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For a film so ostensibly concerned with the indelible power of life itself, Eternals is shockingly, depressingly lifeless.Marvel Studios/Marvel Studios

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Directed by Chloé Zhao

Written by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo

Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden and Angelina Jolie

Classification PG; 157 minutes

Opens in theatres Nov. 5

Marvel’s Eternals is a historic cinematic event.

The new film is the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a sex scene … which is about six seconds long and as neutered as Groot the talking tree’s genitalia. But the film is the also first MCU flick to include openly queer characters … though their sexual identity is limited to a quick kiss as chaste as that aforementioned sex scene. Oh, and the film is the first Marvel blockbuster to be directed by a filmmaker coming directly off an Academy Award win for Best Picture … a regrettable fact that earns Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) instant ignominy for helming the most embarrassing best-pic follow-up since John G. Avildsen went from the heights of Rocky to the forgotten depths of Slow Dancing in the Big City.

I can’t completely fault Zhao for taking on this particular MCU assignment. If you squint hard and hold your nose – maybe plug your ears, too – there are elements in Eternals’ margins that speak to the filmmaker’s long-held interests: heroes’ resilience against impossible odds, the mutable definition of family, the visual poetry of our natural world. It is only that, as Eternals crawls through its 157 minutes of exposition-laden nonsense, all of Zhao’s previous experience helming beautiful, heartbreaking, majestic films – from the hauntingly spare Songs My Brothers Taught Me to the precise drama of The Rider to the generous humanity of Nomadland – is drowned out by the clang of franchise obligations.

You know things are going to be dicey when the film opens by dumping a few paragraphs of text onscreen, Star Wars-style, detailing the convoluted history of the Eternals. The short-as-I-can-make-it version: our heroes are ultrasexy, sorta-immortal beings from the planet Olympia, sent to Earth by the godlike Celestial named Arishem to protect humans from alien predators called Deviants. Although I couldn’t stop thinking of these villains as Variants, thanks to both the more enjoyable Disney+ series Loki and the decidedly less-fun coronavirus. Anyway: the Eternals have been hanging out on Earth for thousands of years now – some of them, like the flyboy Ikaris (Richard Madden) inspiring myths along the way – just waiting for word from Arishem as to when they can go home.

Hopscotching across continents and centuries, the film’s screenplay – which boasts a confusing credit allocation that lists Zhao twice; once for her own draft, and another alongside Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo – tries desperately to give each of the near-dozen Eternals distinguishable character traits and engaging personalities. But the closest that you’ll ever get to knowing the film’s heroes is by classifying them by their superpowers: the aforementioned Ikaris soars into the sky and shoots laser beams out of his eyes, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) runs super-fast, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) tosses fireballs, Druig (Barry Keoghan) manipulates minds, Thena (Angelina Jolie) creates fantastical weapons out of cosmic energy, and ostensible main hero Sersi (Gemma Chan) turns objects into, um, sand. Or maybe it’s dust.

There are a few more Eternals running around – including a badly miscast Salma Hayek as team leader Ajak –- and a handful of normie humans, too (hey there, Kit Harington, nice to see you have a brief Game of Thrones reunion with your Stark bro Madden). But honestly: you’ll either lose track or stop caring or both.

As written and illustrated by Marvel Comics legend Jack Kirby, the Eternals and their Celestial overseers were immensely psychedelic cosmic creations, designed to push the limits of the comic-book form. Think H.P. Lovecraft meets the space age meets a fistful of LSD. Translating such a universe to the screen – even in a cinematic franchise that’s already comfortably featured a giant purple alien titan who sits on a floating space throne and a multi-dimensional demon the size of a skyscraper – requires a filmmaker equipped with a surreal sensibility and a passing familiarity with intricate CGI. Regrettably, Zhao is a baffling choice: a filmmaker who is ill-equipped and out of her element, with her discomfort visible across nearly every frame of the film.

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Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios' Eternals, which features the most natural-looking moments of any MCU film.Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios

Certainly, Eternals features the most natural-looking moments of any MCU film: there are briefly gorgeous scenes of magic-hour sunsets and rolling ocean swells, Zhao neatly setting her heroes up as one of two opposing forces of nature. And the filmmaker is afforded one delightful burst of colourful action when she introduces the modern-day version of Kingo, who has become the face of a Bollywood dynasty. (For all of the jokes lobbed Nanjiani’s way when he was photographed bulking up for his Eternals gig, the comedic actor best known for his nerdy roles on Silicon Valley and Portlandia is far and away the most entertaining performer here, wry and charismatic where everyone else is robotically self-serious and gloomy.)

Zhao even finds a way to slip in a snippet from Pink Floyd’s Time just as the Marvel Studios logo pops up, implicitly promising a cooler, trippier MCU journey than we’ve come to expect. But ultimately this is a muddy CGI-heavy mess with no genuine thematic or emotional hook.

The Deviants look like budget-conscious riffs on Transformers’ Dinobots. The action scenes are alternately boring or baffling. And as much as we’re meant to care about the Eternals’ various personal crises – from the millennia-old romance between Sersi and Ikaris to the helplessness felt by Druig as he watches humanity succumb to war to, um, the regret that Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) shoulders for sorta-inspiring the bombing of Hiroshima – there are not nearly enough relatable or even coherent moments to sustain interest.

For a film so ostensibly concerned with the indelible power of life itself – humanity, we’re told again and again here, is a special force in the universe that’s capable of changing the course of existence – Eternals is shockingly, depressingly lifeless.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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