MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Eternals’

  • Director: Chloé Zhao 
  • Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Midloff, Kit Harrington 
  • Genre: Action fantasy 
  • Country / Language: USA / English 
  • Duration: 2 hr 37 min 
  • Release date: November 5, 2021 

“Honestly, the closest I can think of [Marvel movies], as well made as they are, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” And so said Martin Scorcese, the man behind ‘Hugo’, ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘Casino’. 

We can finally appease this gentleman with Marvel’s latest offering: ‘Eternals’, which has been directed by the most-awarded filmmaker in a single film season, Chloe Zhao. Zhao, an independent filmmaker known for her keen visual eye, was met with much critical acclaim last year for ‘Nomadland’. It is getting quite clear that Marvel has been increasingly approaching directors with their background in indie cinema to provide much ‘credibility’ to their mainstream action films in order to have a better shot at film festivals and film awards. This is why Destin Daniel Cretton came on board for this year’s ‘Shang Chi’ and Cate Shortland for ‘Black Widow’. 

To some extent, we do see Zhao’s signature style in ‘Eternals’ with the landscape shots of vast desert lands in the American scenes. What we also get is “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”. 

‘Eternals’ follows a group of immortal beings led by Salma Hayek’s Ajak, who have lived on earth since the beginning of civilization in order to protect Earth’s peoples from mysterious otherworldly creatures known as Deviants. Why the Deviants are here is not clear to them. And even though the Deviants have now disappeared from the surface of the planet, the Eternals remain among the humans, anonymously, waiting for an official beckoning from their creator Arishem to go back to their home planet of Olympia. Sersi (played by Gemma Chan who also appeared briefly in ‘Captain Marvel’) is the somewhat prime protagonist in the story.

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She is an Eternal who can manipulate and transform matter through physical contact. The other members of the Eternal include Ikaris, who can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes, is essayed by Richard Madden (‘Bodyguard’). Lia McHugh plays Sprite, a pixie-like immortal who can create life-like illusions and transport from place to place.

Kumail Nanjiani (‘The Big Sick’) is Kingo, who can project cosmic energy from his hands. Brian Tyree Henry (‘Atlanta’) is Phastos, a brilliant engineer who can control metals and weapons. Salma Hayek (‘Frida’) is Ajak, the leader and ‘mother figure’ of the Eternals who can heal wounds rapidly and has the key to communicate with their alpha and omega creator, Arishem.

The adorable Barry Keoghan (‘Dunkirk’) is Druig, who can manipulate minds. Lauren Midloff plays the spritely Makkari, who can travel at lightning speed. Don Lee (‘Train To Busan’) is Gilgamesh, who can harness cosmic energy. And finally, Angelina Jolie plays Thena, a veteran warrior with a knack for swords, thus completing this set of Eternals. 

‘Eternals’ is an epic with a massive primary cast. Most viewers, who are used to watching stories with a small cast, will find it an issue to keep track of all the characters. However, with some effort, it will pay off quite well to keep track of these superheroes. Viewers who harbour a love for history and ancient civilizations will be glued to the visually breathtaking flashback scenes as our Eternal characters fight and make love in Mesopotamia, Guptan India and Tenochtitlan. 

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The comic scenes are hilarious and some of the best parts of this movie. The scene with Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos at his home in the States makes for some rip-roaring moments. Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee and the unexpectedly show-stealing Harish Patel (who plays Kingo’s valet Karun) are the most endearingly hilarious part of this mostly serious and intense film.

The dialogue weaving between these actors works wonders to keep the viewers engaged, especially Nanjiani whose slaughtering of a monstrous Deviant is officiated with the projection of cosmic energy from his hands as he mutters, “Dishoom”. It’s a word that has never been heard in a superhero film from the west (as far as I know) and yet, it feels so right to be uttered at that moment. 

There are moments, however, where it feels as though Harish Patel’s, and to some extent Nanjiani’s, South Asian accents are heavily leaned on for comic relief when it shouldn’t be so. There is also the not-so-subtle choice by Marvel to appeal to India’s massive audience with the wedding scene (which is admittedly quite tastefully done), and when Karun folds his hands and speaks in Hindi almost directly to the camera, which feels a bit desperate and unnecessary. If the same scene was delivered from a more objective angle, it would have worked better. 

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There is also the issue of the rather lackluster chemistry between Richard Madden’s Ikaris and Gemma Chan’s Sersi who are easily overshadowed by the hilarious turns from the previously mentioned actors. Chan and Madden make for a photogenic couple, but their toxic hot-and-cold dynamic is far from a new concept in films. Also, one can admit that we were expecting more from the ethereal-looking Angeline Jolie who, sadly, feels wasted here. She spends most of the movie being ill from a curious case of Maad We’ry, but she has enough star power (despite being mostly silent) to still be impactful in the few scenes she has. 

Angelina Jolie plays the immortal Thena in ‘Eternals’

There is also an interesting spiritual aspect to this plot with some parallels to the Bible. The prime deity figure, or even antagonist in ‘Eternals’ is the mightily powerful Arishem who, much like the Biblical (or Abrahamanic) god, looks at the state of humanity and wants to put an abrupt end to the world and start life all over again (like the Noah’s Ark story).

Arishem is the MCU counterpart of such an Old Testament figure, the all-powerful god (and he is designed to look quite intimidating, looming physically over Ajak and Sersi) with a voice so deep, it makes you wonder if Arishem is even a god or is he the devil. The Eternals are the MCU equivalent of the angels of God. And the Deviants are the demons (or ‘fallen angels’) whom Arishem had created long before the Eternals, only to abandon them after they evolved to become more sentient and rebellious.

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Eternals and Deviants are both the creations of the power-hungry Arishem. They are pitted against each other as one side (Eternals) fight to defend their creator’s plan for the universe, while the other side (Deviants) is violently revolting against the plan for their own gain. When someone who is well-read on this almost Biblical narrative sits down to watch ‘Eternals’ unfold, it makes for a really engaging, thought-provoking, and dramatic story, as it is a reference to a text they are already familiar with. Meanwhile, those who are not aware of the Biblical dynamic may not quite see what is going on at first, but will still enjoy what is essentially good entertainment. 

‘Eternals’ is not a perfect film by any means. Nor is it the best Marvel film. In some scenes, it lags at a slow pace. Much of the first half of the film and some parts of the second half consist of flashbacks of these immortal characters across various epochs, and then eventually reuniting to fight the Deviants.

Those with a taste for historical sequences will not see this as an issue, while others, by the time the climactic showdown does occur, will think to themselves: Is this what we have been waiting for? ‘Eternals’ surely could have been a better film – better paced and more excitingly written.

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I guess we had gigantic expectations for this epic due to the ambitious and visually mesmerizing teaser and plotline along with the much-hyped billing of actors like Jolie, Hayek, Nanjiani, and even pop star Harry Styles appearing in a cameo. Some measure of disappointment was, therefore, almost inevitable. ‘Eternals’ is hence far from a perfect movie. However, those who praise the older, tired Marvel movies such as ‘Iron Man’, ‘Hulk’ and ‘Thor’ to high heavens have no right to call ‘Eternals’ a terrible movie as it is not.

Quite far from it in fact, ‘Eternals’ is a visually captivating film with story and soul which explores a range of interesting questions regarding ethics and morals: if you had the power to save the world from humans’ evil actions by interfering into their affairs, would you do it? When does preventing someone’s evil actions stop being heroic and become controlling? If you realize your reality was a lie, and you were just a fancy robot rather than a living breathing creature, would you change anything about your actions? If we were born to accomplish one goal and one goal only, is it wrong to go against that plan on the occasion of new information or experience? 

‘Eternals’ has some hilarious, light-hearted and even adorably romantic moments which are well balanced with its more tense, heavy and troubling scenes. The action sequences, especially the modern sequence in the Mexican forest, are thrilling to watch. However, there are times when it feels slow. Some won’t see this as an issue as they are used to watching slow, meditative indie films. And that is what makes ‘Eternals’ such an “indie arthouse”-type of movie (even though it is by no means, indie). Some Marvel fans will whine about this lack of typical MCU flavour in this movie. Fortunately for them, the popcorn-friendly, traditional Marvel movies are not going anywhere and can be watched again and again if one is subscribed to Disney+. 

Meanwhile, many viewers will be keenly looking forward to the sequel of ‘Eternals’ to once again spend time with this endearing gang of superhuman characters. 

‘Eternals’ is now playing in theatres.

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