Prelude: Rule of Six
In his book In the Blink of an Eye, Academy award nominated film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) listed six criteria that all filmmakers should know. These criteria, when satisfied, would make an ideal cut from his point of view. Known widely by the aptly titled chapter it’s a part of, “Murch’s Rule of Six”, the criteria are detailed here, listed as benchmarks in order of preference. Upon first glance at the list, the uninitiated, it would be second nature to prioritize the story above all.
In fact, the criterion that trumps story—which comes second on this list—is emotion. According to the film editor, “[it] is the thing that [an editor] should try to preserve at all costs.” Watching director Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, it becomes evident that its director, writers, and co-editors wanted emotion to drive the story. This is the criteria we will use to ultimately decide if Eternals is indeed the perfect film–according to Murch.
Voyage of Time or Every Frame is a Painting
Eternals is Zhao’s fourth feature-length film and her first big-budget studio-backed affair. The film boasts an incredible cast that includes Angelina Jolie (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021), Brian Tyree Henry (Widows, 2018), Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017), Don Lee (Busanhaeng; Eng: Train to Busan, 2016), and Salma Hayek (Frida, 2002) among others. The film tells the story of beings from the outer world sent to Earth to eradicate monsters. Fractured by human cruelty and differing ideologies, the team ends up tracing their steps back to each other when Iron Man’s victorious reversal of The Blip also brings back those very monsters they helped vanquish 7000 years ago.
The Perfect MCU Crew for the Job
Eternals may be the 26th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s theatrical lineup, but it’s the first to look (and, more importantly, feel ) like a movie. The film is gorgeously shot through and through, with cinematographer Ben Davis in top form from the first scene to the last. As of now, Davis has been behind the camera for a total of five MCU films, but it’s only the second since Doctor Strange, where he seems to play to his strengths as a visual stylist.
His work is complemented beautifully by colorist Jill Bogdanowicz (Joker, 2019), who adds tone and visual pop, giving the film a singular visual identity. This is Bogdanowicz’s third film with Marvel Studios, after Black Widow and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The studio’s movies prior mostly had the overall look of an ungraded clip straight out of a cinema camera for almost a decade, making her involvement in the process a lot more critical.
Location Matters, Too
Zhao’s choice of shooting as much of Eternals as possible on location made a lot of it feel more immersive. Taking cues from Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time and The Tree of Life, along with the quiet moments—both
solitary and interpersonal—of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a lot of the visual style of this film begs you to look inward and feel what the characters on-screen feel. As the film opens, Sersi (Gemma Chan, known for Crazy Rich Asians, 2018) looks toward Earth as their spaceship nears the planet and looks to Ikaris (Richard Madden), exclaiming, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Formatted for IMAX, the scene wants you to feel what Sersi vocalizes and succeeds depending on your tastes.
The Emotional Arc: I Want to Remember
There’s only so far awe can take a film to its finish line if it’s not supported by a consistently compelling emotional arc to its story and characters. Fortunately, Eternals never lets go of its emotional core—and Zhao makes sure of it, taking you through the characters’ existential journeys. Some look at the world with empathy and wonder, some with longing, and some with grief, cynicism, and distrust. A surprising aspect in the film involves the warrior Thena (Jolie), who at a point in the narrative is afflicted by a mental illness known within the universe as the Mahd W’yry—when you’ve lived to remember so much that your memory begins to fracture, rendering you “mad” and “weary.” A lot of it might be set up (from its source, apparently) to mirror dementia, but a lot of how Thena deals with it also speaks so much to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Emotion, Trauma, and Memory
In a crucial moment that ends up being a turning point for the film’s characters, Ajak (Hayek) offers to wipe Thena’s memory—serving a dual purpose of wiping the slate clean and making her less of a risk to the team. The latter vehemently disagrees, insisting she wants to remember everything. There’s an interesting parallel to how we deal with trauma here—as attractive as it sounds, forgetting our trauma comes at the cost of losing our own identity. As shown much later in Thena’s life, the only way to heal is to process the source of our triggers healthily and outgrow them. Sure, it’s not something that you can eradicate from your life completely, but with time, you can get out of the rabbit hole quicker, relatively unscathed, and often.
The Sum of Its Parts
Eternals is filled with many excellently written and framed moments that help balance out the larger-than-life spectacle that most films within the MCU are known for. On the one hand, you’ll find a display of gentle, healthy intimacy between Ikaris and Sersi and the way Druig (Keoghan) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff of Sound of Metal, 2019) simply look at each other. On the other, there is an earnestness in the emotional connection Phastos (Henry) shares with his partner Ben. Combine this immersion with an excellent handle over personal choice and consequence, and you’ve got a narrative in which the eponymous celestial beings—superpowers and all—feel more human than anything within the cinematic universe prior. Every Eternal in the team feels like they’re part of a family. They’re often not on the same level, but none of them are about to let that get in the middle of how much they love and care for each other.
(Strangely, the only other team-up movie I’ve seen, where the heroes have empathy and respect for one another, was Snyder’s original vision for Justice League, released earlier this year under the title Zack Snyder’s Justice League.)
A Word About Kingo and Karun
I’d personally have found the film perfect, if not for the re-establishment of Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani; The Big Sick, 2017) via an awful “Bollywood musical” bit, set to composer Ramin Djawadi’s Nach Mere Hero (English translation Dance, My Hero. The intent is clear—the whole subplot mostly feels like a healthy satire on the generally nepotistic and gendered nature of popular Indian cinema. If only it didn’t make the meta-characters bop to songs that sound like the Pussycat Dolls decided to appropriate Indian music by downloading some sample packs titled “World Music” and throwing it all in there, we’d be better off.
Thankfully, the director and writers make up for it by casting a powerhouse Indian stage and film actor Harish Patel as Kingo’s valet. Patel isn’t just an incredible talent, but a meme for starring in one of the country’s most influential awful films, Gunda (English translation, Goon). Think The Room, but if it was a crime drama. His short but incredible monologue—completely in Hindi—in the final act is played not for laughs, but in earnest. These words are an understated bit that is emotionally gut-wrenching enough to make anyone weep.
A Big Production with the Parts to Back It Up
That aside, Eternals is a sweeping, mythology-heavy superhero epic and the only one since Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) to feel like its own movie within the MCU. Combining larger-than-life awe with the vulnerable humanity of its principal characters, the movie dares to take restraint and go against its tropes, where more than 90 percent of the last 25 films before it were fine just replaying them. It easily satisfies that emotional criteria and is damn close to a perfect cut.
More importantly, it’s probably the only film in the MCU in almost a decade that will stand the test of time, both in replay value and with its exploration of its themes. It’s a superhero movie made by a filmmaker who—quite evidently—is in love with the craft, and it deserves to be seen on the most giant screen possible.
Eternals is available in theaters everywhere.
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