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Movie Reviews: 'Eternals' Inspires Indifference

by Sean Patrick 23 days ago in movie

The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a mix of good and not so good.

I don’t hate Eternals. I don’t love Eternals either. I’m ambivalent to Eternals which is perhaps more damning than a negative review. At least a negative review would be memorable. I’m several days from my viewing of Eternals and I am having to use spoiler websites to try and recall parts of the movie. Eternals is exceptionally competent and perhaps the best movie that could be made with this script and this cast. But still, the reaction is mostly… blah.

Eternals stars Salma Hayek as Ajak, leader of the Eternals, a group of God-like superheroes with powers that appear to complement each other as a team. The team consists of Ikaris (Richard Madden, who I have mistaken for Sebastian Stan so many times), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh), and Mikkari (Lauren Ridloff).

I won’t linger and describe their powers, what you need to know is that their powers work well as a group. Their mission is to stop Deviants, monstrous alien creatures, from snacking on the population of Earth. Ajak’s team of Eternals is one of many across the galaxy assigned to specific planets to protect the population from Deviants but to otherwise refrain from having an effect on the development of humanity. The God Arishem, who created the Eternals, is used as an excuse as to why Eternals have never interfered with Earth business, including Thanos and The Snap.

So, Eternals have lived for the entirety of human existence, killing Deviants, and generally staying on the sidelines. Things change when a new kind of Deviant is unleashed in London where Sersi has been hiding out as a teacher and art historian. A brief aside, I did really love a little detail where Sersi walks into her museum gig and talks to a painting of Charles Darwin, referring to him in a familiar fashion and apologizing for being late, something I imagine she must have done while Darwin was actually alive. It’s a little thing, but I found it charming.

The arrival of this Deviant brings Sersi back together with Ikaris. The two have not seen each other in centuries, literal centuries, after they ended their marriage some 400 plus years ago, they’ve been staying away from each other. Indeed all of the Eternals have been scattered to the corners of the Earth since they killed what they believed was the last of the Deviants. Each has gone on to hold jobs, have families, and build lives for themselves while they wait to find out what their larger purpose in Arishem’s grand plan is.

When that grand plan is revealed it reveals a massive divide within the team, between those who choose to defy Arishem and those who wish to continue serving the Universe dwelling deity. You can imagine that this must be an Earth shattering difference of opinion and you don’t know how literal the words Earth-Shattering really are in this matter. With the Eternals divided, Earth hangs in the balance, new deviants arise, and some of our heroes fall. It’s all very dramatic and somehow flat at the same time.

There is something that simply doesn’t resonate about Eternals. Everything looks great, the cinematography, the special effects, it all works. The story, as I described it, proceeds with strong motivation and purpose and somehow, I just can’t be bothered to care. There are too many heroes, too many vague abilities, and too many overly familiar complications. The conflicts between the characters feel very basic and given the size of the cast that is both a detriment and something that’s easy to understand.

Trying to give every cast member a fully fleshed out character is nearly impossible when you have this many people in your cast. Thus, not every character has a juicy and exciting backstory or plot. There are hints that some of the characters who didn’t get a big spotlight in this movie would likely be more prominent in a sequel but in this movie they appear one dimensional. There is a flatness to many of these characters that the actors can’t seem to work around.

One of the most exciting things about Eternals is the casting of Barry Keoghan as Druig. Barry Keoghan, for my money, is the most fascinating character actor working today. No actor his age has his kind of unpredictability. There is this lovely touch of madness in Barry Keoghan’s eyes that makes him an actor I cannot take my eyes off of. That’s not a great thing for Eternals however, because Druig is one of the least fleshed out characters in the movie. There is a hint that in a sequel he might have more screen time but I really wanted more Barry Keoghan, he's just so interesting.

The rest of this cast, aside from Angelina Jolie, who we will discuss later, pales in comparison to Keoghan. I love Kumail Nanjiani but the forced comic relief bits with him and his Bollywood career and his assistant, are some of the least interesting, and not particularly funny, aspects of Eternals. Richard Madden, for me, needs a name tag. I am face blind to Richard Madden, something about him consistently fails to make an impression on me.

That’s not entirely Madden’s fault in Eternals as Ikaris isn’t a particularly well established character and since his relationship with Gemma Chan’s Sersi is intended to drive much of the drama and conflict in Eternals that's a significant problem overall. Chan and Madden simply have no spark, no chemistry, and since their relationship is the crux of the drama of the final act that's probably why Eternals leaves me so disinterested.

I did enjoy Brian Tyree Henry but I always enjoy Brian Tyree Henry, the man is a treasure and has been since Atlanta. Henry is an effortless charmer but Phasto is not a particularly well rounded character. His powers are nebulous, like everyone's powers in Eternals, and the dialogue he gets is heavy with exposition and jargon that Henry delivers as well as it can be delivered.

I can't really say much about Lauren Ridloff's Makkari other than she has super-speed. Makkari is rarely on screen, there are indications that instead of making a life on Earth, she remained hidden away in the Eternals ship which was hidden in the ocean somewhere. That's not much of a backstory and a great way to hide the fact that no one wrote her much interesting to do. I did enjoy her flirtations with Barry Keoghan's Druig and their relationship and chemistry is something I do want to see explored in a sequel. There just isn't enough of either Ridloff or Keoghan in Eternals.

I feel bad for Lia McHugh's Sprite, she's saddled with a difficult and deeply underwritten role. Director Chloe Zhao most explicitly fails the show don't tell test with McHugh as her desperate crush on Ikaris is mostly implied via dialogue from Kingo rather than actually having McHugh do the work of showing her devotion to Ikaris and the pain she feels at not getting his attention because she lives her life in the body of a 14 year old. McHugh does what she can to bring nuance to the role, she gets a lovely scene early on where her powers let her pretend to be older but are ineffective at making the illusion last. It's her best scene in the movie but it's an all too brief glimpse at depths that are only hinted at.

As for Gilgamesh and Ajak... they were definitely... in the movie. Not sure what more I can say. Salma Hayek has told a lovely and wholesome story about crying when she first saw herself on screen as a superhero and I really happy for her. Ajak isn't much a character here unfortunately, even as she is the leader of the Eternals. Gilgamesh is a wonderfully noble character who lives with Thena and takes care of her in her illness. Which means he is off screen a lot. He exists as motivation for Thena and little more.

And then, there is the performance of Angelina Jolie as Thena. Jolie is undoubtedly the biggest movie star in Eternals. She’s the most magnetic, the most charismatic and she is all these things while sleeping her way through this performance. It feels as if Angelina Jolie really didn’t want to be a superhero or part of the Marvel Universe. She appears above it all and her character is given a form of dementia for Super-beings that is an interesting dramatic device but it also means she’s off screen a lot of the time and even sidelined from some battles. Thus, the most interesting, exciting and eye-catching actor in this ensemble is left out for a large part of the movie.

Now, in fairness, I’m willing to bet that a sequel can fix some of these issues. The end of the movie, and especially the mid and post credits scenes, add some much needed flavor to the Eternals. I won’t spoil anything but there are a couple of additions to the cast, at least two more heroes are revealed, and the final moments of the movie provide a great deal of intrigue for a sequel. Perhaps with one movie in the books, Barry Keoghan featured more prominently, and these additional heroes, Eternals two can escape the blah of this first feature with a terrific sequel. Anything for more Barry Keoghan.

Eternals opened in theaters on Friday, November 5th, 2021.


Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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