By Mark Saldana
Rating 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
As a movie critic living and working in the age of social media dominance, it is sometimes difficult to avoid spoilers and reviews from other critics and film analysts. This is especially true when it comes to major studio tentpoles that thrive on Rotten Tomatoes scores. It often huge, unavoidable news when a major studio film’s RT score starts declining as more film journalists contribute to the overall score. Such is this case with latest movie from Marvel Studios, Eternals. Eternals has been making loads of headlines lately for becoming one of the lowest rated (on Rotten Tomatoes) movies of the MCU. And because I don’t live under a rock in the desert, or in a van down by the river for that matter, I find myself a little perplexed by these results.
I will acknowledge that Eternals is not a top tier Marvel Studios entry, but it is definitely not the worst movie that they released. If anything, the movie reflects artistic ambitiousness on the part of the filmmakers, particularly writer/director Chloé Zhao. The movie is so grand in scope and attempts so hard to cover as much ground in a short amount of time that the end results feels a tad bloated. Still, I found myself enchanted, and dare I say, marveled at the beauty and deeper, more human messages of the movie, despite the fact that Marvel probably waited a little too long to make this movie and are now playing catchup in a hurried manner.
The movie’s timeline spans from the beginning of all existence in the Marvel Universe to the “present” time which is post Infinity War and Endgame. At the beginning of the universe, the Celestials ruled. These large powerful lifeforms where believed to be guardians and protectors before humans and other humanoid lifeforms would take on these challenges. When Earth, and humanity in its infancy, fall prey to a race of powerful and ravenous creatures called Variants, the Celestial Arishem places powerful humanoid beings from the planet Olympia in charge of protecting humans from the Variants.
Through millenia the Eternals, led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), would fight against the vicious Variants and would also help humanity evolve by sharing their knowledge of farming, land development, and technology. At one point in history, the Eternals would seemingly vanquish the Variants and continued to live among humanity for centuries. Though they did assist people with various tasks and challenges they were forbidden to interfere with problems and disaster the humans brought on to themselves, and could not intervene when they faced any other non-variant threats. However, once the Avengers destroyed Thanos and brought back the lost half of the world’s population, it seems as if new Variants have arrived and have evolved into more powerful creatures.
Now I know my lengthy synopsis has loads of exposition, as does the film, Chloé Zhao and her co-writers Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, do a mostly decent job bringing its audience up to speed on the immense backstory of the Eternals and their laments as guardians of humanity. The movie jumps back and forth in time, launching the present story forward, while revealing the protagonists’ history in flashbacks. This is probably the most effective way to tell this massive story, but still manages to feel a bit overstuffed in the end. What should have worked best would have been two Eternals movies with the first one earlier in the MCU filmography and the sequel post-Endgame. While I realize that coordinating, planning and executing films in the MCU is challenging work, involving loads of people, I am sure, at one point, there is a more experimental, “let’s try turning this Marvel property into a movie/series and see how we can fit it in with the grand scheme of things.” And such is the challenge, and sometimes drawback of making an MCU movie. It requires filmmakers to juggle their creative ideas, but still fit in the big machine that is Marvel.
This particular property is particularly challenging because if not a die-hard, avid Marvel comics reader of everything they publish, then for sure this movie begs the question, “Who the hell are the Eternals?” I honestly feel that Zhao and her writing team did their very best to tell a compelling story with more obscure characters that aren’t necessarily iconic in pop culture. And they do so with artistic integrity.
All writing challenges aside, what impresses me the most about this film are the visuals. The cinematography by Ben Davis, along with the production design costumes, and use of locales is absolutely gorgeous. The colors, the beautifully composed shots, the visual effects all look amazing! This is by far, the best looking MCU movie ever made. Zhao and her cinematographer collaborators in the past have been known to deliver visually arresting films, but on a much smaller scale. This is stunning cinema created with big money. So while I have my critiques about the film’s story and script, I just could not take my eyes off of the majestic beauty that was projected before my eyes.
And even though this movie has its meditative and pensive moments, reflecting on the value of human life on our planet, it is still very fun and thrilling in the ways Marvel movies usually are. Now I do have another complaint in that this movie follows the typical Marvel/superhero playbook in that everything culminates in to a massive CGI battle towards the end. I know this is usually to be expected, but I had hoped that Chloe Zhao and her writers would do something dynamically different and I was ultimately disappointed.
Now regarding the cast, this is most certainly a high point of the movie. Not only is it refreshing to see such a culturally diverse cast as the heroes in the film, but it is wonderful to see them perform very well. The cast includes Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Angelina Jolie, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harrington, and Salma Hayek. What can I say? An epic movie requires an epic cast. For me the real standouts of the film are Chan, Nanjiani (whose brand of humor fits in well with the MCU’s penchant for comedy), and Brian Tyree Henry.
So, regardless of my gripes with the movie, I still feel that Eternals is good movie worth watching and deserves to be watched on the big screen. It is an experimental film that takes bold shots, sometimes misses, but then sometimes hits well and does so gorgeously. I am not sure if Chloe Zhao will get to make a sequel movie, due to the low Rotten Tomatoes score, but I hope Marvel goes to bat for her and signs her for another. I also hope that this setback doesn’t deter Marvel from allowing brilliant and talented directors for making bold and dynamic choices with their properties. Otherwise, their movies will get to a point where their typical formulas will grow very stale and dull.