Eternals (2021)

Chloé Zhao | 2hr 37min

It isn’t Terrence Malick, but it is about as close to Terrence Malick as Marvel will likely ever get – Eternals is what happens when studios relinquish a tiny bit of control to a director as dedicated to the artistic side of filmmaking as Chloé Zhao. Auteurs such as James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, and Taika Waititi have also been granted such freedoms before with resounding results, and though the critical reaction to Zhao’s effort has been a little more dampened, it surely belongs up among the most ambitious efforts by Marvel to reinvigorate the mega franchise with a fresh, exciting voice, this one bringing a certain sensuality and expressiveness to its stylings.

Tasked with the heavy duty of introducing ten new superheroes, each with distinct personalities and powers, Zhao fittingly turns the entire Earth and all of its history into her massive canvas upon which the relationships between these immortal beings explode into fights, arguments, and yes, sex. The Eternals were sent here some millennia ago by the mysterious Celestials to defend us from demonic monsters known as Deviants, though these creatures unfortunately prove to be little more than superficial CGI threats that consume nothing but valuable screen time. As it turns out, the most compelling conflict of the film emerges between the Eternals themselves. This fragmentation may, on some levels, bear similarities to that which drives the tension of Captain America: Civil War, but clear-cut sides of “us vs them” are not a luxury which these aliens can afford. Each of them come at the same crisis of faith from entirely different perspectives, having spent the last few hundred years relating with humans in their own ways.

There’s no wasting Zhao’s flair for shooting landscapes here.
It isn’t just the landscapes though, but there is beauty in the production design of so many interiors too.

For Druig, the mind-controller, the potential to pacify humans into a forced peace is a real temptation, while the engineer of the group, Phastos, only finds devastation and heartbreak in humanity’s squandering of his gifts. Such variation in poignant experiences leads them to separate corners of the world, where some integrate into society, others set themselves up as idols to be worshipped, and the remainders go into hiding. As they reunite, hard decisions with world-ending stakes must be made, but even then there remains an uncertainty, as they come to accept that siding against humanity need not necessarily come from a place of evil.

Malick is certainly there in the natural lighting, but the Eternals’ spaceship is directly referencing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The complexity and scale of such questions of utilitarianism and faith could only be explored in an ensemble of this size and against a setting this epic, spanning from ancient Babylon, through the Gupta Empire, and on to World War II. Zhao commands an intimidating narrative structure in her frequent flashbacks to these epochs, with each one posing an ethical quandary that hammers the wedge between the Eternals just that little bit deeper, but the most impressive achievement here is exactly what one would hope from the director of the gorgeous Nomadland – quite simply, her mastery over natural lighting, landscapes, and wide shots are unrivalled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Malick influence is palpable. Perhaps the Eternals’ ship is more evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the tranquil adoration which she heaps upon shots of the sun set against the pitch black vacuum of space might as well have been drawn from Malick’s The Tree of Life, and when we linger on a shot of Angelina Jolie’s Thena standing waist-deep in a lake reflecting the golden light of a sunset, Zhao’s love of The New World seeps through.

Stunning golden light filtering through doorways and latticework.
How many other Marvel directors would choose to light a shot like this?

Such brilliantly elemental imagery erupts at the climax of the film in an explosive battle of lava, water, sand, wind, and ice, though one can’t help but feel that even as Zhao has appropriated the Marvel formula to a setting that plays to her strengths, she is still effectively bound by some conventional comic book plotting that she isn’t quite comfortable with. How many other directors though would cut away to a shot of the sun peeking from behind drifting clouds in the immediate aftermath of a battle though? It is evidently in these quieter, more pensive moments where she relishes the artistic freedom granted to her by the studio, and she makes each one count.

The polarising reaction with which Eternals has been met is baffling in the sense that there are aspects of Zhao’s filmmaking which are clearly leagues above so many others modern blockbusters, but it shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise given the massive swings she is taking here. Perhaps some complaints about lengthy exposition dumps aren’t too far off the mark, even if those sequences are still brilliantly rendered visually, and there are some forced gags where Zhao’s voice is momentarily lost. But if those flaws are the price we pay for Marvel films which are little more experimental with narrative structure and cinematography, or more ambitious in balancing several character arcs at a time, then one would hope that these are the risks the studio might take more of in the future.

One of the greatest shots in the film – Gemma Chan’s Sersi retreating to a tree in the Australian outback to commune with the Celestials. Deeply spiritual imagery with the heavy natural backlight and silhouettes.

Eternals is currently playing in theatres.

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