Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

► Eternals is in UK cinemas now. 

Shortly after Chloe Zhao won a brace of Oscars for Nomadland earlier this year, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige paid tribute to her au naturel aesthetic, singling out a shot of “a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore” from Marvel’s Zhao-directed Eternals. “I had to keep saying, ‘This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX work to this at all,’” he enthused. The clincher, however, was his admission that he only saw Nomadland after having his mind thus blown: “Oh! That is not just what she wanted to bring to Marvel. This is a signature style.”

This soundbite is amusing but also instructive. A grand-scale, millennia-spanning cosmic fantasy hemmed in by the limits of Marvel’s corporate imagination, Eternals feels more or less exactly the film you’d get by pairing Zhao – up until now, a docufiction auteur preoccupied with marginalised communities and the American environments that sustain them – with producers who identify beautiful sunsets as her “signature style”.

This accidental tension is enough to make Eternals the strangest, most intriguing film in a so-called cinematic universe that thrives on ideological uniformity. The film’s unusually disorganised script, co-written by Zhao, poses bigger questions of existential and heroic purpose than its increasingly ordinary superhero mechanics care to answer.

Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo in Eternals (2021)
Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo in Eternals (2021)
© Courtesy of Disney

The “right out of a camera” spectacle that so wowed Feige seems less of a valued asset as this 157-minute film trudges through ever murkier, less convincingly rendered CGI. Every time Zhao’s filmmaking threatens to gesture at real-world land and weather for longer than a few seconds — and climate change, sure enough, is a threat muddled into the narrative alongside Marvel’s arbitrary divisions of good and evil — along comes another gigantic digital porcupine-dino-dragon, galumphing into frame to distract us with its comic-book menace.

The dragons are, in fact, Deviants, fast-evolving monsters that surface every few centuries to feast on humanity without ever quite laying claim to the planet. That, it seems, is thanks to the Eternals, an army of alien humanoid warriors, forged and sent to Earth by alien overlords the Celestials, for the express purpose of slaying the Deviants.

And so they have done for the better part of 7,000 years. With minimal setup, the film opens on their arrival in Mesopotamia 5,000 BC, in a spaceship resembling a brutalist Quality Street triangle, demonstrating their laser-shooting, speed-running, lance-throwing powers against a marauding pack of Deviants before we’ve learned a single Eternal’s name. Cut to the present, where the Eternals have dispersed across the globe, semi-retired from demi-godly duties to lead civilian lives. And yet the Deviants linger, first rising in London from the Regent’s Canal to make an attack on Camden Market. Who you gonna call?

As the Eternals reunion begins, spearheaded by modest academic Sersi (Gemma Chan) and her beefy alpha ex-flame Ikaris (Richard Madden), nearly half the film is consumed just with introducing them all — the script skipping freely between historical eras (Babylon, the Gupta Empire, Tenochtitlan on the eve of its fall, all largely decorative) as it traces the gang’s various triumphs, failures and fallouts.

Barry Keoghan as Druig in Eternals (2021)
Barry Keoghan as Druig in Eternals (2021)
© Courtesy of Disney

Beyond Sersi and Ikaris — if you’re wondering about the phonetic resemblance to Icarus, the film addresses the matter in bluntly literal fashion — the remaining Eternals are treated mostly as sidekicks, in a story that pays lip service to minority representation without actively hinging on it. Kumail Nanjiani’s moonlighting Bollywood star Kingo serves as underwritten comic relief, while Angelina Jolie’s frail and volatile Thena feels like a lukewarm gesture at mental health awareness with no real investigation into this aspect of her character. Both fare better than Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, much-touted as the MCU’s first Deaf superhero but given little to do, and Brian Tyree Henry’s gay family man Phastos, a technology and weapons expert who at least gets the film’s most memorably misjudged scene: “I did this,” he wails in a cutaway to 1945, the remains of Hiroshima smoking behind him.

That gauche line does, however, tie into what’s most distinctive and conscientious about Eternals, as subsequent revelations lead the group to question their divine duty in a way Marvel’s blander action men never do. Is humanity worth saving? If there’s a higher power, is it worth serving? Eternals’ few flashes of poetry lead us to wonder about an Earth left to its own devices, minus warring factions, human or alien — but the film is too character-clogged and franchise-inclined for the idea to stick. A closing title card promises that “the Eternal will return” — one suspects without Zhao, whereupon Marvel can resume business as usual, with heroes flying off into sunsets, not stopping to gaze at them.

Originally published: 5 November 2021