Chloe Zhao's Nomadland follow-up is an unsatisfying jumble
Chloe Zhao has had quite the rise in the film industry. In just a year she’s gone from garnering two Oscars for Nomadland (2020) to directing part of the biggest franchise in cinematic history with Eternals (2021). Zhao’s work through her delicate, meditative, and neo-realist first features was an exciting one for cinephiles to experience. Thus, going from a set that rarely broke $1 million in budget, and that would scarcely hire professional actors, to one of the biggest movie sets with the biggest stars on the planet, seemed like a big jump for the director.
Eternals is the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We follow a set of eponymous beings (Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, etc), sent by the universe’s creator to protect earth in 5,000 BC from monster-like creatures called deviants. However, the eternals have been sworn not to interfere with human affairs, to only deal with deviants, until now...
As the Marvel films continue to come out, it becomes increasingly hard to up the stakes. After the seeming conclusion of the biggest baddie with Avengers: Endgame (2019), it’s hard to build up to something even greater. We seem to get teases of that in Eternals, but it unfortunately gets drowned out in an overly ambitious mess.
Eternals simply tries to do to many things at once. Zhao wants to tell: a thousands-year-old spanning story, follow and develop 10 new characters, introduce buckets of new lore and background, shake up the diversity standards that the genre had set, tell four separate romances, a stand-alone origin story, and much more. Not even the more than two and half hours of runtime could possibly include all of this. It seems rather surprising that Zhao, after showing a particular talent for pacing and letting her films breathe, could make Eternals so convoluted. What’s most frustrating is that the fat to trim can be so easily identified.
For starters the films ensemble could easily be shrunk by more than half, with many of the characters having nothing to do in the story and no impact in the final story. The same can be said of the exposition dumps. Why rush to set up an entirely new context of story and villains when you already have 25 previous films to take from. If Zhao wants to step out of this comfort zone, why not take her time with it? Expand the tale over multiple films, focus on character within a story, instead of the other way around. Instead, Zhao resorts to text scroll information dumps and nearly three exposition speeches with visual aids. There is simply too much new information thrown at viewers to truly grasp or settle into the narrative. These issues could have easily been solved with a simple producer note that would have tightened up the film; yet Zhao seems to completely lose control of these more basic aspects with the immensity of Eternals.
Zhao’s biggest win with the film, however, is in her dedicated casting, trying to break the norms of what we can expect from a superhero film. We get many Marvel firsts, such as the first openly gay superhero, our first deaf superhero, and the first Indian superhero. Zhao also isn’t afraid to cast older actors or younger ones in positions that might seem unconventional. I applaud Zhao for that, as she is using her power as a Marvel director to open up the field to more diversity.
If there is a central protagonist amongst the entire ensemble it probably is Gemma Chan’s Sersi. However, Chan leaves much to be desired as a semi-audience surrogate. Chan has been solid in supporting roles through the years, but when faced with the weight of carrying a blockbuster, she seems to buckle under it. Chan resorts to the sole range of one emotion, making her journey (the only one the film can fit in its crammed quarters) feel like a flat and boring one.
As with any Marvel film, the amount of money and technical talent remains impressive. The visual effects, costumes, and set design are up to par, even if perhaps playing it a bit too safe when regarding the breakthrough’s we’ve seen in recent films such as Thor: Ragnarök (2017) or Black Panther (2018).
In the end, Eternals is a rather surprising disappointment in a slew of Marvel films that were praised for their entertaining consistency. Zhao’s ambition might have gotten the better of her as she bites off more than she can chew and delivers a convoluted and unsatisfying jumble.