Dreadfully dull "Eternals" all dressed up with not much to do
Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh and Kit Harington. Written by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo. Directed by Chloé Zhao. Now playing in theatres everywhere. 157 minutes. PG
Chloé Zhao's dreadfully dull Marvel movie "Eternals" should really have been titled "Loiterers."
The 10 alleged superheroes that make up this "Avengers" knock-off, costumed as if headed to an ABBA reunion concert, spend much of the film's 157-minute running time standing around, bickering about what they're supposed to be doing. One of them is admonished by another to stop playing with her smartphone, dammit, and just focus.
These infernal Eternals include solemn Sersi (Gemma Chan), arrogant Ikaris (Richard Madden), scattered Thena (Angelina Jolie), stoic Gilgamesh (Don Lee), clowning Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), pissed-off Druig (Barry Keoghan), athletic Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), frustrated Sprite (Lia McHugh), conflicted Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and finally noble Ajak (Salma Hayek), their fearless leader.
Sersi is the smartphone addict, perhaps distracted by the fact she has a regular-dude boyfriend (Kit Harington) whom she can't decide whether to move in with and an Eternals ex-boyfriend, Ikaris, whom she dated for a thousand years and still can't quit.
The Eternals all seem to have similar super powers — bolts of energy get hurled about a lot — and they get their marching orders from something called a Celestial, an ethereal being in the sky who looks like the stoned older brother of the title clanking behemoth from "The Iron Giant."
They were sent down from the heavens thousands of years ago, riding a spacecraft shaped like a giant fanny pack, to rid Earth of a menace called Deviants, prehistoric wolf-lizards that appear to be made out of roadkill and bundles of elastic bands. Marvel's piggy bank is enormous; why is it suddenly cheaping out on monsters?
The Eternals got the job done a millennium ago and they've hung around in disguise since then, randomly getting involved in human affairs whenever the mood suits them, which apparently doesn't include stopping calamities like the Hiroshima A-bombing and the finger-snapping mayhem of "Avengers" villain Thanos. Now the Deviants are back, meaner than before, so it's time to suit up again, maybe.
One of the great things about Zhao's low-key filmmaking style, very much in evidence in last year's Oscar champ "Nomadland" (my favourite film of 2020) and in her earlier "The Rider," is her ability to make the personal seem universal.
She inverts this with "Eternals," her Marvel debut, attempting and failing to make the universal seem personal. This gambit might work in some circumstances, but it surely doesn't here, in a comic-book fantasy that mistakes lethargy for profundity. There are few laughs to be had, a fatal error. The running jape about Nanjiani's Kingo being a Bollywood star who wants to make an "Eternals" doc starring himself gets old immediately.
Zhao introduces welcome diversity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — there are gay characters and a deaf one — and also some decorous superhero sex. It's one of the movie's few pluses. Yet these advances end up as just part of the expositional pile-on, in a script Zhao co-wrote with a committee of oh-so-serious cookies.
Nobody wants to watch superheroes standing around arguing — and arguing — whether they should bother saving the planet. Not helping one bit is the twilight hour cinematography, which looked evocative in Zhao's earlier films but just seems under-exposed and lifeless here.
It's a classic case of being careful what you wish for. Critics, present company included, have long called for a different kind of Marvel movie. Having endured the mind-numbing folly that is "Eternals," can we just go back to the usual brightly coloured inanity? 🌓