Movie review: Marvel goes meditative in 'Eternals'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 02 2021 06:00 AM

A scene from 'Eternals.' Handout
A scene from 'Eternals.' Handout

In the year 5000 BC, the supreme creator Celestial Arishem sent the Eternals to Earth on their triangular spacecraft called the Domo. Their mission was to fight and destroy the ferocious Deviants who were ravaging the planet. Their first encounter on the shores of Mesopotamia, and the fight will continue over the centuries all over the world.

Led by Ajak (healing), the Eternals consisted of superbeings, each with their own powers: Sersi (transform matter), Ikaris (flight and laser eyes), Kingo (energy blasts from hands), Sprite (illusions), Phastos (conjure technology), Makkari (super speed), Druig (mind control), Gilgamesh (super strength), and Thena (goddess of war). 

After the last Deviant was killed 500 years ago, the Eternals split up and lived in different areas around the world, living their respective lives. However, when a Deviant suddenly attacked Sersi and Sprite in London, the group had to reband to resume their fight. However, a change of leadership revealed the secret of the real purpose for being.

Because the Eternals were not really a well-known group of superheroes, this film had to build its whole world and backstory, while introducing us to each one's powers and personality. The director chosen for this task is a most unlikely one -- Chloe Zhao, whose works by that time had been slow, quiet, contemplative films like "Songs My Brother Taught Me" (2015) and her multiple Oscar-winning masterpiece of Americana "Nomadland" (2020).

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As writer and director, Zhao had created a totally different Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Sure, "Eternals" had its share of big battles between heroes and monsters. However, the scenes in between were steeped in spectacular vast vistas and emotional serious conversations, in signature Chloe Zhao fashion. These differences can be seen and felt from the trailers alone, and are confirmed in the final 157-minute cut. 

Superstar Angelina Jolie (as Thena) was an unexpected member of this ensemble cast, yet she did not have a central role. Instead, that honor went to Gemma Chan (as Sersi), Richard Madden (as Ikaris) and Lia McHugh (as Sprite). They were the ones who had to make the most critical decisions about their very existence as Eternals. Were they genuine heroes, or were they just preparing Earth for the birth of a new Celestial? Kit Harrington played history professor Dane Whitman, Sersi's present-day love interest.

Selma Hayek played Ajak, the leader of their team, yet she surprisingly had very little screen time. Don Lee, whom we knew as Ma Dong-seok in "Train to Busan" (2016), played strong man Gilgamesh with a lot of heart. Barry Keoghan was a cold and creepy Druig. Comic relief mostly came from Nanjail Kumari as Bollywood star Kingo, and Hamish Patel, as Kingo's human valet Karun. In the spirit of inclusivity, Lauren Ridloff played the first deaf superhero Makkari, while Bryan Tyree Henry played the first openly gay superhero Phastos. 

This was a film that has to be seen in a movie theater to be best appreciated. Zhao had executed some major scenes of destruction and rebirth that were awesome to behold on as big and as wide a screen as possible. Since the Eternals have existed for the past 7,000 years, there were plenty of little details in the production design to reflect various times in history. 

The mid-credits (with a surprising pop star cameo as Thanos's brother) and post-credits scene both show exciting directions where an "Eternals 2" would be taking us.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”