Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Haaz Sleiman, Esai Daniel Cross
Written by: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo, based on a story by Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo, and on characters created by Jack Kirby
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 156
Date: 11/05/2021

Eternals (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Who Wants to Live Forever?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Very few of the MCU movies have come along with a director whose signature style is as vivid as Chloé Zhao's. Zhao, of course, won a Best Director Oscar for her film Nomadland. Along with her even better, previous film The Rider, she showed a touch for finding glory in the ordinary, as well as a taste for the great outdoors. I, for one, have been immensely curious how she could possibly apply that style to a superhero film.

To start, Eternals puts Zhao at a disadvantage, given that they're hardly the A-listers that Spider-Man or the Hulk are. (They were created in 1976 by the great Jack Kirby.) But it's also an advantage, re: she can re-invent them to suit her needs, without anyone noticing or caring too much. So we meet our super-team, and they really are eternal. These immortals were sent to earth 7000 years ago to fight a race of giant bugs called the Deviants. At some point, they finished their task and remained on earth while awaiting further orders.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) is probably the main character. She loves being on earth, and is even dating an earthman, although she was romantically involved with one of the other eternals, the powerful Ikaris (Richard Madden), for a few millennia first. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) has used his time on earth to become a Bollywood star, or actually several generations of Bollywood stars, posing as his own grandchild and great-grandchild. (It's a role that allows Nanjiani to retain his comic persona.) Kingo travels with his comically devoted human manager (Harish Patel), who tries to film everything his star does.

Sprite (Lia McHugh) can create illusions, but exists in the body of a 12 year-old girl, much like the Homer character in the vampire film Near Dark, tormented by grown-up feelings that cannot be acted upon. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is an inventor, and the first openly gay superhero in the MCU; he shares a kiss with his husband onscreen. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) has super-speed and is the first deaf superhero in the MCU. She's close to Druig (an eerily cast Barry Keoghan, from The Killing of a Sacred Deer), who has mind-control and who gets a little too power hungry during his down time.

My favorite character is Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who pounds things with energy forces that form around his fists. During the last century he has become a chef and learned to brew his own ale. He lives in a remote hut with Thena (Angelina Jolie), a warrior Eternal who can create weapons out of thin air. Thena has developed a special malady, which causes her brain to behave erratically under the weight of thousands of years worth of stored memories.

Finally, there's Ajak (Salma Hayek), the spiritual leader of the group, and the one who can speak to their boss, the Celestial known as Arishem. Since the group split up Ajak has lived alone on a farm, which, visually, is Zhao's specialty. Throughout the film, though, Zhao finds a balance between the characters and their environments, showing their connections to it and each other, and establishes what feels like a shared history between them.

So, perhaps unusual for a movie like this, the talking sequences are the best part. This is not to say that the action sequences are not beautifully choreographed. They are, and one in particular, set in the woods at dusk, seems to fit Zhao's palette perfectly. But the best way I can describe it is that, these sequences are about the extraordinary, and Zhao is clearly more interested in the ordinary. Characters in her first films struggled with the most basic aspects of their existences, simply finding one's purpose in life. Zhao easily brings that theme here, but I get the feeling that she doesn't care much about the fighting parts.

That's fine, but this is a 156-minute film, and it feels it. It doesn't have the momentum that it could or should have. The plot includes the return of the Deviants, who are, of course, much more powerful this time. And then the Eternals learn the real reason they have been sent to Earth — it involves a cosmic cataclysm with lots of VFX — and must choose between their loyalty to their adopted planet, and their loyalty to the Celestials. I'm not sure what the secret insider rules are for a MCU movie, but perhaps toning some of this stuff down might have been better for overall flow, and for sticking to Zhao's vision.

But if a movie is as good as its characters, then Eternals is still a good movie, one that I've been enjoying thinking about again and again. One of my favorite scenes is one in which the team members see each other again after some time, and they wind up at Gilgamesh's table, having a delicious meal and drinks, making jokes, and getting to know each other again. Given that the team has been promised a sequel already, I'll be looking forward to catching up with them again someday soon.

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