True follies are rare, fantastic and filled with inexplicable joy. Bad movies are far more common. The thought of a total bomb detonating onscreen is a ripe prospect, until a doomed movie demonstrates that it is just bad, as minute by minute, hour by hour, you sit through one like “Eternals,” awaiting the sweet release of the mid-credit and post-credit scenes.”Eternals” could be the MCUinex needed to clear the pipes of the frantic Marvel Cinematic Universe, but who knows? It could well be a colossal smash.
Who are Eternals? The press kit is more lucid than the clipped opening crawl: “The Eternals on Earth are a diverse and powerful group—a combination of thinkers and fighters, sharing the same cosmic energy, which manifests itself in different powers within each individual. When they work together these powers complement each other. When they are off-duty, they act like any other dysfunctional family group, supporting one another and squabbling in equal measures.” Or, as Agatha Christie might put it, “Ten Little Bores.”
Based on a comic from 1976 under the hand of Jack Kirby, one arid passage had me drifting off, to the story behind the story beyond this story, to an apocryphal phantasm of how the comics could have created in dirty, fervid 1970s New York City, fueled by tattered paperbacks of Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods,” butt-ends and cardboard cups of Greek diner coffee (not a few flask-infused), then how all those drawings and lettering became blobs of color, slightly out of register and printed on the cheapest newsprint. I don’t know what Marvel’s offices looked like in 1976, but why not a nicotine-stained Manhattan walkup like the 1940s-style office the Coen brothers wrote their screenplays in for so many years? The couches would be tattered but stuffed with the dreams of so many naps.
During postproduction of “Eternals,” co-writer-director Chloe Zhao made her Oscar-sweeping “Nomadland”; only she can tell whether any aspect of that movie was in reaction to what she had shot for the two hours and thirty-seven minutes of the confounding bombast of this character-spinning millennia-spanning farrago of interlocking pageants. The attractive cast includes Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani and Lauren Ridloff. Zhao’s film displays a spectrum of representation as matter-of-fact, but what does that matter when a movie, its characters speaking a parlance of hodgepodge and bullshit as quotidian, is bad, both lackluster and hyperkinetic? It is good to see a range of characters and cultures and accents, even in bad movies. Still, the accents range from succotash to farrago: Angelina Jolie is particularly good as hailing from no part of Britain, but all parts of Britain.
There’s a Black gay character who creates technology and passes it along to humanity, which isn’t advanced enough to develop it on its own. Humanity: stupid! Stupid humanity! (Now here’s Angelina Jolie in a white gown that is never soiled or stained across millennia: where’s that technology?) The inventor is given his own genocide: we see the nuclear cloud rise over Hiroshima, and then we cut to him crouching in the wreckage, ruing that he had created the technology. The effect is obscene as well as the most beautifully designed and photographed scene in the entire effort.
And of course, “Eternals” just has to be one more entry in the ranks of Marvel neocolonialist bow-to-dominion myths, with overseers who are just like us, except they are immortal overseers, eternally, who oversee us forever, at least until they are killed by other overseers. Behold! A brace of neo-colonialist sky-mommies and sky-daddies who live a meaningless existence except to be reincarnated to destroy unnumbered planets and their population. There’s also the suggestion of life as full-on simulation, as in the lot of latter-day theories recently beloved by NPR. Plus, here’s a dude at NPR who bullet-points reasons, in over 2,500 words, where he insists that “Eternals” is pretty good because it’s different from other Marvel Studios window displays, which could be convincing, that is, if you never see “Eternals.”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.