By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Thursday night opening of the new Marvel Cinematic Universe feature “Eternals,” at Northgate’s Regal Thornton Place, went as matter-of-factly as most rollouts of big movies do, given our times. In a single-filed line, the gatekeeper checked vaccination cards one at a time. Popcorn got bought, plus soda (the Icee machine was down for the count).
“That guy can’t act,” snickered one ticket holder, gesturing to the huge ad for the movie taking up half a wall. Of course, busy on my way to my seat, I couldn’t see who was being disrespected. And in a film with some 11 leading actors, I would have had a hard time picking out the man’s answer anyway.
“Eternals,” now playing local theaters, consolidates the remarkable rise of director and co-writer Chloé Zhao, born in Beijing but a longtime American resident. Her first film, “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” from 2015, earned less than $150,000 at the box office. But she took Best Director at the Oscars for her third film, 2020’s “Nomadland,” becoming the second female and the first woman of color to take that honor.
The new film, at more than two-and-a-half hours with a total budget of $200 million, boasts an epic scale to go with its big numbers—a story so complicated it might be good to read up on it before you head in. The Eternals themselves look human, but they’re imbued with fantastic powers and what appears to be immortality. They’re sent to Earth in 5,000 BC with a mission to follow.
They’re also told not to get too close to the developing human race. Their mission is work, and they must keep to their work. This proves much harder in practice than in theory, especially as their mission stretches across years, decades, centuries, and eventually millennia. When they come to believe they’ve been tricked, they must find each other, both physically and emotionally, to arrive at the truth, although they may kill each other to get at that truth.
Gemma Chan as Sersi gets a great deal of the screen time, and the British Asian actress does a great deal for holding the group together. She’s been disappointed in love, betrayed by those she should have been able to trust, and at times the others even question her. But she propels herself with a matchless, quiet dignity.
Other crucial roles for people of color include Pakistani American Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, cheerfully selfish Eternal turned Bollywood legend; Korean American Don Lee as the super-strong Gilgamesh; Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, the first gay superhero in any Marvel Cinematic Universe title; Indian actor Harish Patel as Karun, Kingo’s long-suffering personal assistant; and Mexican American Salma Hayek as Ajak, the group’s original leader.
The long running time means director Zhao can keep a fight sequence going for 20 minutes, if she cares to. It also allows for a number of back-and-forth reversals, as the group struggles to understand what’s really going on. Watching thousands of humans grow, learn, fail, struggle, hurt each other, and help each other, have worn into them in ways they certainly didn’t anticipate. One thing they know, though—this is no longer simply work.
And at the end, some of the naysayers from before the film hung out by the restroom to pull apart what they’d just seen. In a universe supposing intelligent life all through it, they laughed, what’s so special about Earth? Why should Earth mean anything special?
And I silently reflected that I couldn’t refute them. Not given the idea of life all around, through the stars. But through the universe into which we re-emerged when the lights went up, we sit alone so far as we know. We might as well care. We might as well throw in Eternals-level passion.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.