There is quite a bit going on with THE ETERNALS, a bold attempt to marry CGI action on a grand scale with metaphysical musings about free will, while also contemplating the fundamental principles of physics vis a vis the conservation of energy in the universe. Like I said, a lot. Had it worked, it would have been spectacular. As it is, we are left with a philosophically dense film that stagnates under its own considerable weight as it dances through 7000 years of world cultures while never quite finding its groove.
We are in the same Marvel universe as The Avengers, but they get on a passing reference as we set about getting to know the many characters involved here. The Eternals, as the opening crawl explains, are human-looking immortal beings sent to Earth by the Celestial Arishem those many millennia ago to save our planet from the Divergents. Those are mutanty things that feed on intelligent life. Why they don’t also save us from ourselves is explained away by the strict instructions they were given by Arishem to war only on the Divergents. Any mischief on a small or great scale, think genocide, is something for the humans to sort out for themselves in order to fulfill their true potential. Sure, they can get a technological nudge from Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the gift of agriculture from Sersi (Gemma Chan), or a warrior assist s in the form of Thena (Angelina Jolie), but Conquistadors taking out the Aztecs, that’s strictly a hands-off situation.
The leader of this heroic band is Ajac (Salma Hayak), the only Eternal capable of talking directly to Arishem about their mission. Even she, however, does not know why, now that all the Divergents have been destroyed, they have not been recalled to their home base of Olympia. With nothing to do for a half-dozen centuries, they go their separate ways, with Sersi landing in London as an instructor at the Natural History Museum and conducting a relationship with a human (Kit Harrington) after her true love, Ikarus (Richard Madden) left without a word and the centuries that passed convinced her to make a fresh start. That and how very adorable the human is. Think of him for the poster child of why all the Eternals have become so very fond of their human charges, despite the shortcomings of human nature.
Alas, adding to the complications of a relationship between an immortal being with superpowers and a human with an expiration date is the sudden appearance of one of those Divergents shortly after a world-wide earthquake episode. In short order, Sersi is tracking down her comrades and working out how to save the world from the new, improved Divergents. Oh yeah, there’s more than one.
If only it were actually a short order. The story, obviously enjoying the nuances of its subtext and the whiz-bang nature of its special effects, takes forever to rev up properly as a narrative. After a very promising start bringing Sersi and Ikarus back together for an emotionally fraught reunion while fighting off that first Divergent, introducing the other character backstories and present occupations becomes a slog with flashbacks, side bars, and several repetitions of the conundrum in which our protagonists find themselves. Without giving away too many plot points, this involves sacrificing current life in the interests of possible future lives. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a philosophically dense exercise, and sci-fi provides a scintillating framework for that, but it behooves the filmmakers to trust their audience to get if the first time, maybe even the second if characters are divided in their opinions, as they well might be resulting in an incisive dialectic. After that, it’s a time waster for those engaged by it, not to mention boring for those in the audience who are not going to be engaged by that aspect of the story no matter how many times it is referenced. They are there to see Angelina Jolie slice up a monster and that’s okay, too. In which case, just get on with it for everybody’s sake.
It’s not that the other Eternals aren’t interesting. Druig (Barry Keoghan), the cool bad boy one who can control minds has a nice subplot about his own God complex, while at the other end of the spectrum we have Phastos, a blissed out tech geek is easily the most loveable of the crew. Between those poles there is Sprite (Lia McHugh) the snarky Eternal doomed to an eternal pre-adolescence, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who has found a way to turn his perpetual youth and essential narcissism into a film dynasty in Bollywood, while Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) exists only to care for Thena when the burden of a millennia of memories becomes too much for her. This involves baking pies and the brewing of questionable beverages. There is also Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) the deaf-mute with super speed and wicked sense of humor that spares no one. As I mentioned before, there is a lot going on here.
The expected Marvel humor is here, though barely treading water in the murky and turgid cinematic waters in which it struggles. The expected spectacular effects are here, too, from lava spewing islands disgorging themselves with wild abandon into he ocean, to a glittering light show that Sprite puts on for the ancient Mesopotamians.
THE ETERNALS promises a sequel to it tumultuous events, with the now requisite TWO post-credit sequences offering hints of what’s to come. It is with genuinely mixed feelings that I report that. Will the next installment be a leaner, meaner, and much more enjoyable flick? Dare I hope for one that actually allows us to emotionally engage at critical moments instead of yawning? Let’s all hope so.