Chloé Zhao has had a short yet prominent career in the thriving world of independent cinema. Her renown grew even more last year when her film “Nomadland” dominated awards season, taking home Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director. However, her latest work, the $200 million instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, titled “Eternals,” is disappointing. While Zhao unquestionably puts in the effort and gives it her all, the movie doesn’t utilises her strengths. The screenplay, co-written by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, and Ryan Firpo, spans 7000 years, sloppily hopping back and forth across their timeline, resulting in an overly long and overstuffed 157-minute running time. One key problem with “Eternals” is that it is overloaded with characters, and Zhao tries to give each of them some semblance of a backstory. Inevitably all end up feeling shortchanged to various degrees.
The story follows the Eternals, a group of ten good-looking cosmic beings who were sent to Earth aeons ago by Arishem the Judge to defend the planet against a ravenous species known as Deviants. Their centuries-long war ends in 1500 when the last of the Deviants are finally killed. The Eternals then go their separate ways, with each immortal settling and assimilating into different locations around Earth, waiting for Arishem to summon them home. 500 years pass and each Eternal has carved out a life for themselves (more or less). But when a particularly nasty new Deviant suddenly appears in London, it’s clear that it’s time to get the team back together.
The film has a lot of star power portraying the Eternals, and some are much more convincing than others. Gemma Chan is easily the most complete character as Sersi, an eternal with the weird ability to manipulate matter. Richard Madden plays Ikaris, a poor man’s Superman and one-time love interest of Sersi. Angelina Jolie plays Thena, a powerful Wonder Woman-like warrior who wields weapons made of cosmic energy. On the downside, some of the actors feel woefully out of place in most of the scenes they’re in, and some of their characters’ stories feel plucked from another movie.
As the movie predictably brings the former teammates back together, it tries to tell their individual human stories while also building up its cosmic storyline. Surprisingly that leaves little room for superhero action. We do get a couple of set pieces that look fine and check most of the boxes, but there’s little there that we haven’t seen done better elsewhere. Even the big CGI blowout finale is missing the energy and style of the better Marvel films, and it has no stakes.
The movie would have fared better as a Disney+ streaming series. There’s very little here that screams big screen.
There are two post-credit scenes, that will probably be retconned within the next year.