A funny thing happened during the construction of a series of shareholder-pleasing, fan service tentpoles: actual storytelling broke out, the kind that has more to say about our real lives than it does the continuity of a fictional universe.
A film full of wonder and romance and fueled by an agenda and audacity all its own, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, the 26th-but-whose-counting film in a series that has reshaped modern filmgoing (mostly—at least for those who prefer surprise when visiting movie houses—for the worse), is a rare reminder of the power and purpose of event filmmaking beyond filling corporate coffers.
Here is a movie that builds myths around characters whose outsized powers are matched by their emotions and whose epic adventures navigating immortality has left them with a shattered understanding of the nature and value of humanity. In the process, it helps us make sense of and find meaning in our own fractured world.
Whereas the initial cycle of Marvel Movies was a reaction to and reprocessing of the tragedy of 9/11, the new wave of movies has placed the focus squarely on the sins of our fathers. Whether it was Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow untangling her relationships with burly father figures both oafish and evil (David Harbour’s Red Guardian and Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, respectively) or Shang-Chi’s power-hungry but otherwise absent paterfamilias (Tony Leung’s Mandarin), the Bad Dad era has come crashing down upon the MCU like an exploding Helicarrier.
Here the theme is lifted to thou-art-in-heaven levels.
The Eternals, a coterie of godlike beings sent to Earth many millennia ago with the very limited but crucial mission of battling their destructive counterparts (the unfortunately named Deviants), begin to fracture as they consider whether to defy their maker and leader Arishem, a six-eyed, red-armored being of untold and seemingly unlimited abilities, when he instructs them not to interfere with Earth’s impending destruction.
Leading the pro-Earth contingent is Sersi (Crazy Rich Asian’s Gemma Chan) who can manipulate matter with a touch of her hand. She singlehandedly ushered in the Bronze Age some 5,000 years ago by turning a knife from stone to metal, a relic now on display at the museum where she works as an educator and furtively dates her coworker Dane (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington), who will undoubtedly play a larger role in future movies.
In the opposite contingent, and seriously complicating her budding relationship, is the love of her unending life, Richard Madden’s Ikaris. Flying to and fro as he shoots blasts of cosmic energy from his eye sockets and sports a blank scowl, Ikaris treats the fate of humanity with the disinterested shrug of a bored teenager who has been given anything he wants.
Almost all the relationships between the many Eternals crackle with energy and history. But the connection between Sersi and Ikaris (who among us has not known a couple like this?) brings to bear something that these movies have all but given up on: sexual and romantic vibrancy.
Angelina Jolie, playing the supersized team’s ultimate warrior Thena while dripping with sensuousness, also helps on this front. But she mostly serves a different purpose.
After witnessing the life cycle of at least one planet and possibly many more, the burden of those memories has afflicted her with something called “mad weary,” which sounds like an ennui-inflicted British rapper, but is these godlike beings’ version of Alzheimer’s. For anyone who has cared for a loved one suffering from dementia, seeing the Eternals strongman Gilgamesh (Train to Busan’s Don Lee) protect and nurture Thena as she lashes out on him and others is deeply moving. It also calls to mind how Brady looked after his sister, friend, and broken horses in Chloé Zhao’s remarkable 2018 film, The Rider.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Eternals is how the culturally representative team’s identities play into the theme and story in powerful and essential ways; these are not just a series of boxes to check. For example, when the legality of your family unit could be wiped away on the whim of a politically stacked judiciary— as is the case with team’s tinkerer Phastos (a wonderfully emotive Brian Tyree Henry), a father married to an architect played by Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman— it makes sense to question an overlord’s capricious and destructive orders.
The cosmic energy that the individual Eternals spin into their outfits, power blasts, weapons, and trinkets swirl and swoosh like doodles of endless possibility— a pulsing gold version of the magical lines created by Harold’s purple crayon. The whole film carries this same sort of precocious, playful sense of discovery and creation, giving even its most portentous and seemingly political moments joyful buoyancy.
As is the case with any movie this maximal (the film is just a skosh shorter than the original Godfather), Eternals often borders on being simply too much. It is inevitable that one if not several of its buffet line of lead characters would get short shrift; Kumail Nanjiani’s lightly vainglorious Kingo, who spends his eternity on Earth becoming a Bollywood star, feels particularly ill-defined.
Mostly though, Zhao keeps the movie’s inherent bigness working in her favor. This is a film that asks on a grand scale questions we grapple with every day. How do we navigate and understand difference? Why do we value humanity so much when humans often do not seem to value each other?
Zhao keeps these far-reaching propositions grounded through the laser-like focus of her vision and the precision of the images dreamed up by her and veteran MCU lensman Ben Davis. For once in a movie like this, ocean waves and cloudscapes carry as much weight as the ultra-choreographed battles between intergalactic interlopers.
But none of it means more than when she holds the camera close in on the incredible faces of her actors. Either full of awe or overcome with emotion, these faces remind us that, in this case at least, there is a beating heart and animating spirit just below the surface of this highly polished and always humming machine.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.