In the past few years, Chloe Zhao has established herself as an indie filmmaker with an intimate approach to imagery and tone. Which makes her an interesting choice to direct Marvel’s Eternals. In 2017, Zhao put her stamp on neo-realism with the laconic, meditative cowboy film The Rider, and in 2020 she proved she could take that style to new and exciting places with the Best Picture-winner Nomadland.
From Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, many indie filmmakers have tried to adapt their sensibility to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with mostly reliable results. But with the size and tone of this project, Zhao’s sensibility gets lost in the ether.
Clearly, we’re in a galaxy far, far away from Nomadland. Watching the intro, where a group of superheroes throws on spandex, fly above earth and start shooting lasers out of their eyes, your first thought will be: “Wait, Chloe Zhao directed this?” Where’s the emotion? Where’s the people? Where’s the sense of scale?
It opens with a long scroll about the Celestials (giant robots), the Deviants (bad monsters) and the Eternals (sent to Earth to stop the Deviants). The title characters are immortal and include the leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), weapons expert Thena (Angelina Jolie), laser eyes Ikaris (Richard Madden), shape-shifter Sersi (Gemma Chan), computer nerd Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), mind controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), super strength Gilgamesh (Don Lee), super speed Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), love interest Sprite (Lisa McHugh) and comedic relief Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani).
Their mission results in a 7,000 year stay on earth, in which they must wait for the Deviants to surface. In the meantime, they watch as humans colonize, inflict genocide and develop. Starting in 5,000 B.C Mesopotamia and ending in present-day England, the Eternals stand idly by as humanity suffers tragedy after tragedy (Pompeii, Hiroshima) until the Deviants arrive and they can finally intervene.
Zhao brought a level of poetry and adventure to her early work, so it’s very, very strange that Eternals is as formulaic as it is. No doubt this is due to studio execs, who always have a hand in production, but it just does not work with Zhao’s take on the universe. Not to mention the dialogue is terrible. Nanjiani’s comedic relief is initially funny, until his one-liners become tired and incredibly repetitive. Hayek peppers her speech with Bible verses, while Madden, regrettably, sounds like an Australian Batman.
But it’s not only the dialogue that derails here. The exposition that starts from minute one doesn’t let up – including flashbacks to Sersi’s love life. The plot is cluttered and hard to follow, and after a while, you just give up trying to understand anything as the Eternals batter away at the Deviants.
Jolie as Thena is a bright spot, a callback to her mid-2000’s action-run (Salt, Wanted). But the bursts of violence won’t satisfy anyone looking for Zhao’s pacing, and the long takes featuring characters basking in golden-hour light won’t satisfy anyone looking for Marvel’s rapid-fire clip. With Nomadland, it seemed Zhao had found her voice – a unique blend of neo-realism, Terrence Malick and Western archetypes. With Eternals, that voice is nowhere to be found. It’s been steamrolled by the generic, rotating gears of the Marvel machine.