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Three stars for Chloé Zhao's 'disappointing' Eternals

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Eternals (Credit: Marvel Studios)
Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao directs the latest Marvel superhero movie, which is watchable but ultimately unmemorable. It could be the most disappointing MCU film yet, writes Nicholas Barber.
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This is a first: a Marvel superhero blockbuster directed by someone who has just won an Oscar for making a naturalistic drama about economic hardship among the over-60s. To be more specific, Eternals is directed by Chloé Zhao, the brilliant writer-director of Nomadland. I doubt you'd guess who had made her new film if you didn't know beforehand, but faint echoes of her spine-tingling previous work can be found. There is her fondness for magnificent, rugged landscapes and rock formations, for one thing. For another, Eternals is more serious in tone and more deliberate in its pacing than the average Marvel movie, with less of the usual banter and no cameo appearances by other superheroes. But, if you're looking for the humanity and originality of Zhao's other films, you won't find much of it here. 

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The opening scenes suggest that we're in for something far more mind-blowing than what we get. Some captions, a Pink Floyd song, and some 2001-ish imagery introduce the Eternals, 10 super-powered aliens from Olympia. They were sent to our galaxy in a triangular slab of a spaceship by the Celestials, a race of giants who have been around since the dawn of time. But then the film comes down to Earth in more ways than one. The Eternals' job on our planet is to kill off yet more aliens: the Deviants, which look like crocodiles made out of rope by the people who did the puppet for War Horse. Ever since 5000BC, then, the Eternals have been sneaking around Earth, and many of our myths and legends were inspired by their exploits. 

The one who is given the most to do is Sersi (Gemma Chan), a soft-hearted scientist who can turn solid objects to dust. The leader is Ajak (Salma Hayek), who can heal any wound. Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly and shoot lasers (or something) from his eyes: one good joke is that somebody understandably gets him mixed up with Superman. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a gloomy warrior whose fits of homicidal madness don't add anything to the narrative. And Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) shoots lasers (or something) from his fingers: one of the best-known facts about the film is that Nanjiani committed to an intensive, transformative body-building regime in preparation, but as there isn't a single shirtless shot to show off his bulked-up physique, that can't help but feel like a waste of time and effort.

Moving on, there is the sullen Druig (Barry Keoghan), who declares that he is going to use his mind-control powers to stop humans from going to war with each other – but then admits that he never got around to it. There is Sprite (Lia McHugh) who can project holograms, and who is stuck forever in the body of a child, much like Kirsten Dunst's character in Interview with the Vampire. There is Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), an expert mechanic, and the first openly gay superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) who is deaf, and who can run at Sonic the Hedgehog-rivalling speeds. And there is Gilgamesh (Don Lee) who ... errr... well, he can punch things really hard.

Hiring a writer-director who specialises in muted, documentary-like dramas for an action spectacular about interstellar demigods may not have been the wisest choice

Still with me? Suffice it to say that the Eternals score highly in terms of gender, ethnic and sexual diversity, but lowly in terms of being memorable. They're a sketchily drawn and fundamentally drab bunch, so it can be tricky to remember which one is friendly with which. By rights, their super-soap opera should have had its own 20-part series on Disney+. In a film, the plot is so over-populated that one Eternal even announces, shortly before the climactic battle, that he doesn't want to be involved, and walks out, leaving us to wonder why exactly we've spent the last hour hanging out with him.

It's possible that some more magnetic actors might have helped, but for the first time, Marvel's sharp eye for casting has gone awry. As soon as Robert Downey Jr was seen as Iron Man and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, it became almost impossible to picture anyone else in the roles. The so-so cast of the Eternals doesn't present that challenge. Madden may look suitably godlike when he poses in a desert and squints at the horizon, but he – like several other key cast members – lacks the acting chops and the charisma to convince you that he is a real person, let alone a real superhuman alien. The most sympathetic character is Sersi's cheerfully nerdy human boyfriend Dane, played by Kit Harington, but he is absent for most of the film, so the promising topic of "what do you do when you discover your girlfriend is immortal" is dropped after a couple of sweetly romantic scenes.

The Deviants have even less personality than the Eternals. With no distinguishing features, and no agenda beyond an urge to bite people’s heads off, they’re the most generic of slavering digital baddies, so whenever there's an action sequence, it's impossible to tell them apart, or to keep track of how many of them there are. The story, anyway, is that the Eternals believed that they had wiped out the Deviants about 500 years ago, so they disbanded and went their separate ways. But now the monsters are popping back up again. First, they slink out of a canal in London – which is shot in a strikingly moody and un-touristy way – and then they turn up wherever the Eternals happen to be. Ikaris, Sersi and Sprite decide to get the band back together. They do their travelling, by the way, in Kingo's private jet – he's spent the past century pretending to be successive generations of a Bollywood dynasty – so it's odd that their bestial, mindless opponents manage to globe-trot at the same pace. God knows – or rather, Arishem knows – how the Deviants can get from the UK to Australia so quickly, but it seems that this is just one of the many aspects of the film that haven't been thought through.

There are a few clever parts, mind you. The various reunions are interspersed with richly detailed flashbacks set in Mesopotamia and Babylon and other ancient beauty spots, and there are some surprising twists and turns as the Eternals argue over the purpose of their mission on Earth. But ultimately it seems that hiring a writer-director who specialises in muted, documentary-like dramas for an action spectacular about gaudily-costumed interstellar demigods may not have been the wisest choice.

Eternals is adapted from a series of far-out 1970s comics by the great Jack Kirby, and traces remain of his visionary design, but Zhao and her three co-writers have weighed it down with lots of rudimentary dialogue, a daft plan – "If we can assemble device X and attach it to device Y then we can defeat enemy Z" – and a standard CGI-heavy showdown to round things off. The results aren't terrible. They're definitely watchable. But considering that this sci-fi saga is directed by Zhao, and that its story spans the creation of the Universe and the fate of the planet, it would have been reasonable to expect it to prompt slack-jawed wonder rather than the grudging appreciation of an efficient, workmanlike job. Eternals may not be the worst of Marvel's movies, but it's undoubtedly the most disappointing.

★★★☆☆

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