Friday, 12 November 2021

Eternals (Movie Review)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe grows larger than ever with Eternals, the latest film to come out in Phase 4. Directed by Chloe Zhao, the movie introduces fans of the franchise to its eponymous team of superheroes and their particular slice of its overall mythology. And what a slice that is, spanning thousands of years and involving beings as old as time itself. The film is certainly grand with its ambitions and it shows from its very first frames. But does all that ambition come at the detriment of the movie's overall execution?

The film begins with an opening crawl that sets the stage by letting us know just how insignificant everything that has come before it is in the grand scheme of things. I won't go into too many details but just know that we have these centuries-old beings called Eternals, and they've been sent here by the power that be to protect mankind from the deviants, a vicious race of aliens seeking to destroy all life. And when the deviants suddenly resurface after being gone for hundreds of years, the Eternals are forced to do what they'd been sent here to do.

I guess I'll have to start this review by addressing the obvious fact that it is coming one week later than originally planned. In the wake of the film receiving a ban in Saudi Arabia last week, the Nigerian censorship board had decided to follow suit with a ban of its own. And just like that, the movie was yanked out of cinema schedules nationwide, and wouldn't resurface until one week later.

All that because of one kiss between a gay couple and the MCU's first-ever sex scene, neither of which had made it into the cut of the film we were shown. And judging by the shoddy editing that was done around the scenes in question, it would appear that this particular cut wasn't done or sanctioned by Disney itself. I mention all this just for the sake of transparency, as I do my best to appraise the film based on the chopped-up version I saw. 

Regarding the film itself, I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I had anticipated. It certainly feels like an MCU film, even though it ditches much of the traditional MCU formula for something far more ambitious. The film employs a nonlinear narrative structure, with the plot spanning several time periods and the story getting filled in the further it went along. But it still had all the humor and action fans have come to expect from the MCU.

It is clear that Chloe Zhao and her team of writers were shooting for something very grand indeed. And for the most part, they've succeeded, bringing her distinct vision to a film that would have probably turned out differently in the hands of any other director. I can certainly see traces of her other work on films like Nomadland in this one, in scenes that showcased the striking beauty of rural communities, intermixed with the intergalactic proceedings.

So yes, the film scores high in my books on the grounds of atmosphere alone. My main criticism then comes from the fact that it juggles between way too many characters, making it hard to fully invest in their struggles on an emotional level. There were characters like Makari that I would have loved to see more of, and others still that were outright missing for long stretches of the film. Unlike the various other Marvel team-ups, this one didn't have the benefit of enough character development, despite its interminable runtime, and it shows.

The movie is also plagued by some rather uneven special effects. Most of it was decent enough and spectacularly so, serving to convey the epic scale Chloe Zhao was going for. But others were just inexcusably bad, even looking unfinished and working to pull me out of the movie. I guess most of us have come to accept that these Marvel movies will always be effects heavy extravaganzas, and that those effects won't always look particularly convincing.

Eternals is a film that often feels like it is at war with itself. On the one hand, it is an epic sci-fi story that asks a lot of big questions while raising several possibilities. On the other hand, it tries to fit all that vast mythology and storytelling into the traditional MCU mold. This results in a mishmash that doesn't always quite work. But when it does, we get to catch glimpses of the completely stunning movie buried underneath it all, and what a sight to behold it was.

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