In The Beginning
Brian Tyree Henry
Eternals tracks part of the history of a race of beings sent to earth by the Celestial Arishem to protect humanity from violent feral creatures named Deviants. Around 1500ad their mission was complete and they went their separate ways, to live out their lives until summoned to return to their home planet of Olympia. While the Eternals themselves are not permitted to interfere in human development, their presence has altered our history and they became the source material for a lot of human mythology. In the present day, the leader of the group, Ajak [Hayek] is discovered dead and the ancient beings must reunite to prevent a cataclysmic, world-ending event.
Unlike the current MCU model of teasing heroes with their own standalone features, this (much like Guardians Of The Galaxy) is a big risky ensemble piece, with ten new characters to acquaint ourselves with. Naturally, this is an extremely demanding task and while these new additions are genuinely intriguing, this is largely because several of them are a little underdeveloped – with the understanding that we will return to them in future MCU outings. At the core of the film we have a handful of individuals who are pushing the story forward – most notably Sersi [Chan], Ikaris [Madden], Sprite [McHugh] and arguably Thena [Jolie]. The remainder all make their own subtle mark on the story but never really to the extent that they feel irreplaceable; one could argue that many of them could have been amalgamated into a smaller cast with a deeper sense of conflict and motivation.
That being said, I don’t think there is a weak element among them, partly because the cast is so powerfully impressive. This is the kind of combination that only a major studio has the finance and clout to bring together. We have a mix of blockbuster names and independent darlings standing shoulder to shoulder and I cannot praise the film enough for that. What’s more, there has been deliberate and careful attention taken to ensure thorough representation. Gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, so much about the casting reflects how big budget cinema should be but most importantly it doesn’t feel like a lot of Disney’s previous efforts whereby they are seeking a pat on the back for inclusion. Instead we have a set of characters who just so happen to belong to certain demographics and groups rather than feeling like an ambassador for an entire people or reduced to a single line of dialogue that can be cut out from certain international releases.
One thing that really sets Eternals apart from the MCU run thus far is the amount of practical locations. This film, shot by MCU veteran director of photography Ben Davis is undeniably beautiful. Some may question this but the way in which the sprawling natural landscape is framed and captured really stands to reinforce one of the key themes at the heart of this movie: that we live on a truly beautiful planet. These grounded location shots are then paired with a myriad of stunning imagery which instantly paints the Celestials as terrifying colossal entities. I will say, however, that the amount of in-camera work does inadvertently highlight when we transition to CGI and that’s a little unfortunate.
Overall, Eternals is an incredibly ambitious project and one I am very grateful that we have in this shared universe. It is, regrettably, not without fault and there are so many glaring issues that mark it down. Before we get to those, we should address some of the themes that are on show that work very well. Understandably, a film about beings that have been on earth for centuries inspiring our heroes of legend, you are going to broach the subject of religion. More importantly, the effects of free will, destiny and zealotry. Surprisingly, however, this doesn’t solely sit with the human element but extends to the Eternals themselves, blindly following the orders of an unfathomably powerful behemoth in the form of the Celestials. Boldly coming out of the gate and saying that this film is not only going to introduce new superheroes but also to detail the entire history of the universe is a remarkable challenge and one which this film does its best to rise to. Eternals will also likely be known as the horny MCU film, solely due to its incredibly brief sex scene. But this says less about the film itself and more about the MCU as a whole and how it has been an exceptionally chaste experience to date. We get allusions toward romance and the love between adults but it’s all too often dashed in favour of an immature joke. Like a kid who wants to get close to a prospective partner but a defence mechanism kicks in and they undercut the moment with humour. I also particularly liked that Thena struggles with Mahd Wy’ry, a sort of dementia allegory that causes her to forget herself and cause harm to others, only for her to return to form and have a look of fear that she will eventually be lost. It’s powerful stuff and clearly something that drew Jolie in (who often likes to have more than just a surface action character to play) but the conclusion of this is incredibly frustrating, as I will cover momentarily.
**this next two paragraphs are very spoiler heavy**
Surprisingly Eternals has more to say than almost any other Marvel film but it simply has far too many threads to control. What’s more, with such high concept science fiction, vast character introduction, multi-time-period world-building, not to mention a typical superhero global threat, the whole thing rushes along at breakneck pace. Yet despite this, many of this film’s detractors will label it as boring. If anything, this movie simply has too much to juggle and really thrives in the quieter simpler scenes of character development. Sure, the action is competent and engaging but it’s not standout.This is complicated further with the vague power levels. I don’t necessarily mean between the eponymous heroes but more their relation to Arishem. One of the biggest (quite literally) underdeveloped character is the Eternal’s creator. This mighty being who seemingly can be anywhere and do anything is incredibly fallible which sort of undermines the threat.
Speaking of threat, I didn’t dislike the reveal of the central antagonist. As stated, I think that the corruption of zealotry is a solid plot line to follow. There is a lot of grey area and theoretical debate to be had around the question of humanity’s place in the universe and chiefly are we more important than billions of potential worlds and lives? In a way, this film adopts the Watchmen structure of a colleague turning on their own to act as an agent of the greater good. But while this conflict is strong, we have the secondary element. So much time and energy is devoted to the return of the deviants but it is arguably the weakest component of this film. Although the team believed they had eradicated all trace of these creatures, it turns out a handful were buried under the ice and have been evolving. This threat is exacerbated when one of the deviants is able to absorb Ajak’s healing power and as it consumes powers, it evolves into a higher being – something closer to the Eternals. This hybrid deviant story is fascinating and sets up a compelling and formidable parallel between the two sets of children of Arishem. The problem is, it literally doesn’t go anywhere. These evolved deviants crop up repeatedly as adversarial threats and excuses for action scenes, all the while teasing the final showdown with the uber-deviant. But when this moment arrives, it’s in the background of the real final showdown, a spare wheel that the script seems to have all but forgotten about. Thena takes on this individual personally and in doing so manages to regain her memories but that’s it. The deviant’s presence in the film, their arc if you will, is solely to arrive at the denouement and die in a cave; it’s thunderingly underwhelming. And this is all while you’re trying to process a spooling ending that is fast approaching with one of the leads (Nanjiani as Kingo) entirely absent before we’re hit with a hideously abrupt close.
Everyone (myself included) has complained about the marvel formula for so long, highlighting that it is one of the greatest threats to the continued future of this franchise; eventually people will get tired of the same thing and stop turning up. If anything, Eternals is something different. It is a Marvel film but one that is heavily disguised as something else. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if this means it could come off as jarring to some. It doesn’t hit all the marks it’s aiming for but it’s trying something genuinely new, which is what people have been crying out for for some time, and for that alone I have all the time in the world for this movie. Having said that, it is also a bridge, it’s the connective tissue to setup future franchise material which ultimately weakens Eternals as a standalone tale. Some will claim it is boring, others that it is the worst MCU film to date yet although it may never reach the full height of grandiosity, it is extremely functional in what it is doing and I hope this broad, bold visual storytelling isn’t killed off because audiences and critics felt this was the point to jump off the MCU.
05 November 2021
The Scene To Look Out For:
From the outer reaches of the cosmos to the depths of our ancient past, Eternals shows us a lot.. and I mean a lot. Various countries, landscapes, environments and impossible intergalactic settings, it’s so much to take in. For me, the first encounter of Arishem was a particularly memorable moment. Ajak is communing with the Celestial from Earth as the hanging gardens of Babylon dissolve away and are replaced with the most intense extreme close up as this tiny humanoid figure is dwarfed by this enormous space god.
As stated, this is an ensemble piece and as such, even coverage was never truly an option. This could be one of those films where I flit back and forth between a notable highlight. In one sense, Madden’s character has a marvellous duality and conflict to him, at times I would say that Phastos’ [Henry] turn from giving up on humans to being the most ingratiated with them is captivating but I could also talk about Sprite’s turmoil with being created as an eternal child, set aside from her peers. But instead, I think the inclusion of Kit Harington in classic sequel setup is possibly the most egregious, so if we had to talk about a bit of a sore thumb element, it’d be him.
“Are we really helping these people build a better world?”
In A Few Words:
“Eternals aspires for so much but falls short due to the overwhelming weight of its ambitions”
Total Score: 3/5