Live long and prosper
Saw The Eternals and lemme put it this way: best MCU in recent years, worst Chloe Zhao to date.
Which as I like to put it is not saying much but is saying something.
"Has he finally gone nuts?" you might say. Sometimes I wonder.
I enjoyed the movie. Don't mean that sarcastically; had a fine time.
Didn't think I would; the picture opens with a long title crawl explaining context and history that I kept wishing would crawl faster (I blame George Lucas) and we dive straight into battle, with the heroic Eternals fighting the evil Deviants (You ask: Deviants? Puritanical much? But the comic is the creation of Jack Kirby, hardly known for subtlety or tact--you enjoy Kirby for the dynamic dramatic art and grand worldbuilding more than the writing). Zhao shoots in a series of swirling shots, the camera weaving in and out of the battle between handsome actors striking power poses and CGI monsters being ripped limb from limb (bloodlessly of course, to keep the PG 13 rating) and you realize: she doesn't know how to direct fight sequences. Or rather, she does (there's a brief boxing match in Songs My Brothers Taught Me that's bruisingly shot and edited) but can't do the house MCU style of heavily CGI'd fighting, not in the way fanboys would approve. Not much pain involved (the Eternals hardly even flinch) and what brutality is on show is rendered toothless by the fact that the Deviants look and move like the kind of expensive oversized toys kids like to walk up to and knock down.
Frenetically staged and shot long-take action sequences where you don't quite know--or much care--what's going on: quite an achievement and not in a good way. I remember seeing these lengthy battles possibly for the first time in Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies only Raimi's had this marked difference: the fighting is punctuated with the occasional sight gag, and you realize there is structure to his free-for-alls, they build up and pay off as propulsive comedy routines a la Jackie Chan or Buster Keaton.
Arguably there's a rationale for opening with this unmemorable display of superpower: we get to see the Eternals at their mightiest, to better appreciate their decline and precipitous fall. Zhao doesn't shy away from adopting the more challenging narrative route.
Or perhaps Zhao doesn't really give a shit and wants to move on to what really interests her.
The next hour or so seems interminable; the picture skipping pebble-in-a-pond forward and backward in time, showing us the various Eternals as sent by the Celestial Arishem (voice by David Kaye) to Earth to live through various periods of human development (some 7,000 years, a mere eyeblink in human evolution barely a blip in geological history). We come to know them a little along the way: Ikari (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) used to have a thing, a spark between them that flares up every time they come in close proximity; Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds and is itching to oversee the destinies of these fool mortals; Don Lee's Gilgamesh has taken on himself the dangerous task of caring for Angelina Jolie's increasingly senile Thena (well not quite senility but that's a whole other footnote), cooking Martin Picard-sized savory pies and tablelength feasts for eleven on the side; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is now a charmingly self-centered Bollywood star complete with video-recording acolyte (Harish Patel); and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) leads a quiet life with his lovely loving family.
I'm reminded of Alfred Bester's The Computer Connection, where a group of eccentric immortals live their lives in relative secrecy (they even have a deadly disease they fear, in Bester's case lepcer (a monstrous mutation of leprosy and cancer) in Thena's case the crushing weight of memory from past lives)--not Bester's best work though it sparks along nicely thanks to his wit and Joycean wordplay.
"But" fanboys cry "what does any of this have to do with the story? The Expanded Universe?" Nothing, and I like it that the film is stubbornly perverse about its priorities. Maybe my biggest problem is that Zhao doesn't go far enough, do something that'll really make me sit up on my rear: like a hundred and fifty minutes of story without action or digital effects; or Phastos enjoying lyrical sex with husband Ben (Haaz Sleiman); or Sersi leaping on the back of a Deviant and riding it to a standstill; or the entire cast bursting into a rousing rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" with a horde of Deviants as backup chorus--brief pause to allow for Arishem's guitar solo.
Not as if Zhao has never struck out for unknown territory before: she was born in Beijing, studied in the United Kingdom and United States, shot her first film--Songs My Brothers Taught Me--in a Lakota reservation in South Dakota, arguably the last place in the world one would expect a Chinese-American filmmaker to make her feature debut. Critics cite the influence of Terence Malick with his affinity for vast landscapes and improvised performances (also early Chen Kaige, particularly Yellow Earth) but there's an edge to this and her second feature The Rider that I miss in Malick: the disaffected Lakota youths smoldering and chafing against the invisible barriers erected to isolate them from American society. That edge largely vanished by the time of Nomadland (2020) to be replaced by an elegiac despair (Amazon's harsh treatment of its seasonal workers goes unremarked) but even without, Zhao's film had its moments of piercing sadness and transcendent serenity.
None of which belong in the loud and thundering universe of Marvel, but the fact that Zhao shoehorns her style in here and there to the utter joy of practically nobody makes this a unique--if uniquely ungainly--Marvel movie.
And that ending (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the picture)! Most folks will hoot and holler and stamp their feet; I applauded. Thought Gemma Chan intriguingly beautiful if rather hollow in Crazy Rich Asians; thought Madden yet another pretty face, his thick brows granting him a faint brooding Brando vibe; when they finally confront each other in the film's unlikely finale they do so with over a hundred minutes' worth of performances built detail by patient detail, with Chan playing with children or braiding a young girl's hair, and Madden looking admiringly from the side (presumably thinking how good she'd look playing with or braiding his own children's hair). Madden to his credit looks persuasively moved by Chan's quiet presence--again those darkly pronounced brows. Faces, music, a montage of moments taken from various points throughout the film; visual storytelling at its most basic, and I think it works.
With this picture out the question remains: quo vadis, Chloe? You've directed a multimilliondollar production from the mightiest most mendaciously malevolent (posing as a source of family entertainment when it's really churning out mediocre pap) studio in the world--your most intimidating bronco to date, whispered down from tempestuous gallop to distinct if awkward canter. Most filmmakers get hooked once they have a taste of those millions; can you let go give it up, strike out in another direction? One holds one's breath in anticipation.
First published in Businessworld 11/19/21