It seems that every couple of months a new Marvel Cinematic Universe movie comes out and more and more I feel like we really don’t need any of these movies anymore. Yes, I know, money needs to be made, now more than ever. And CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS proves that the windows are getting shorter and shorter. Pretty soon we may be getting another MCU joint every two weeks because that’s all audiences want to see now!
This “Marvel Tiredness” (a term just coined by me, right now) doesn’t happen every time, mind you. It did for me earlier this summer when the dull-as-dishwater BLACK WIDOW was released and feeling like it was a string of plot-delivery-device scenes with no cinematic charm, but then there was the more recent SHANG-CHI & THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS which I thought was a lot of fun, mostly because you could watch it as a Kung Fu movie with some Chinese film legends AND you didn’t even have to see any other Marvel pictures to just enjoy it. A movie must be entertaining before anything else, and yet a lot of these feel like a journey to just get you to buy a ticket for the next one.
Enter CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS which feels more like a kitchen blender of story-but-no-storytelling ideals and check-boxes to please everyone but ultimately pleases no one. It has so many new characters that are immortal and have been around Planet Earth long before The Avengers were a thing, but there’s so much introduction and world-building and the movie immediately expects us to welcome them, but we also jump all throughout the time-frame in an irritating way to learn of an uninteresting back-story for a whole group of new characters that I won’t even begin to break down. But they all have a uniform of sorts and they all have a particular special power. So there’s that.
The recent SHANG-CHI kind of threw us into the mix and let us figure things out, let the audience do a bit of work and get us involved. In CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS, we are just told things and immediately have to care, even though it moves all over the place. Even in my notes while watching the screening I kept writing down “Where are we now? Why another time jump and massive location change? Who is this? WHY WHY?”
Much wackiness ensues. Many characters stand in various rooms or outdoor settings and talk about the plot, especially after the first hour passes. There are some set pieces and a lot of world jumping while the “plot” unfolds, all to middling success. Even a Bollywood sequence featuring Kumail Nanjiani rings absolutely false; as someone who goes out of his way to see Bollywood, Tamil and all forms of Indian cinema over the years when they come to my town, these fleeting shots of an otherwise hilarious Nanjiani performing a musical and dance sequence is phony and nothing looking or feeling like an actual production from India (yet a later scene of him on movie posters through generations made me chuckle a bit). This is just one example of where CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS knows the words but not the music.
Filmmaker Chloe Zhao was an interesting choice to make CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS, whom I interviewed here on the site with THE RIDER a few years ago at South By Southwest. She does show some lovely, earthy photography in a few key character sequences that reminded me of THE RIDER, but there is no way that she expected to move from a small, Texas based story and then moving to an Oscar win with NOMADLAND to a major studio franchise movie in this trajectory. I was also surprised that all of the marketing kept using her name as if it even means anything at this point as this is just her third feature. This is purely a for-hire job and one I’m hoping will help finance more personal projects as I still see a vision and a future for Zhao.
The performances all around here are also totally fine. I was happy to see Angelina Jolie looking great as Thena (Drop the “A”, eh?), and Richard Madden (who I mistook for Bucky himself, Sebastian Stan when I first saw the poster…guilty as charged) has a striking presence as Ikaris who even gets compared to Superman by a passer-by, and this would be a good casting decision should they decide to yet-again reboot another franchise from another company. Gemma Chan has a solid presence throughout, Barry Keoghan (you may remember him from DUNKIRK) is very over-the-top with some baffling line delivery but still has a menacing presence, and it’s always cool to see Salma Hayek in a movie, I suppose.
CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS isn’t a “bad” movie, per se, but just a very dull and uninteresting one in the bigger scheme of things. It isn’t the worst one in this franchise, either, but it also won’t be one you remember for very long after viewing. There’s a huge action sequence involving all of the Eternals in the final act that is a bevy of special effects and noise that nearly put me to sleep by going on forever, which is obviously the opposite reaction of what the filmmakers are going for. It also showcases a much bigger problem in the verse-chorus-verse of all of these movies and most of them feeling like the exact same movie over and over again, and I’m always curious on just how many more of these are going to come out before audiences finally figure out they are being had and FINALLY start supporting non-franchise and more original content. Oh, who am I kidding.
Boring Tech Note: This is the rare MCU movie I chose to see in IMAX out of convenience to get this review up for release day, but as per usual there is no real added “oomph” to the full-screen IMAX sequences. You can watch this in a standard 2D setting and it is totally fine. It is also available in 3D in some theatres, should you choose to go in that direction. I think you’re crazy if you prefer 3D, but hey, you do you.
CHLOE ZHAO’S ETERNALS is now playing in theatres.