Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Eternals’ Wrestles with Ideas and the MCU

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Eternals is one of those movies where the good and the bad feed into each other to the point where it’s hard to figure out where to begin. Perhaps I should start off by saying that it is one of the best MCU movies, both despite its flaws and because of them. I sat there in the dark mesmerized by a Marvel movie that tried with all its might not to be a Marvel movie.

Chloe Zhao has, possibly more than any other director in the MCU, made a movie her way, the studio be damned. However, this is not to say the studio hasn’t interfered, and that there are moments of fanservice that feel grossly out of place. Yet, in the end, Eternals is a movie that feels like something the folks over at DC would make, epic in theme, gorgeous in look, and in some ways an anti-blockbuster.

Arishem the Celestial voiced by David Kaye

Now, those who read me know, I am no fan of the MCU. Not to mention that before seeing the movie I was reading about James Baldwin’s time in Hollywood and the trials and tribulations he faced as the scriptwriter for the biopic The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I mention this to help you understand that I was not in a forgiving frame of mind.

The opening of Eternals is rocky, but so was The Avengers and that seemed to work out fine for it. For a brief moment, I held my breath as despite its janky rhythm that Zhao’s script may be taking a cue from Earl Mac Rauch, dropping us into a world and then letting us figure it out for ourselves. Sadly, the powers that be could never let that slide.

Indeed, it is the script that bedevils much of Eternals. Zhao, along with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan, and Kaz Firpo, is mired in a tug of war wherein one part of the movie wishes to be a story in which questions are posed and we supply the answers, and the other part is intent on leaving no world-building block unturned and no question left unanswered. At times it was annoying, especially in moments where the characters, these god-like immortals stand around trying to reconnect only to have their words sound as if they were written by a fifth-grader. 

Much like Wonder Woman 1984, Eternals is attempting to tell a very different kind of story, one that we haven’t ever seen in the MCU. A story where there is no bad guy. But the MCU cannot function without a villain. It is a machine whose plot mechanics crave a black and white view of the world, a world so simple that the hero’s entire moral belief system can be summed up in a nifty slogan. But Zhao fights the impulses, not always with success.

It doesn’t help that while she has assembled a magnificent cast, they are fractured and at times come off wooden. Primarily this is because for reasons of the story some actors are paired with others, and they just don’t have any chemistry. None. Zilch.

Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan)

Richard Madden’s Ikaris is the star, the golden boy, the hero of the Eternals. Yet, Madden seems to be playing it too close to his chest. It doesn’t help that his Ikaris is in love with Gemma Chan’s Sersi, soulmates whose love doesn’t quite last as long as they do. But the scene where they stare longingly at each other is saved only because Chan is a bonafide movie star and Madden is a good actor, but there are no sparks. The scenes feel almost clinical and I can’t decide if that is Zhao’s style ala Bresson, or if it’s just wild miscasting.

But even this has a silver lining. For as much as Madden has no chemistry with Chan, his Ikaris fulfills the necessary role of the story, and by the end, I understood his motivations. Not to mention, while Madden and Chan may have no chemistry Chan and Ben Davis’s camera is nothing but fireworks.

In fact, had Angelina Jolie not been in the film Chan would have walked away with the film. Jolie’s Thena, a god suffering from a form of space Alzheimer’s, is one of the great joys of the film. More than any other of the cast she understands instinctively what is required of her which is to be regal, fierce, gorgeous, vulnerable, and distant. All while never once batting an eye and she does it every damn time.

As lifeless as Sersi’s and Ikari’s relationship is, Thena’s and Don Lee’s Gilgamesh, is fraught with passion and tenderness. Lee is charming as he cares for Thena who is suffering from the memories of eons of sadness and joy wearing on her psyche. Thena may have trouble understanding where she is, she always knows she is with Gilgamesh and that in of itself makes her happy.

Eternals is at its best when it’s dealing with all the little relationships juxtaposed with the weighty themes of faith, the immenseness of time, and the crushing immediacy of duty. These are characters that have lived and seen humans commit atrocities that have horrified them to their very core. Some like Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) receded into the background of the world and lived as one of them, denying his role as the force behind mankind’s advancement. Others like Druig (Barry Keoghan) grew angry at humanity’s inhumanity and left the Eternals to start his own commune, albeit one filled with those under his mental control.

Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan)

But then there’s blasted script shoehorning characters like Sprite (Lia McHugh), a god forever trapped in a child’s body. Neither Zhao or the script ever really figures out how to utilize her or her power of illusions and storytelling. Possibly because those very things are incorporated better in Kumail Nanjiani’s character, Kingo, who has gone on to be a legendary Bollywood star.

Kingo even has a valet, Karun (Harish Patel), the two perhaps having the best chemistry next to Jolie and Lee. The best jokes come from them and not some of the more forced one-liners that fall like a lead balloon. This is because Nanjiani and Patel’s humor comes from their relationship and whatever situation they are in. 

It’s as if Eternals is a movie about heroes and inside is this weird little comedy about Kingo and his sidekick Karun, valiantly trying to boost his friend’s ego. Najiani gives his Kingo a sort of Himbo energy with Patel being his loyal cheerleader. There’s a running gag throughout the movie involving Kingo making a documentary about the Eternals. The gag finds its punchline during a CGI monster fight and no matter how many of Karun’s cameras are destroyed, he somehow always has a new one, to the astonishment of the other Eternals.

Zhao’s Eternals has an ebb and flow to the movie that is at times perfectly calibrated and at others wildly miscalculated. For instance, there is a moment in the film that involves a great betrayal of one of the characters, and instead of feeling anything, I felt nothing. The moment itself is robbed of any sentimentality but that gets warped when the moment is followed by another CGI monster fight, upending the cool distant emotion Zhao seems to be reaching for.

Yet, Zhao also finds a way to let Salma Hayek’s Ajak have a sense of regality. Hayek, like Jolie, knows what needs to be done but is rarely afforded the type of role she plays here. I could tell she was having a good time but then again I always have a good time whenever Hayek is onscreen. My only complaint is that she isn’t in Eternals enough.

Ajak (Salma Hayek)

Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, is wonderful but I wish she was in the movie more. Ridloff and Keoghan find little moments to be just adorable together. The two make what the script implies and play with it to the point where it can no longer be called subtext.

Ridloff, much like Henry’s openly gay Phastos, is great to see, but feel as perhaps in the 21st century, maybe “firsts” should stop being a thing. All movies should have a cast as diverse as Eternals, in front and behind the camera. That Ridloff’s deafness and Phastos’ gayness are just part of their character and not part of some larger theme is refreshing-but again-this should be normal.

But I digress. Zhao has made a foolhardy movie that doesn’t fit in the MCU but only exists because of it. Ben Davis’s camera never rivals the colors and dynamic artwork of Jack Kirby’s comics but he does bring Zhao’s vision to life. In so doing he and Zhao have made one of the most gorgeous looking MCU films ever brought to the screen.

I loved this movie. Marvel movies are usually so calculated that to see one swing for the fence and largely succeed but whiff on the emotional scenes is almost fascinating. I can’t help but wonder if that’s because Zhao isn’t interested in the sentimentality of superhero movies, which would explain why the action sequences against the Deviants, CGI monsters, feel so rote, yet gorgeous but the action scenes involving the characters feel alive and breathtaking.

Though the special effects, by Stephanie Ceretti the VFX supervisor, is far and away the best the MCU has ever put forth. There are scenes that take place during the day in which the special effects were flawless and seamless, they had weight, and texture to them in a way the MCU has long since stopped caring about. Ceretti, Davis, and Zhao work together to make some of the more astounding frame compositions by making them not look fake or real but rather they chose to make them look beautiful.

Eternals is the type of movie that I never thought the MCU would make, simply because it seems to care so little about fans, world-building, or even basic blockbuster trends. There’s a lot wrong with it but those cracks help make the sculpture more enthralling. I can’t imagine leaving the theater after seeing this movie and not just being just the littlest bit giddy. 

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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