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Live long and prosper

The Eternals
Directed by Chloe Zhao

I saw The Eternals and lemme put it this way: it is the best MCU movie in recent years, and the worst Chloe Zhao film 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; I 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 want to ask: Deviants? Puritanical much? But the comic is the creation of Jack Kirby, hardly known for subtlety or tact — you appreciate 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.

That’s arguably quite an achievement and not in a good way: frenetically staged and shot long-take action sequences where you don’t quite know — or much care — what’s going on. I remember seeing them, possibly for the first time, in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies, only Raimi’s had this marked difference: the fights often tossed out the occasional visual gag, and you realize there is structure to his fights, 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, later at their most vulnerable. Zhao in effect doesn’t shy away from setting herself up, adopt 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 (voiced by David Kaye) to Earth to live through and react to various periods of human development (some 7,000 years, a mere eyeblink in human evolution and barely a blip in geological history) and we get to know them a little along the way: we learn that 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; that Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds and is itching to control the destiny of these fool mortals; that Don Lee’s Gilgamesh has taken on the task of caring for Angelina Jolie’s increasingly senile Thena (well, not quite senility but that’s a whole other footnote) and cooking Martin Picard-sized savory pies and table-length feasts for 11 on the side; that Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is now a charmingly self-centered Bollywood star complete with video-recording acolyte (Harish Patel); that Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) leads a quiet life with his lovely loving family.

I’m reminded of Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection, about a group of formerly famous immortals living out their lives in relative anonymity (they even have a deadly disease they fear, in Bester’s case lepcer (a combination of leprosy and cancer) where in Thena’s case it’s the crushing weight of memories from past lives) — not Bester’s best work though it sparked 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 that about the film; it’s stubbornly perverse about its priorities. Maybe my biggest problem with the picture is that Zhao doesn’t go far enough, do something that’ll really make me sit my rear up in my seat — like 150 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 and pause the number 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 the 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 land. Critics compare her to Terence Malick in terms of natural landscapes and largely improvised performances (also traces of 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 smolder and fume and chafe against the invisible barriers erected between them and the rest of American society. That edge largely vanished by the time of Nomadland (2020), replaced by an elegiac despair (Amazon’s treatment of its seasonal workers goes by 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 expanded universe of Marvel, but the fact that Zhao shoehorns attempts 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 quietly applauded. Thought Gemma Chan intriguingly beautiful if rather hollow in Crazy Rich Asians; thought Madden yet another pretty face, though his thick brows helped give him a faint brooding Brando vibe; when they finally confront each other in the film’s unlikely finale they do with the past hundred plus minutes of patiently building their performances with detail here detail there, with Chan playing with children or braiding a young girl’s hair, and Madden looking admiringly from the side (presumably thinking she’d look good playing with or braiding their children’s hair). Shamelessly sentimental? Can’t believe Zhao dared? Madden, to his credit, looks persuasive being carried away by Chan’s quiet presence — again those darkly pronounced brows help — but Zhao does dare and I mostly bought it. Faces, music, a montage of moments throughout the film; visual storytelling at its most basic, and I think it works.

With this picture put out the question that interests me now is: quo vadis, Chloe? You have taken on a multi-million-dollar 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, whispering it down from a tempestuous gallop to a recognizably distinct if awkward canter. Most filmmakers get hooked once they have a taste; can you let go, strike out in yet another direction? One holds one’s breath in anticipation.

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