Skip to main content

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals
(2021)

(SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Which makes it markedly more successful than the lethargic Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. None of this trio have set the world on fire, though, something Spider-Man: No Way Home has proved is possible, even under plandemic conditions, just as long as you build it in the first place. Which rather goes to highlight there’s something seriously awry with these pictures’ foundations (there was only about $50m between them globally, with numbers approximating about half the expected MCU take for a modestly performing example of their fare).

Curiously, critics, normally a shoe-in for wokeness and giving the MCU a free pass, lined up to eviscerate Eternals. Perhaps it was just flying its flags too lazily, or the clash of Zhao’s sensibility – not, honestly, that intrusive, since all MCU is, to a greater or lesser extent, process-driven – or the indistinctive and paper-thin characters. But then, many and various issues, some of them equally prevailing, haven’t dampened the raves previously. Eternals might just have been seen as suffering an embarrassment of issues.

Certainly, it represents a break with the MCU’s standard approach. Introducing an entire superhero line-up, not as an origin tale, and in so doing attempting to establish fully-formed characters and backstory, along with threats and integration into the greater MCU, represented no small task. There was much – entirely valid – speculation over how a gang of godlike protectors of Earth could be lurking unannounced amid the machinations of Thanos et al. Eternals doesn’t brush that concern off, but the explanation isn’t entirely persuasive. We’re told “We were instructed not to interfere in any human conflicts unless Deviants were involved”, but you’d have thought an acute threat to Arishem’s “propagation” plan such as the Snap might have triggered an exception to the rule.

There are nine Eternals, painstakingly recalibrated for the MCU on representational lines, yet for the most part failing to pass the litmus test of making any lasting impression on the viewer. Kumail Nanjiani fares best as Kingo, a self-infatuated Bollywood star arriving armed with his own comedy valet Karun (a scene-stealing Harish Patel). There’s even a vague air of Bruce Campbell-esque preening in Kingo’s self-regard. I was previously less than whelmed by Nanjiani’s autobiographical The Big Sick, and his multi-pack posing pre-Eternals’ release didn’t bode well, but he manages to stand out from the crowd here, owing to a combination of winning interplay and ready rejoinders.

Gemma Chan is the ostensible lead, but a rather indifferent Sersi (never a great harbinger when empathy is a special skill, as Galaxy Quest identified so effectively). Angela Jolie is lifelessly posed as warrior Thena; she counts as the cast’s biggest star, but she brings nothing someone else, considerably cheaper, couldn’t have serviced (even the Mahd Wy’ry crazy stuff barely musters involvement in the character). Don Lee (Train to Busan) is in the deadpan muscleman (well, okay, let’s charitably call him beefy) mode of Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy, and he gets a few yucks with his spit-flavoured beer. However, you won’t be shedding a tear when he buys the farm. Salma Hayek buys hers early on as initial leader Ajak, and is similarly shrug worthy.

Bryan Tyree Henry’s superpower is being beefy (or we could uncharitably call him a tad tubby), gay and having a Muslim husband (that last one’s almost daring, I’ll admit). None of which is a substitute for being an interesting, engaging character, yet earns Marvel those all-important woke brownie points, complete with onscreen kiss. And that’s what counts.

On a similar scale, Lauren Ridloff is deaf Eternal Makkari, and while I’m entirely unclear quite why Arishem would have designed one with impaired faculties, the answer might be in the same territory as asking why he summoned up several chunky ones (in the comics, she’s a he and can hear real good). Makkari’s a blank but speedy slate (were this Mystery Men, her superskill might well have been lipreading), but Ridloff’s appealing. So much so, she almost makes inherently malevolent Barry Keoghan – as Druig – seem halfway agreeable by dint of their flirtation (obviously, Keoghan’s been cast as a less-than-sunshine-and-moonbeams type, although he stops short of his usual devil-troll typecasting). There’s also Lia McHugh as Sprite, an adult Eternal in a child’s body (so she’s what, there for Elite-appeal? The dialogue even overtly invokes JM Barrie, just so there are no doubts).

Which leaves… Oh yes, Richard Madden, who played the least interesting Stark in Game of Thrones. Here, he’s a not-terribly-interesting Superman type – who’s referenced, along with Batman – so it’s a relief when, about two thirds of the way through, Ikaris is revealed not to be a white saviour figure at all, but instead a much more acceptable toxic white male. Phew.

If such performative displays on Zhao and Feige’s parts seem like Eternals’ core focus, they may help explain why, any time we’re shown a superheroes-posing line up, the landing seems not a little naff. Such visualisation issues aren’t isolated either. I can’t really point a particular finger in terms of the third-act climax, as they tend to be the weak spot even in the better MCU entries, but the generic nature of the Deviants – a surprise they kept that name, given the negative connotations – as CGI beasts with flailing tentacles and the like, jar somewhat with Zhao’s inclination towards the naturalistic and tangible, be it in their appearance at Druig’s Amazon retreat or on a beach. But hey, Zhao’s Oscar-honoured intentions are where it’s all at. Why, there’s even an MCU-sanctioned sex scene!

Part of Eternals' problem is that, without a constant stream of ready quips – Kingo aside – there’s a need for a highly proficient filmmaker and/or story to suspend disbelief. Too much of Eternals falls into a trap of listless exposition, which is interesting in terms of the idea Disney is attempting to sell us, but in terms of propelling the story forward, keeps bringing the proceedings to a crashing to a halt. The twist with Ikaris arrives at a crucial point, which undoubtedly helps matters, but elsewhere the patented MCU world building – a typically wet Kit Harington as future Black Knight Dane Whitman; an only-if-you’re-a-fan appearance by Harry Styles as Eros/Starfox during the end credits – is unconvincing.

Where Eternals held my attention, though, is its overlaid cosmology. Some of the opening narration is later shown to be outright erroneous, so it’s quite feasible Arishem’s background will ultimately be revealed as incorrect. But as it stands, the MCU is presenting Arishem – personified as a rather robotic, AI-like entity – as a corrupt creator figure à la the gnostic demiurge. We are told “In the beginning… came the Celestials. Before the six singularities and the dawn of creation, Arishem created the first sun”. So this is our creator, most definitely not a well-intentioned deity, but one who created life, Deviants, Eternals as a means to promulgate its own species of Celestials (the concept of a creature growing from the “body” of the Earth is interesting, as some have proposed the Earth represents that kind of living entity).

Ikaris: If Celestials were gone, this universe would end. What you’re trying to do is free humanity from the natural order.

Early on, the picture emphasises Darwinism (“I know I’m late, Charlie”) and emphasises one of Hollywood’s very favourite buzz phrases for an all-consuming threat (“Today we will be learning about the importance of apex predators in a balanced ecosystem”). It would appear Zhao is nurturing a by-way-of-“science” creation myth. This idea of “farming the humans as food for the Celestials” found particular cinematic favour with the Wachowskis, first with the AI of The Matrix and then the elite ETs of Jupiter Ascending. The concept to be programmed is of a harsh, unforgiving realm, one in which there’s no hope unless we look to authority figures (human or otherwise) to save us. And if our heroes (the Eternals) are basically fancy robots, or approaching the same (Tony Stark), why shouldn’t we embrace transhumanism too? It’s inevitable.

Arishem: I created the Deviants, Cersei, for the same reason I created you. Every Celestial host planet has its own predators. I first sent the Deviants to exterminate them, so intelligent life could grow.

Earth, we are told, is earmarked to “bring forth the Celestial Tiamut”. Every billion years, a new Celestial comes into being, seeds having been planted in host planets: “Tiamut needs vast amounts of energy for Celestial life”. Deviants “evolved, became predators themselves” such that Arishem built and programmed the Eternals, “synthetic beings incapable of evolution, to correct my mistake”. The Deviants were thus prevented from consuming humans by the Eternals, but neither pole represents an accurate picture of the “divine” plan (as Deviant Kro notes “Arishem used us and left us to die with each Emergence. We just wanted to survive… I will kill you all for what you have done to my kind”). Druig sardonically observes that “Eternals and Deviants are all Arishem’s children”.

Zhao crucially eliminates the fanciful idea of actual divinity (“There is no Olympia”, the planet from which the Olympian Eternals came; they derive instead “from the World Forge”). Humans are little more than cattle, such that once the population has increased to the required amount, Emergence will begin. This is stated in impassive, matter-of-fact terms (“The end of one life… is the beginning of another”), the detached, atheistic view of the philosophically stoical or the clinically scientific (“An infinite cycle of creation and destruction”).

Further still, Kingo’s comment “Turns out we’re the bad guys” fulfils a current Disney trope, or blurring such boundaries and inviting us identify and sympathise with those who would enslave us. You can see this in the Disney villain(ess) movies (Cruella, Maleficent) and even Star Wars (Boba Fett, an at-best grey hat, becoming the one figure even jaded fans can get behind). This feeds into other programming points, from globe Earth representations to the nuke threat, even to the absurdist justification (from wise, soulful gay Phastos) that “Conflict leads to war, and war actually leads to advancement and life-saving technology and medicine”.

If Eternals isn’t the stinker its reception would suggest, it’s also far from the Best Picture-worthy fare the early rumour mill was circulating. Doubtless Feige will attempt to redress the picture’s performance as a victory, but at this point, Spider-Man: No Way Home has made more than all three of the Disney-only Phase Four entries for 2021 combined, and it’s still growing its cume. And it will quite possibly earn itself that Oscar nomination. Notably, whatever Peter Parker’s foibles – and No Way Home does its best to make the MCU Peter a bit of a dipstick as a decision maker – he’s an unalloyed good guy, someone audiences genuinely want to get behind. We probably shouldn’t hold our breath for an Eternals sequel, but the Disney+ TV sphere means such considerations are no longer necessarily the tail wagging the dog. If nothing else, Zhao’s MCU excursion is thankfully superior to the deathly awards-darling Nomadland.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.