Eternals (2021, Chloé Zhao)

The nice thing about Eternals is the film’s most damaging element is obvious. Richard Madden is terrible. He’s not the lead—when Eternals has a lead, it’s Gemma Chan—but he’s top gun, so he gets a lot of screen time. And he’s terrible. What’s even funnier about Madden being terrible is the film leans into him being a “Game of Thrones” star. He’s got a love triangle with fellow “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington, who’s ostensibly in the movie but really just for a handful of cameos.

Harington is Chan’s adorable British boyfriend. Madden is her Scottish-accented alien super-being ex-husband. It’s a big flex when Harington and Madden face-off, and it’s clear not just Harington’s much better as a movie star than Madden, but Madden sucks the life out of scenes. He might be playing a Superman riff, but it’s an energy vampire Superman. He makes scenes worse. On the one hand, director Zhao can’t do anything with the performance, which has all the screen charisma of molded bread; on the other, she never compensates for it either.

Eternals rises and falls with Madden.

There are other big problems with the movie. It’s really boring for the first hour and a half. Eternals is solidly into the second act when it finally starts engaging. The film’s got a lot of expository information to dump, and every dump is a bad one. However, it manages to plod even more when it’s doing flashbacks.

The film opens with a “Star Wars but serious” title crawl explaining the Eternals are alien super-beings who live on Earth to protect the people from the “Deviants.” There are giant space entities out there who make galaxies and blah blah blah. Doesn’t matter. The movie figures out how to integrate these beyond enormous entities once in the entire film, and it’s a gimmick shot done well. So, the giant entities don’t matter. The human-shaped super-beings matter.

They show up on Earth in 5000 BCE. Madden immediately thinks Chan is cute; Chan immediately thinks Earth is charming. Salma Hayek is their leader, but she doesn’t really matter because she doesn’t have good fight scene powers. She’s a healer. Angelina Jolie’s the warrior one. Jolie gives the most amusing performance because she seems to get it more than anyone else. She’s stifling a smirk but still sincere when it counts.

Like when she’s hanging out with best bro Ma Dong-seok. He’s another warrior, the one with the big heart. Ma’s good. He doesn’t have good comic timing—in English, he’s always had it in Korean–but neither does Zhao, so it doesn’t matter.

The other Eternals are Kumail Nanjiani (laser fingers), Lia McHugh (illusion), Brian Tyree Henry (wills technology into existence), Lauren Ridloff (the speedster), and Barry Keoghan (the telepath). We meet them in the past, and then the film reintroduces them in the present when they’ve adjusted to regular human life. Albeit immortal regular human life.

Nanjiani gets the biggest story; he’s a Bollywood star with an amusing videographer sidekick, Harish Patel. McHugh is forever an awkward tween girl with an impossible crush. Yawn. Henry is a family man trying to put immortal meddling behind him. He’s gay, an MCU first, and it’s okay, but he’s most charming with the family, and they rush through having the family around. Ridloff and Keoghan just kind of come into the narrative as needed, even though they’ve got more charm than anyone else. It’s particularly impressive because Keoghan’s character is a twerp.

Bill Skarsgård plays the villain, an evolving man-beast. “Plays” meaning does the voice performance presumably some of the CGI modeling. The character eventually looks something like the monster from The Keep, which doesn’t seem intentional. Why recall one disaster in another.

There are some nearly neat 2001 references but then not really.

It’s unclear if fixing Eternals’s obvious problems would do any significant good. Besides Madden’s entire casting, there’s Chan’s lack of a protagonist arc, the momentum-killing flashbacks, Ramin Djawadi’s weak sauce epic movie score (just give up and hire Hans Zimmer for a Hans Zimmer score), and the awkward superhero references. Not just to the Marvel movies before it, but also to DC superheroes. Because world-building?

It also doesn’t help one of the credits snippets promise a far more amusing sequel, which has a cameo with great promise.

Zhao’s direction is fine. It’s often good. It’s never not fine. Ben Davis’s photography’s solid. There are a handful of composite shots where the foreground doesn’t match the CGI background, but it could be worse. Dylan Tichenor and Craig Wood’s editing’s good. Sammy Sheldon’s costumes. They’re all right.

Eternals could be worse. Madden could be in it a second longer. And it might never be good, but it also could’ve been better. Score alone. Get someone who could do Madden’s acting for him with the music. Whatever. And it could also be a second shorter overall. Any shorter would help.

Eternals is never really disappointing or even frustrating, just inconceivably tedious.

But, if they deliver on the mid-credits promise, the next one should be a blast.

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