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MOVIES: Eternals - Review

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Chlo√© Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider and Nomadland are some of the finest movies of the last few years – her visionary masterpieces that would eventually lead to an Oscar-win are nothing short of peerless, and whilst to see her turn to Marvel was an outside-the-box choice from both producer and director given her independent creative freedom that came with her arthouse sensibilities – the battle of machine line versus gifted auteur has been a battle often won out by the production line machine as of late, there was the potential for something truly unique and different in a crowded field.

Unfortunately, despite there being traces of Zhao all over this from the inclusive casting to the golden-hour Terrence Malickian shots, Eternals feels oh-so-very much a victim of the production line – a by-the-numbers attempt at putting a superhero team together in a way that pastiches pretty much every other movie that puts a superhero team together, as the Eternals – who were sent to Earth to protect it by their master at the dawn of humanity but since separated and are now living among us in the present – are called upon by one of their own to defend it from a threat that could destroy the planet despite hiding in the shadows for centuries.

The impressive, truly global casting has echoes of the Wachowski sisters’ truly inclusive free spirit that was Netflix’s best series – Sense8 – but the fact that it doesn’t actually do anything with the characters robs it of the uniqueness of that show – there’s no heart, there’s no magic here – these characters all universally end up feeling flat. Gemma Chan’s Sersi plays a teacher in London (introduced typically with the lazy London landmarks that have become a tired clich√©) who finds herself attacked by Deviants – aliens of mysterious origin hellbent on invading Earth – the only things that they’re allowed to intervene on Earth to stop, when a Superman stand-in, Richard Madden’s Ikaris – shows up triumphantly to save the day. The Superman comparisons aren’t subtle, Zhao has cited Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as an influence on the flying superhero, but also the heavy influences of modern superhero dramas lie heavy here – Eternals almost feels revisionist in the same way that The Suicide Squad felt even if it lacks the bite of James Gunn’s film, if that was the superhero movie equivalent of The Wild Bunch, Eternals feels of a similar mould, born of the boom that was The Boys, Injustice and Watchmen – fans of all three will find themselves at home here, although it pales in comparison to Damon Lindelof’s masterpiece of a television series.

The rest of the Eternals are introduced in quick succession, and Zhao balances a large cast with enough screentime to give them presence one-by-one but feels afraid to give them any meaningful depth – a problem not unique to Eternals, but to most team-up movies of a cast of characters this large. Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo plays a Bollywood star who gets this all-singing, all-dancing musical walk-on number that’s among the more fun scenes in the film, and Barry Keoghan plays a mind-controlling Druig, who lives in an remote jungle, mind-controlling its natives robbing them of their free will which the film doesn’t really address as well as it should. Angelina Jolie’s Thena is a badass warrior, and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is deaf, meaning she can only communicate through sign-language. Barely present as the team's former leader, Selma Hayek is completely wasted in her role as former leader Ajak.

There’s also Lia McHugh’s Sprite, an immortal stuck in a child’s body who cannot grow old, earning frequent Peter Pan comparisons – because this movie is not subtle. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos is Marvel’s first openly gay character, also their tech expert. All characters on their own have the potential to be iconic – but most of the more progressive characters are side-lined, given no more than extended cameos at best, which is a shame in a movie where the inclusive casting is the film’s biggest strength, but it instead chooses to divert all the attention to Richard Madden’s Ikaris, arguably – the most boring and uninteresting out of the bunch. How many times have we seen a Superman stand-in as of late? Even Brightburn experimented with the format outside of both Marvel and DC with poor results, and Eternals does nothing to break the mould here.

Eternals has a 160-minute runtime which means there’s a lot that goes through your head to digest, and a lot is spent, rather than advancing the plot and developing the characters, narrated through exposition of what the Eternals were up to over the course of Earth’s history, and it spends an excessive amount of time feeling the need to justify what the Eternals’ key decisions were during major Earth events, that feel completely out of place with the rest of the movie and don’t really work – and are problematic at best. Whilst Zhao at least brings some refreshing on-location shots to the table to get a truly global feel, Eternals populates them with the Deviants – CGI nonsense of an alien creatures that look hopelessly generic and feel completely tacked on as a threat.

Eternals is incredibly ambitious in its scope and scale – but it’s a shame that everything looks so production line and cookie-cutter. Whilst some levity is required, the humour is cringe-worthy (thanks to its use in the trailers, the “fall collection, IKEA” table joke felt tired long before seeing it in the actual film), and undercuts any attempt at emotional depth. For all Eternals’ claims to being different and an attempt to push the franchise in a new direction, it just ends up feeling like more of the same sticking to a rigid template that has dominated the past 26 films in this behemoth of a series. The best thing to come out of Eternals is that producer Kevin Feige is starting to put more trust in individual directors – and whilst Eternals itself may be a swing and a miss, it hopefully will not discourage Marvel from pushing their boundaries further in the future rather than reverting back to form.

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