“Eternals” an ambitious disappointment
Rating: two stars
The biggest question “Eternals” will make you ask is, “What exactly went wrong?”
The movie, which opens this weekend in theaters, does have some good elements. The cast does everything they can to bring warmth and life to the characters, managing some of the movie’s only moments of real humanity. Director Chloé Zhao valiantly tried to give the movie a different feel than the rest of the Marvel universe, and though she ultimately failed she should be appreciated for trying. When it comes to capturing nature, the cinematography is absolutely beautiful.
By the time the movie’s two hour and 37 minute runtime has come to a close, however, you’ll struggle to remember anything but your disappointment.
“Eternals” follows a new set of characters to the Marvel universe, a group of basically immortal beings who have supposedly guided the evolution of humanity for thousands of years. Most of them haven’t seen each other in centuries, divided by disagreements. When an old threat returns, they must come together to decide the fate of the world.
Sadly, the fate of the movie is sealed somewhere along the way. Some of this is due to the source material, which leans so heavily into the white savior trope that not even an incredibly diverse cast could entirely erase it. (I may be cynical to suspect this is the only reason Marvel gave us such a burst of diversity all at once, but I still suspect it.) Other issues come from the movie’s chronology, which jumps back and forth in time so much that it’s almost impossible to build any narrative tension or get a real sense of character arcs.
Those are hardly the only problems. Zhao is a talented director, but she works best doing intimate portraits of a limited number of characters. Not only is this cast clearly too big for her — characters will just vanish from the story at various points, like a juggler dropping balls — the script spends most of its time with the least interesting people. The characters worthy of intimate portraits were shoved to the side, their actors offering tantalizingly interesting glimpses of stories we never got to see.
The movie’s more reflective tone can be refreshing at times, but there are some serious stumbles in its execution. When it comes to the movie’s main philosophical debate, one side’s argument is as full of holes and ignored implications as Thanos’s arguments during “Infinity War.”
This makes it hard to give that side any real credence, especially when it leads a character we’re supposed to like to do awful things. There’s a much more solid, meaningful theme that gets built up, about change and evolution and what it means to be alive, but it’s abandoned before it can reach any kind of impactful conclusion.
Instead, the movie succumbs to Marvel’s worst habits and turns into a prologue for another, future movie that hasn’t been written yet. Sadly, it still probably won’t be the story we really want to see.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.