This review contains spoilers.
Eternals is both aptly and ironically named — the former due to its interminable runtime, and the latter because, while watching a film about beings that live forever, I gradually lost the will to live. To make it to the end of all 2 hours and 37 minutes of this nonsense feels like survival. This infuriating genre seems determined to ensure I continue to hate it. I was genuinely prepared for Eternals to serve me up sizeable slice of humble pie. Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao at the helm, a cast of terrific actors and a set of characters seemingly unrelated to the MCU trash I loathe so much — all ingredients capable of blindsiding me. Unfortunately though, the Marvel machine needs feeding and Zhao’s sensitive touch simply cannot satiate it. The picture above and on the home page are not (I repeat, NOT) publicity shots. They find themselves standing in perfect formation every 10 minutes. I kept wondering how many of these superhero tropes Zhao tried to fight against, and then got sad wondering at what point she just decided to give herself over to it.
Why not just give it 0 stars and be done with it? Because it looks incredible (and with a budget of $US200 million, it would want to). The action sequences are thrilling and the outlandish CGI is integrated better than just about any other example I can muster, although I admittedly don’t watch movies like this very often. The performances, particularly from Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden, are genuinely affecting and undeserved by the surrounding silliness that constantly encumbers them. However, these comparatively minuscule strengths are the polish on the proverbial turd.
When the writing is this bad, no amount of sincere delivery can save it. When the question is “why did you protect me?”, not even the great Sir Ian McKellen could answer with “when you love something, you protect it” and not elicit the eye-rolls of derision I hurled forth. I lost count of the number of times I made involuntary groans and threw my hands up in the air, incredulous at the vapid, bland dialogue that pervades every scene. It’s almost as if the script was written by the winner of the Young Marvel Screenwriters Award (age 15-18 category) rather than professionals who do it for a living. By the time the characters are done explaining what’s going on and verbalising their feelings and intentions, there’s literally nothing left for the actors to do other than exist. Frustratingly, Eternals doesn’t even play by its own rules in a narrative sense. Their powers have limitations, until the story needs them not to.
What’s the story? Well, the film first tried to explain it to me with an opening text crawl that contained actual syntax issues. Once I was just the right amount of confused about the mythology, it let me fend for myself for about an hour, which I actually appreciated. Then, around about the time the kid dressed as Captain America came back from the toilet for the first time (he left the cinema thrice), it commenced an exposition dump that tried for about 5 minutes to explain to me why I should care about what’s going on. In case you’d prefer to go in blind, I won’t bother trying to unpack the plot, which is basically a convenient out for me, because I’m not sure I could if I tried. And don't even get me started on those mid- and post-credits scenes. The only thing I will say is that it turns out the Eternals can die, calling into question the creators’ fundamental understanding of that word.
It seems as though the screenwriters must be Eternals themselves, or at least blessed with a circular understanding of time, because the chronology jumps around so frequently it gave me whiplash. This, in and of itself, would not be a problem at all if the intention was consistent. However, sometimes going back hundreds or thousands of years in time is to explain something that’s about to happen in the future. Sometimes, it’s to explain the consequences of something that happened earlier. Every instance of time-hopping feels like it should be significant, but it happens so often that one starts to wonder whether details are being withheld simply for the zingers and twists, rather than it being the most interesting order in which to reveal them.
The one area I’m willing to concede is simply down to my acerbic nature is the humour. The quippy, flippant and self-aware jokes in superhero films have always irked me. Inexplicably, the other patrons in the cinema were hooting with laughter at every little impertinent throwaway line, so clearly I’m just missing something. For your consideration, though: while one member of a love triangle video calls with another, the connection drops out. When the first character exclaims, “you’re breaking up!”, the jealous third member, who is within earshot, says...
...you just wrote the line in your head, didn’t you? If this is your kind of lol, I genuinely love that for you, and you will probably like this film. Nary a wry smile was raised here.
There’s a disorienting mix of self-seriousness and juvenility in Eternals. These are immortal beings, charged with protecting humanity with superpowers like shooting golden beams from their eyes (and, much less impressively, literal finger guns that go ‘pew-pew’) who quibble with each other about who’s in charge. It makes it very difficult to feel a sense of awe about them. Arguably, their latent humanity and flaws make them more relatable in some moments, but it hardly helps to give their mission any credibility. I honestly did not give a rip about any of them.
Early in the film, when Ikaris (Madden) is referenced as the boy who flew too close to the sun, it’s revealed that Sprite (Lisa McHugh, blessed/cursed with eternal youth) made that story up. This was a cute little detail, until he kills himself at the end by flying into the sun. Much meta, so disbelief, very wow.
Eternals is in cinemas now.