It’s all in the name for an ambitious yet excessive ‘Eternals’

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It is both trite and true to proclaim that “Eternals” may as well reference the perceived running time of the latest entry in the latest phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one bolstered thus far more by its Disney+ television series than its silver screen fare. Clocking in at a beefy 157 minutes, “Eternals” is engorged on a hefty cast and storyline that literally spans 7,000 years of actual and fictitious history.

It is no small wonder, then, that writer-director Chloé Zhao — whose indie film bona fides include the Oscar-winning “Nomadland” — manages to forge this hefty spectacle about gods and monsters into one of the most human Marvel films to date. Still, the seams of this unwieldy amalgam are showing and stretched. As adroit as Zhao is at the film’s indie elements, she is just as clumsy and/or disinterested at building the necessary foundation of a superhero action movie.

Thousands of years ago, the titular immortals, led by matriarch and healer Ajak (Salma Hayek), were sent to Earth by omnipotent celestial Arishem the Judge, tasked with protecting the planet from a species of space creatures called the Deviants. Even after seemingly eradicating the Deviants, the Eternals remain on terra firma, blending in with humans while also splintering from each other. In the most notable of numerous narrative and moral inconsistencies, the Eternals are forbidden from interfering with human events, including the most brutal bloodshed, yet they nudge along human evolution, particularly technological advances honed by tech whiz Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry).

So, the petulant Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control the minds of others, goes off to live in a jungle commune populated by his manipulated minions. Super-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) choses to live by herself in the Eternals’ spaceship, waiting for the day they can leave for home. Super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee) goes into exile to babysit warrior goddess Thena (Angelina Jolie), who is going insane under the weight of many millennia of thoughts. The fire-shooting Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) becomes a Bollywood star. The empathetic Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can transmute inanimate objects, has a centuries-long romance with Ikaris (Richard Madden), this comic’s Superman analog, before splitting and living alongside BFF Sprite (Lia McHugh), who can project illusions but is forever trapped in the body of a 12-year-old child.

Skip ahead to the post-Thanos era — speaking of which, the pregnant question of why these all-powerful beings stood by when half the universe disappeared is off-handedly chalked up to a non-interference pact that they otherwise regularly ignore. The Eternals band back together after the Deviants reappear, including their Ultron-esque leader who can absorb the powers of slain Eternals — not nearly enough is made as this snarling beast gradually morphs into a sentient, self-aware foe. But the real dividing lines form between Eternals dedicated to the preservation of humankind and those duty-bound to their true mission, which essentially rests on Earth being a giant egg and earthlings being cultivated to overpopulate until they’re not needed anymore. The argument is that sacrificing billions would give life to many billions more throughout the universe, a very “Watchmen”-like moral quandary for this broken superhero family.

That leads to emotional conflict built around genuine stakes, as each Eternal must also face questions about their own origins and purpose. There is also a tantalizing New vs. Old Testament schism between archangels ready to sacrifice themselves to save the human race and those blindly devoted to God’s wrath. But it is all punctuated by plot holes and lackluster action sequences layered atop unconvincing CGI, lumbering along for so long you forget what it was all about. Although on a very different scale, “Eternals” shares a quality with Zhao’s “Nomadland”: it is at once both overly convoluted and oversimplistic.

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