connecting theology and life in gospel-centred ways to the glory of God and our joy in Him
(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
A few years ago I rented an MCU movie that I knew very little about. The characters and story were unknown to me. The movie had an ensemble cast with familiar actors and a director I knew very little about. But, given that it was a Marvel movie, and I was a growing Marvel fan, I thought I’d give it a go.
That movie was Guardians of the Galaxy. Boy, that was such a fun movie!
Today I went to the movies with my wife to watch another MCU movie I knew very little about. The characters and story were unknown to me. The movie had an ensemble cast with familiar actors and a director I had heard very little about – but did hear that she had just won an Oscar. But, given that it was a Marvel movie, and I am now a certified Marvel fanboy, I thought I’d enjoy it – despite what I had briefly read critics had said of it already.
That movie was Eternals. And boy, was that a meh movie…
Before I get into the review here is a MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD ALERT. I won’t give too much away, but I will be speaking about some of the features of the movie and plot points. You have been warned.
Here’s a brief summary of the plot. The Eternals are powerful beings, sent to the earth by Celestials to defend against an invasive alien species known as Deviants. After completing the job, and improving the technology of the human race along the way, the Eternals realise that humanity’s struggles and evil are getting out of hand. Having already taken an oath not to interfere unless Deviants are in the picture, the Eternals sit back and watch as humanity grows in number and in their technology use. Fast forward to the present day when Deviants reappear and in fighting them the Eternals have a big truth revealed to them about their purpose and relationship with the main Celestial: Arishem. The movie ends in a big CGI climatic scene (as with pretty much all MCU movies), the heroes save the day, and humanity continues to live on.
So, why is the movie in my humble opinion a bit… meh?
Let’s break this down.
First, the characters and story. The familiar ‘save the world’ scenario is played out again in this movie, along with the fast witty comments littered throughout to bring some levity to the drama and the action. All of that is fine and I have no big qualms with the formula itself.
But the characters in Eternals felt flat. Outside of Sersi, played by Gemma Chan, and Ikaris, played by Richard Madden, the other characters in this large ensemble don’t get much time to shine. Character development isn’t great – so when, SPOILER ALERT, some of them die… well… the emotional impact just isn’t there.
Some of the dialogue is also clunky, and this movie falls into the dreaded trap of constantly telling us what is happening rather than showing – instead of creatively walking us through the story in a visual way, there is a lot of time spent on exposition: explaining what’s happening. Exposition is necessary in film, but too much and the audience is treated like children who need everything explained to them. And yeah, there’s a lot of exposition in this movie to follow.
Because of this, the story is let down. What could have been a great movie is hamstrung by needing to accommodate far too many elements: an origin story, three villains to be stopped (two of which are underdeveloped), Deviant monsters which aren’t that scary (though there is a jump scene at the start which I will admit got me!), a love quadrangle between three Eternals and a human, a plot twist regarding the nature and purpose of the Eternals themselves, and social commentary on the nature of humanity (to this I will return in a moment).
It’s a bloated movie hoping to achieve too much – and it shows. The characters suffer under the weight of the story, and the story suffers under the weight of the desires of the storytellers.
Unfortunately, this means that some of the social commentary fails. This movie wants to make a moral point about the fallen nature of humanity – on a number of occasions the Eternals are confronted by the brutal – and let’s use the word: sinful – nature of humanity. People fight each other, countries invade and slay the indigenous populations of other countries, an atomic bomb is dropped to end a war. When faced with these moments the Eternals want to intervene – they have the power to do so – but are unable to do so. Though they desire that humans, whom they have grown to love, live in peace with each other instead of war –things get so bad that, at the dropping of the atomic bomb, one of the Eternals says aloud what we’re all thinking (or led to think) at this point: humanity is not worth saving.
But since this is an MCU movie we know that they will save the world. So, what is the turning point? What moment sparks hope within the Eternals that there is also something in humanity worth saving?
The answer: brief exposition about ‘the blip’ and brief exposition about a (same-sex) family. I’m not sure if I caught anything else – or at least if there was another moment it completely missed me. Again, this movie is so crammed with other stuff that it has to give these pivotal points very little time to breathe on their own. What this means is that the climactic battle sequence in the end just lacks oompf and meaning. Sure, it’s fun, but you get the feeling that they’ve had to shortcut quite a few things in terms of narrative and character-building in order to get to the big finale.
There’s a (SPOILER ALERT) scene towards the end which I think sums this up perfectly. One of the Eternals, Thena, finds herself in a one-on-one battle with the chief Deviant, Kro. It’s a classic scene, filled with the tropes of mist and darkness to heighten the suspense. While the action is a touch hard to follow, the scene has heaps of potential for exploring the motivations of Kro, while also perhaps exploiting Thena’s present weakness. It could have been something, instead, Thena is able to break Kro’s hold on her and dispatches him quickly. The fight is over before you know it.
That, I think, sums up this movie so well. There was heaps of potential to explore motives and plot… but the movie moves on quickly before any of this can be explored at depth. And because there’s so much to cram in, nothing gets really deep enough for the viewer. Or at least, not for me.
Before I get onto to some Christian reflection on the movie one final random point I want to make about the cinematography. From what I can gather the director, Chloe Zhang, is known for her auteur sensibilities. I had to Google that – basically she has such a particular style and works her meaning into the film that way. Unfortunately, it might have been lost on me – there wasn’t much symbolism going on throughout Eternals, or it was too subtle for me to notice.
On another random note, a minor gripe I had with the cinematography was the location set pieces. None of them feel authentic. London kinda feels like London, but most of the scenes there being shot at night doesn’t make it feel specifically like London. The Amazon rainforest feels nothing like a rainforest. The South Dakota plains feel… well, plain. Lacking any distinctive feel. The Australian desert doesn’t resemble the Australia I know, and Alaska looks like any generic cold-climate country.
Let me, then, return again to what I think is one of the main themes in this movie: humanity’s fallenness. This movie wrestles hard with coming to grips with the reality of human suffering brought about by human evil.
But what hope is there for change? The God-like being, the Celestial Arishem, sends beings ‘made in his image’ to carry out his plans and purposes. But these angelic beings rebel when they realise their benevolent God is not all-knowing, all-wise, or all-good. Their only hope is to stop this God’s plans in order to give humanity some sort of hope for change in their ongoing existence.
I couldn’t help but feel that this is where a secular man-centred gospel ends up. The need for change within us is obvious, change is desired – but our only hope is to survive a little longer, ‘evolve’ ourselves further, and maybe we’ll work it out. Let the good keep on shining and eventually, it might win. Hope is found in relationships. Sort of. At least, I think this was the message of the movie – but I didn’t see how any of the relationships in the story were moving enough to build that message upon.
So, I think the movie then is a metaphor for the confusion of our world – and especially about the meaning of our place and purpose in this world. Our world knows that something is wrong with us but keeps turning towards itself alone to try and find solutions, answers and hope. And, just like in this movie, the answers aren’t satisfying enough. Not moving enough. Not powerful enough to generate real, true, and lasting hope or change.
It’s a movie that left me yearning for the better story – one which is not confused, starkly realistic about our fallenness as humanity, and also one in which an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and kind and gracious and merciful God acts to save. He will save not by the destruction of everyone, but by sending his one and only Son to be ‘destroyed’ at the hands of his own creations. By the sending of his Son, he will also reveal who He – that we might be in reconciled relationship with him: the relationship we all yearn for, and the relationship by which real hope is found.
I’m thankful the big story of the Bible is a much more compelling gospel.
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