful, every frame a painting, every character a figure to be moved about on a distant horizon to suggest the immensity of it all.
Sitting in my local Drafthouse on opening night, it quickly became clear why this film is on track to earn the MCU its first splat on Rotten Tomatoes: Chloé Zhao has made a movie that apes the concerns (and thus ponderousness) of the DC films, yet every action scene is shot in the flat MCU house style that feels weightless (and thus stakes-free).
This is … not a winning combo.
Spanning the whole of recorded human history, from 5000 B.C. to the present day, Eternals opens with a crawl explaining that there are “celestials” and the celestials made “Eternals” to protect intelligent life from “deviants.” And boom, there’s the whole crew: Superman-lite Ikaris (Richard Madden); “Prime” Eternal Ajak (Salma Hayek), with the power to heal herself; Thena (Angelina Jolie), a warrior goddess; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has the powers of Goku; Sersi (Gemma Chan), who … you know what, it doesn’t really matter, and I’ve only listed half of them. The point is, they’re a bunch of superpowered folks whose appearance on Earth is the source of our legends and myths, and they all have different abilities that they use to fight the CGI lizards that emerge from the ocean and try to kill humans.
They’ve been sent by a planet-sized celestial named Arishem to protect humanity from the deviants. But there’s a secret and things aren’t quite what they seem and they have to figure out what’s going on in order to save the world. You know, typical hero stuff.
Let’s set all the story mechanics to one side—once you take a look at the writer credits on this film you get a sense of just why everything feels remarkably disjointed and tossed together, as if the plot were remixed by blender—and instead just focus for a second on the moment-to-moment. On the one hand, there are a handful of very nice turns. Kingo and his valet, Karun (Harish Patel), are a clear highlight, providing traditional MCU comic relief. Though Gilgamesh’s (Don Lee) happy warrior routine gives them a run for their money.
I don’t think it’s quite enough, though. Despite being immortal lovers reuniting after centuries apart, Chan and Madden have no chemistry. Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie aren’t given anything to work with; they feel adrift. Barry Keoghan gives it a fair effort as Druig, his brooding scowl a fair effort at illustrating the problem of gods, goodness, and free will—but Eternals never feels as though it’s actually interested in the question of human self-determination in the face of divine obliteration.
The score by Ramin Djawadi—best known for his work on Game of Thrones—is forgettable, even by Marvel standards. The less said about the special effects, the better; again, there’s a weightlessness to every fight, and the villain design just feels slapdash, almost an afterthought. As one might expect from the auteur behind The Rider and Nomadland, the pacing is fairly described as slow; this is a movie that feels every one of its 157 minutes. Despite the fact that Eternals has the opposite problem of Zhao’s other films—too much plot rather than too little—I still found myself getting a little itchy, wishing things would move along a little quicker.
I also found myself desperately wanting to like this movie a little more as it dragged on. When I wrote above that this feels like the MCU doing a DC movie, I don’t intend it as an insult; I like most of those movies, even the ones that don’t really work, because at least they’re attempting something interesting, philosophically. But the result here is really disappointing. Yes, it has some pretty shots; no one would ever suggest that Chloé Zhao doesn’t know how to use a horizon or a sunset or a sunrise. But it’s a bit of a mess.
Worse than that: It’s a bit boring, too.