With one or two really, really well-known exceptions, it’s become the kiss of death for a fantasy sci-fi epic to open with a scroll of exposition. Not because it presages filmmaker’s concerns that audiences won’t understand enough of the nuances of the backstory to properly engage with the prime narrative.
But because the opening in scroll is not their answer to those concerns, merely the opening salvo in a war of constantly escalating explanation and description. A war not only for comprehension but for the fleeting minutes any given film has, leaving character and emotion to fight with plot and backstory for space. Seldom does character, the spice that brings stories to life, succeed and unfortunately Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is the latest casualty in that unnecessary war.
To be fair, anything dealing with the machinations of space gods and the immortal super-soldiers they send throughout the galaxy to fight their wars for them is going to need some explanation. The short version is that Earth (and inhabited planets like it) are frequently threatened by writhing, tentacled beasts called Deviants who exist only to devour whatever is before them.
Fortunately for said planets, intergalactic space gods called Celestials have gathered a team of super warriors from the planet Olympia and sent them to find and defeat the Deviants wherever they may appear. When one of those ‘where’s’ turns out to be ancient Mesopotamia, the Eternals dutifully arrive to defeat the villains and then set up shop on Earth, subtly setting forth the direction for Mediterranean society (and later the rest of the world as well) as they wait for their space lords to send the call to send them home.
When their leader, and only means of communication with the Celestials, Ajak (Salma Hayek), turns up dead at the hands of the long-thought vanquished Deviants, the remaining Eternals are faced with a greater threat than they had supposed and for the first-time real doubt about the future.
There is most definitely an excellent film to made about the ennui of immortal space warriors as they search for meaning in lives that must ultimately repeat the same actions over and over and the only stable relationships are with themselves. It is fertile ground for interesting psychological and emotional exploration of intense abstract concepts of the sort sci-fantasy is best at.
And based on the poetic and mournfully contemplative films Chloé Zhao has made to date, it’s easy to see her producing something exactly like that. Which makes it doubly disappointing when the film she has made turns out to be so clunky and meandering with its most interesting stuff hidden under mounds of exposition, bad dialogue and an overlong run time.
By the time it starts to make a legitimate case for being worthy of all the time spent on it, it’s also time for everything to wrap up. It’s all grandly depressing.
Not for want of trying, though. It is, potentially, the best looking of the Marvel Studios films to date (only Black Panter and Captain America: The Winter Soldier come close), making use of naturalistic lighting and color to create a warm, earthy real feel the rest of the film struggles to emulate. Ben Davis, working on his fifth Marvel film, breaks free of a lot of the four-color house style the studio has perfected to mesh with the magic-hour driven naturalism and location focused photography of Zhao’s films surprisingly well.
And it really is magic, producing something visually light and airy whether visiting a South Dakota ranch or following flying supermen eye-blasting monsters. It’s the only part of the film which really manages that, or what one might consider a Zhao action film would be like; that’s why it’s so depressing when the rest comes crashing down to earth.
Most of the problems, in fact almost all the problems, come from the script by Ryan Firpo and heavily re-written by Zhao herself (along with Patrick Burleigh). It’s not that it is heavily plot laden — though it most certainly is to the point where anything non-plot related in the dialogue is frequently smothered and left to die — so much as what non-plot dialogue there is does no one any favors.
It’s not a conceptual problem, a film digging into the melancholia of immortals and what drives them to continue life should be an excellent change of pace for Marvel; it’s entirely on execution. There’s not enough apparent experience with anything approaching human emotions to make an exploration of these beings’ complicated feelings possible, much less interesting. Most of what they have to say and do revolves around constantly explaining exactly what is happening and why, including multiple sequences of characters being directly told the story to date.
But even the in-between moments, when everyone can stop focusing on the world ending long enough to discuss Gilgamesh’s (Don Lee) unique beer recipe or Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) documentary about Eternals and their lives, Eternals is flat and lifeless. The patter is mostly insipid and the jokes only occasionally funny, leaving a talented cast little to nothing to hold onto.
Very seldom does any actor sound like they believe what they are saying, leaving the dialogue to very obviously sound like words being recited and not the real thoughts of flesh and blood (sort of) people. Barry Keoghan is blessed with one of the few characters complex enough in his misanthropy to grab onto; everyone else is surprisingly one note to the point that the dialogue from one character in one scene can be lifted and inserted into another and it wouldn’t be out of place.
Kingo is really into himself, Phaestos never gets to make everything he wants, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) wonders which historical people the Eternals really were, etc.
Zhao the director is never able to overcome the problems delivered by Zhao the screenwriter. She tries hard and when Eternals does occasionally stop to luxuriate in what it has done or to dive headlong into a fight against the Deviants it does perk up. But it just as quickly winds down even as the plot and the backstory become ever more complex. There’s still every reason to think Zhao can deliver that moody, contemplative action spectacle her initial hiring seemed to promise; but this Eternals isn’t it.
ETERNALS REVIEW SCORE: 6/10
Marvel Studios’ Eternals opens exclusively in theaters on November 5, 2021.