Despite stellar casting, ‘Eternals’ is unfocused, unexciting

Gemma Chan: Likeable and relatable as a superhero. Photo: ‘Eternals’ website

By Wendell Gaa

As happy as I was for Chloe Zhao becoming the first Asian woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for this year’s Best Pic “Nomadland,” I personally was not a fan of that film given how sublimely morose and downbeat it was. 

Nonetheless I had high hopes that with her helming the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie “The Eternals,” this would be a golden opportunity for the Oscar Best Picture gold to finally be handed to a superhero film.  Unfortunately, that now doesn’t seem to be the case.  “The Eternals” is the MCU’s least inspiring and most unengaging film to date.  A major disappointment considering how initially intrigued I was to explore the story of one of Marvel Comics’s least known superhero group.

The story begins back in 5000 BC where 10 immortal superpowered beings called the Eternals — who hail from the planet Olympia, home to a god-like race known as Celestials — are sent to earth by a titanic intergalactic deity called Arishem. Their mission is to battle a malevolent alien species called the Deviants bent on taking over the planet and eradicating mankind. 

Simultaneously and with a twist of irony, Arishem forbids the Eternals from interfering in historic human wars and conflicts in such ancient civilizations as Mesopotamia, Babylon and Mexico, unless they involve the Deviants.  After fighting off the last of their Deviant enemies by the year 1500 AD, the Eternals feel conflicted about their continued tasks and responsibilities and then spend the next 500 years living their own separate lives on earth. 

In present-day London, two of the Celestials Sersi and Sprite live a life of peace and normalcy, where Sersi has taken on the role of a lecturer at the Natural History Museum and has even begun a romantic relationship with human colleague Dane Whitman (played by Kit Harrington of “Game of Thrones” fame).  However, shortly thereafter, they are suddenly attacked by a Deviant and are only able to chase off the threat with the help of fellow super Celestial Ikaris, played by another “Game of Thrones” alumnus Richard Madden. 

Aware that the Deviants have now resurfaced to pose a threat to humanity once again, Sersi and Ikaris conclude that the Eternals must be reassembled to counter the threat posed by their enemy alien species, and travel to South Dakota to track down their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), only to find out she has been murdered by the Deviants herself.  The rest of the film’s plot revolves around a seemingly incoherent mission to prevent yet another planetary apocalypse which especially by MCU standards is generic and uninteresting.  Director Zhao’s confusing non-linear time-traveling storytelling style surely doesn’t help matters.    

The rest of the Eternals team consists of a stellar supporting cast, including no less than Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie, Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani, and Lauren Ridloff who portrays the MCU’s first deaf superhero.  This star-studded ensemble should have particularly given the film an exciting appeal, but instead what we have here is a missed opportunity stemming from the unfocused characterization, disconnection and superficial background given to most of the film’s characters. 

More is the pity considering how many viewers, myself included, who are not familiar at all with the comic origins of the Eternals superhero team, would have been so much more invested in the individual story arcs of the characters had they been given ample time by the screen writers to at least give us some credence as to why we should care about them.  But alas, that is not what this film delivers.  Effective character backstory and development when done right in other superhero team films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” is clearly evident where we may not know the source origins of the characters, yet we still find ourselves rooting for them because we are so engaged with their character progression.  “The Eternals” has way too little of that. 

However too few and far in between they are, the film does have some redeeming merits.  Lovely Chinese-British actress Gemma Chan, who portrays Sersi, is clearly the main protagonist here, and her outward vulnerability makes her all the more likeable and relatable as a superhero, a quality characteristic trait which Marvel typically excels at creating.  It’s further reassuring to know that Gemma does justice to expanding Asian superhero representation in the MCU. 

The only other Eternals member given a decent emotional range is Richard Madden’s Ikaris, whereas the rest of the team is sadly unmemorable.  I did find the cinematography and the on-location shooting at Spain’s Canary Islands to be ideal.  There are a few well-choreographed battle scenes and Angelina Jolie’s Thena shows off some impressive combat skills wielding her weapon.  But as a whole, the movie’s scattered parts are much better than the sum. 

© The FilAm 2021

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