Eternals (2021) ☆☆1/2 (2.5/4): The Curious Misfire of Chloé Zhao

“Eternals”, the latest offering from Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is a curious misfire whose heart seems to be in some other place. Like “Black Widow” (2021) and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021), it attempts to try something different from many of previous MCU flicks, and it does have all the right elements and talents for that, but the overall result is often slow and ponderous as riddled with too many obligatory instances of plot exposition, and it feels more disappointing when you consider a number of small but inspired moments generated among its diverse array of main characters.

During more than a half of its long running time (155 minutes), the movie explains a lot as gathering its many different main characters one by one along the story. Since around the birth of the whole universe, there has been a very powerful celestial entity which has controlled over thousands of different galaxies and planets, and the Earth is one of those planets. When the Earth and the humanity were threatened by vicious alien creatures called Deviants around 7000 years ago, this powerful entity sent a group of guardians called Eternals, and we get the first action scene in the film when the Eternals show themselves in front of humans at one of the first sites of human civilization history (If you have any basic knowledge about this famous site, you will have a small laugh for the rather incorrect geological details of this scene).

Anyway, as shown via a series of flashback scenes, the Eternals came to live quietly and separately for next several centuries once their job seemed to be done around the 16th century, but, of course, there comes a big trouble not long after what happened in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019). After the whole Earth is suddenly shaken up by an inexplicable global earthquake, those old foes of the Eternals appear again, and Sersi (Gemma Chan) comes to see that she and her fellow Eternals including their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) must gather together again as soon as possible for protecting the Earth from what may be its greatest threat.

Along with Sprite (Lia McHugh) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sersi soon embarks on going here and there around the Earth for meeting their fellow Eternals, and director/co-writer Chloé Zhao and her cinematographer Ben Davis did a splendid job of presenting various locations with each own different mood. For example, Ajak’s residence in the middle of some remote area of South Dakota will bring you back to the memories of Zhao’s previous acclaimed works including “The Rider” (2017) and “Nomadland” (2020), and those stunning landscape shots will remind you a lot of those works of, surprise, Terrence Malick. In case of a part involved with Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), we are served with something quite colorfully flamboyant due to his current occupation, and a part involved with Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee, who is also known as Ma Dong-Seok to me and many other South Korean cinema audiences) turns out to be surprisingly funny and poignant in the middle of somewhere in the Australian outback.

As you have already noticed, the main cast members of the film are relatively diverse and inclusive compared to many of previous MCU flicks, and this aspect brings some fresh air to the MCU franchise. I appreciated how the movie plainly and sensibly handles the deafness of Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, who is actually an accomplished deaf actress who was recently Tony-nominated for the 2018 Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God”), and I also enjoyed her romantic interactions with Druig (Barry Keoghan), who still loves her a lot despite their many centuries of separation. In case of Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), this nerdy black superhero dude has been having a healthy and loving marital relationship with his husband (He is played by Haaz Sleiman, who drew my attention for the first time via his memorable supporting turn in “The Visitor” (2007)), and their little moment of affection feels natural instead of being obligatory.

However, these and other good individual moments in the film do not mesh well with what we always get from MCU flicks. There are lots of action scenes during the last hour of the film, but they feel rather bland and anonymous on the whole, and the villain figures of the story are also flat and uninteresting to say the least. All I can remember about the Deviants is that they look merely bad and hideous with lots of CGI tentacles, and what is eventually revealed during the grand finale of the film is not particularly impressive compared to what we have seen from countless MCU flicks again and again during last 10 years. It goes without saying that Zhao is a very talented director who deservedly won two Oscars for “Nomadland” early in this year, but she seems to be on autopilot whenever the movie is on action mode, and that is another disappointment in the film.

Furthermore, though Zhao and her co-writers Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo do pay much attention to building up their main characters, I must say that some of dramatic elements among the main characters do not work as well as intended. As many of you know, the movie has drawn lots of attention for having the first sex scene in the MCU franchise, but that scene is just, paraphrasing what my old friend/mentor Roger Ebert once said in a certain one-star review, your average rumpy-pumpy scene limited by its PG-13 rating, and it does not add anything particularly substantial to the developing relationship between those two main characters in question.

Anyway, the cast members of the film have a fairly good chemistry among them. As Gemma Chan dutifully holds the center as required, her fellow cast members fill their respective spots as demanded, and Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek demonstrate again that they have lost any of their talent and presence yet. While Richard Madden and Lia McHugh are well-cast in their respective roles, Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Barry Keoghan contribute some colorful personality to the film in each own way, and you may be amused a bit by when Kit Harrington, who plays Sersi’s human boyfriend, briefly shares the screen with Madden, who once appeared along with Harrington in HBO TV drama series “Game of Thrones”.

In conclusion, “Eternals” does not impress me enough, but it is not the bottom of the MCU franchise at least (That is still “Thor” (2011) and its following 2013 sequel in my inconsequential opinion), and I do not deny that I had some good fun while watching and then writing about it. As movie critic Justin Chang aptly said in his LA Times review, this will probably be the least interesting work in Zhao’s remarkable filmmaking career even though it will possibly be regarded as one of the more interesting products in the MCU franchise during recent years, but she will surely move onto better things out there, and I hope that the MCU franchise will continue more genre experiments like this instead of reverting to its fed-up old ways.

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