Chloe Zhao is the biggest name Marvel has gotten yet for its cinematic universe (MCU). Sure, they’ve had major directing names before like Kenneth Branagh and Ryan Coogler, and successful populist genre filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon and Shane Black, and quirky auteurs like James Gunn and Taika Watiti. However, Zhao is the first Academy Award-winning director to jump into the Marvel sandbox. Zhao seems like an odd fit for something as mainstream and successful as the MCU, but she was excited to tell a big story with the biggest studio operating in Hollywood. Eternals (no “The”) is just as much about the question over what it means to be human as Zhao’s Best Picture-winning Nomadland, and it’s a lot easier to watch with one hundred percent less Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van (granted, she did win an Oscar for that performance). Eternals has received the lowest critical rating of any MCU film in its thirteen-year history and I’m trying to figure out why.
Thousands of years ago, the Eternals were created by the Celestials, powerful beings that are responsible for birthing new galaxies into the universe. The Eternals were sent to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the Deviants, terrifying tendril-heavy monsters that will consume and overrun a world. The Eternals are instructed by their masters not to intervene in human conflicts; only to intervene to save them from Deviants. Now that the last Deviant has been dead for over 500 years, the Eternals have settled into comfortable lives among present-day humans. Then the Deviants return, evolving with added powers and posing a new threat to humanity and the Eternals, but the real threat might be outside the confines of Earth.
Eternals feels like a different kind of Marvel movie in that stretches feel like it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, or a Terrence Malick movie, or a DC movie. The plot structure and tone even reminded me of Watchmen. Don’t get me wrong, the standard Marvel elements are recognizable, but this is a much slower, more methodical, more cerebral, and more challenging movie that really feels like a distillation of Zhao’s humanist indie naturalism and the crazy cosmos from Jack Kirby’s trippy source material. I can understand why some people would find this movie to be boring and poorly paced. There are extensive flashbacks and setup. It definitely doesn’t need to be a staggering 157 minutes long, second only to the three-plus hours of Endgame. Granted the movie is introducing a dozen characters, their relationships, their powers, their histories, as well as a new history for the universe that doesn’t relate to anything that came before it. There are assorted references to Thanos and the events of Endgame, bringing half the population back, but this is more a standalone movie that can serve as an introduction for those less well-versed in two dozen movies’ previously on’s. I knew going into Eternals it was going to be slow, and I knew several friends that outright hated it, but I think pacing is more to its benefit and detriment. The scenes feel like Denis Villenueve (Dune) is pacing them, where moments are given more time to breathe and where characters are given space to reflect and absorb. Like a Villenueve film, Zhao wants her audience to take in the grandeur of the moment, but she also wants the characters to be able to take in the drama of their circumstances. Some people will find it all too boring, and while there were points that could be trimmed, I was enjoying myself because of the attention to character perspectives that are given precedence over splashy beat-‘em-ups.
I was drawn in by the character reveals, their conflicts, and the time Zhao allows to examine their emotional and philosophical states. Look, it’s still a big, action-packed Marvel movie with plenty of monster fights and a world-saving cataclysm climax, and while those are agreeably executed, I was more taken by letting the characters pontificate on their problems. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh), an eternally looking child who can never live an adult life she craves. There’s Druid (Barry Keoghan), a man with the power to control the minds of all humans on Earth but is explicitly instructed to remain hands-off with their conflicts. He is severely torn and emotionally wrecked over watching them slaughter one another and knowing he has the power to intervene and resolve genocide, prejudice, and poverty. That’s the eternal question over why a loving God seemingly chooses to be hands-off, all rolled into one character. There’s Thena (Angelina Jolie), a legendary warrior of physical renown but whose mental state is fracturing and who poses a potential lethal threat to her family. There’s her partner, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who would rather watch over his love as she suffers and potentially declines than have her lose her identity and erase herself. There’s Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who only wants to help the humans with his technological skills but regrets his contributions and declares humans as unworthy of their keep after Hiroshima. Then there’s a reveal halfway through the Eternals that loads a needs-of-the-many sacrificial debate that positions different characters on different sides of the divide for the final act. I enjoyed that even the villains are presented with their rationale and are tortured over their choices they deem to be necessary for the greater good.
I’ve written a lengthy paragraph all on the meaty character conflicts, and none of them revolve around the goal to gather a magic item or learn a special power. I didn’t mind Zhao’s movie taking its sweet time to allow these conflicts and struggles to be felt because they were evocative, and Zhao’s storytelling shines when she focuses on the noble and often tragic struggles of people being complicated, contradictory, and confusing. Even the big dumb beasts evolve and have a perspective that has an understandable complaint. The final confrontation doesn’t come down to a giant sky beam and an endless army of disposable CGI brutes. It rests upon character conflicts and a romance that spans thousands of years where empathy is the secret weapon. Early on, you think it’s going to be a love triangle, and the movie just teleports out of that trope. I found myself more invested in the ending, even if I could already predict the conclusion. I was more interested in what the conflict was doing to the Eternals as a family fracturing under the weight of their destinies and the consequences of defiance. The film ends on a cliffhanger with significant fallout, and I don’t know how the rest of the MCU is going to square what we learned and accomplished here. This seems in sharp contrast to everything down the road.
Eternals is also an often beautiful-looking movie with Zhao’s penchant for natural landscapes and magic hour lighting. The editing and photography feel nicely matched and allow the viewer to really soak up the natural splendor and the impact of the battles. The action is kept at a human level with the camera tethered to the characters even when in flight. There is the occasionally eye-opening shot of a landscape, or Zhao’s use of visual framing, or the special effects revelations that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not the most breezy, action-packed movie in Marvel’s lengthy canon of blockbusters, but it’s not devoid of spectacle.
So then why has Eternals scored so low with film critics and a significant portion of general audiences? Some wonder if the level of diversity and inclusivity of the movie is a factor; we have many non-white characters including a deaf character and a gay male character in a committed relationship, with a genuine and loving onscreen kiss no less (your turn, Star Wars franchise), and that seems like a trigger point for certain fans that grumble about “woke culture.” I’m sure for some that’s a factor. I think the length will be a factor too. I think the elevated emphasis on emotional stakes and philosophical conflicts might be another factor. This doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie that has come before. It’s much more comfortable with silences, with patience, and with cerebral matters (again, not to say the dozens of other MCU entries were absent these). This one is just different, encompassing the directing style and humanist attentions of Zhao and looking at a far larger scope of drama than toppling one super-powered being. I saw this in theaters with my girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter and her friend and they both said they enjoyed it, so I won’t say it’s too mature or impenetrable for younger viewers. Eternals might be too boring for some, too long, and too different, but I was happy to endure it all.
Nate’s Grade: B
The tepid advertising for The Lovebirds gave me little motivation to see the movie. Even with the same director and star of The Big Sick, it just did not look funny with its trailer, so it was already gearing up to be mentally banished to a “see it eventually” field that might never be fulfilled. Then after COVID-19, it was bought by Netflix and now I had easy access to a brand-new 2020 movie previously targeted for a wide theatrical release. I watched The Lovebirds the day it debuted and was pleasantly surprised to notice just how much I was laughing early on, and that laughter continued throughout the movie’s entire running time. Kumail Nanjiani (Stuber) and Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) have a winning chemistry but they’re even better when they’re at odds, and the movie smartly frames the on-the-lamb misadventure during their dissolution as a couple. Through the harrowing events, we get a fuller picture of why their relationship didn’t work out, the issues each has, and why it might just work out over the course of some rather outlandish events trying to clear their names for murder. I found more to like in the riffs and weird diversions the movie would find itself circling, where an observational joke or offbeat moment could extend and find new life. The comedy set pieces are fine, though an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy is a bit lazy without going into more humor on the group and their stuffy rules. I wish there were more meaningful and colorful supporting characters but the emphasis is on our main couple. I found myself smiling and nodding along and being taken by the low-key charms of a brisk comedy that didn’t ask much more of me than to have a good time with some appealing actors. It’s not The Big Sick but it’s not a big bomb either. On Netflix streaming, The Lovebirds is a perfectly enjoyable 100 minutes to stretch out to and chuckle to yourself and think back on how the abysmal advertising really undersold the funny.
Nate’s Grade: B
Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The problem with the alchemy of action comedies is that once the action starts too often they forget to be comedies. Stuber (a portmanteau of our title character and “Uber”) follows the exploits of Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) as a passive, awkward, insecure retail employee and Uber driver and his newest fare, Vic (Dave Bautista), an aggressive police officer who just had Lasik eye surgery. The opposites-attract setup is a comedy staple and Nanjiani (The Big Sick) and Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) are well chosen for their roles. The problem with the movie is that only one of them gets to do or say anything funny. Nanjiani is entrusted with all the film’s humor, relegated to his riffing while under duress or sardonic detachment. I laughed here and there but Stuber is missing inspired set pieces and larger payoffs. Too many of the jokes seem obvious or lazy. There’s one genuine gut-busting gag involving a can of propane in a high-speed chase, but this seems like the only application of tweaking action movie cliches. There are some disposable storylines about finding a mole in the police department, tracking down a Very Bad Guy (one of The Raid actors, curiously kept from doing martial arts after the opening segment), Stu telling his unrequited love how he feels, and Vic making it on time to appear to his adult daughter’s art gallery show. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the enjoyable oil-water chemistry between the two male leads. The majority of the jokes occur just from their frantic interactions, enough so that I wish the exterior storylines had been shaved away. The film’s tone is too uneven, and when in doubt it falls upon action beats over comedy beats, and some times the violence is just a bit too harsh for the material. It can kill the good vibes quickly. This is more Pineapple Express to me than 21 Jump Street, and while I don’t regret having watched Stuber, it’s a movie that is hardly deserving of a five-star rating. Three stars, at best.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Men in Black International is a perfectly fine movie but it’s hard not to feel the franchise going through the motions in an attempt to recapture the elusive magic that made the original 1997 movie the standout it was. This time we’re introduced to new agents and new agencies, with Thor Ragnarok stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth decked out in black and on the hunt for rogue alien life forms in Europe and the Middle East. The two actors are charming and Thompson’s character is a great re-introduction to this hidden world, a woman who has devoted her life to finding and becoming a Man in Black. As we went from scene to scene, it felt like an MIB spy thriller evoking the undercover missions, arms dealers, shady informants, potential agency mole to expose, exotic locales, and crackling banter of that genre, and that’s something none of the sequels have done before. However, I also noted just how forced everything felt. What should be jaunty and droll came across as flat or overly exaggerated, trying to recreate the energy and style of the original but falling short. It feels like when someone is trying to retell a joke but has lost the rhythms that made it so amusing in the first place. The pieces are there but they don’t feel right. I also kept noting how it should be funnier. Many of the jokes are barely touched upon or developed for more potential. The set pieces are pretty humdrum and even the integration of the strange, otherworldly elements and aliens feels lacking. With that said, Hemsworth and Thompson remind you how winning an onscreen pair they are, and even with their charm kept at a lower, simmering level they are still enjoyable to watch. There’s a predictable storyline about an alien invasion and a predictable turncoat reveal, but it’s all played rather innocuously that it’s hard to get upset. Men in Black International is an intermittently amusing movie that’s hard to hate and hard to love. If you’re a fan of the series, or got a couple hours to obliterate, it should provide enough entertainment, but much like one of those handy-dandy nueralizers, you won’t remember much after.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Kumail Nanjiani is a very funny guy but he also might just break your heart and then mend it. He and his real-life wife Emily Gordon met in Chicago and weeks into their courtship she was placed into a medically induced coma to combat a mysterious unknown infection. She could have died (spoiler alert: she didn’t), and months after she and Kumail married. It’s a very unconventional relationship story (boy gets girl, girl gets coma, boy and girl get together) and the basis of The Big Sick. This romantic comedy, written by Nanjiani and Gordon, was a smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is now expanding across the nation. This is a born crowd-pleaser, one of the funniest films in years, and a heart-warming reminder of the pleasures of rom-coms done well.
Kumail (Nanjiani) is a Chicago stand-up comedian trying to catch his big break. He falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student in psychology. They try and keep things casual but cannot help growing closer to one another. Kumail’s traditional Pakistani family is adamant he marry a Pakistani girl, enough that there’s always one unexpectedly “in the neighborhood” during family dinners with their son. They would never approve Kumail marrying an American woman, and this stops him from introducing Emily to his parents. Kumail and Emily fight, break up, and it’s shortly thereafter that Emily is put into a medically induced coma. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are thankful but wary of Kumail at first, feeling his attention is no longer required on the matter. As the days turn into weeks, Kumail finds himself growing closer to Emily and her parents in the process.
The Big Sick succeeds wildly because it gets the most fundamental principal of storytelling right: we care about the characters. Over the course of the film, you grow attached to Kumail and Emily and their very unorthodox situation. We want them to find happiness and, more importantly in a rom-com genre, we want them to find it with each other. The characters in the movie are beautifully rendered and relatable. Their faults and relationship troubles aren’t the stuff of contrived drama but recognizable differences and cross-cultural pressures of acceptance and disappointment. He may be a stand-up comedian, and she may have fallen into a coma for an unknown medical reason, but you will relate to both of these people. They don’t feel like archetypes. Even as Kumail is making amends for his mistakes the movie doesn’t paint him as a saint worth automatic forgiveness. Considering this was written by the real-life Emily, it should be no spoiler to state that she does eventually come out of that coma. Her life is automatically better and while Kumail has only grown more steadfast in his feelings for her, Emily was asleep. For her, it’s like moments after they broke up due to an incompatible future. She’s thankful for what Kumail has done but she doesn’t want to be with him. That’s the second act break, folks. A lesser movie would have Emily’s awakening serve as its climax and everything would be hunky-dory while an earnest pop-rock song would play over. With The Big Sick, the last act is dealing with the consequences of her coma, and Emily is allowed her agency once more to make decisions all her own. It’s easy to project a progression of romance onto a static being, but she needs to travel at her own speed and on her own terms. I won’t lie; the final act produced some meaty tears from me.
Another hallmark of Judd Apatow productions that I don’t think gets enough acclaim is the sheer generosity of the screenwriting. These movies spread out the love to a wide ensemble of characters that deserve consideration. There are stock comedy types that pop in for the occasional easy laugh, like David Alan Grier’s coked-out club owner or Kurt Braunohler as the painfully inept comedian, but as a whole The Big Sick offers a welcomed kindness to its larger cast. Even Kumail’s arranged dates are given the opportunity to come across like people, particularly Khadija (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell) who is tired of not being able to enjoy what seems so easy for others. The fussy Pakistani family is played to be stern and uncompromising but they too have their moments. They are worried about losing their sense of culture through full assimilation, and they have an alternate view of family, one that involves self-sacrifice for the whole. The best additions to the movie are Emily’s parents. They don’t initially know what to make of Kumail but they eventually bond to him in different ways. Beth is fighting to control something out of her control and Terry is trying to keep everything calm. There is still lingering discomfort buried in their marriage from past indiscretions, and during times of crises it can reappear, forcing Kumail into an unexpected position. The movie’s sense of people is so warm-hearted and open, you just want to spend more time with them all, and it’s a simple yet beautiful pleasure to watch them connect.
Oh my lord is this movie funny too, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has seen Nanjiani’s standup routines before (extra points for not overly relying upon standup in the film for easy jokes). I was laughing from start to finish and there’s a consistent placement of jokes doled out in regular intervals. And when I was laughing it was the room-clearing guffaws. I can’t remember a movie in recent years that had me laughing as hard. Nanjiani’s deadpan is a thing of beauty and his comic timing is razor-sharp, and yet his sense of humor doesn’t detract from the weightier moments. Because the movie has such a heavy life-and-death backdrop, it’s important to have release valves for the audience, and that’s what the diligent comedy allows. It’s a bittersweet sense of comedy that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character and the weight of the drama. In fact the least funny parts in the film are likely the standup comedy friends, though no fault to Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, both generally very funny people.
Nanjiani (TV’s Silicon Valley) is a pleasant surprise as a dramatic actor. There are some very dramatic moments when his character is unburdening himself of regrets, fears, and frustrations, and Nanjiani is terrific, pooling emotions you didn’t think were so readily available in his acting toolkit. He makes Kumail a likeable and charming man. There’s also an undercurrent of conflict avoidance, not wanting to upset his conservative family, which leads to holding onto secrets. It’s a flaw that provides an instant direction for character growth, going from avoidant to assertive. Kazan (Ruby Sparks) has the tougher job considering she’s sidelined for half of the movie. Her portrayal of Emily is winsome without falling into a dangerously quirky territory (no Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Thankfully, she’s allowed her agency after waking from the coma, and her scenes with Kumail afterward walk that delicate line of emotions that leave us hanging. Hunter (Batman vs. Superman) and Romano (TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond) are both wonderful. They serve as a form of Emily proxies and when Kumail grows closer to them, and they grow closer to him, it feels like this small support group is becoming an appealing team.
The Big Sick is a big crowd-pleaser, lifted to great heights by terrific acting, writing, and direction from Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris). The director actually lampooned rom-com clichés in the hilarious satire, They Came Together, so having someone as instinctively skilled like Showalter guide the production helps steer away from the more expected genre moments. There are a handful of moments that feel pulled in from the Hollywood version of this story (Kumail’s big break timed with a very personal crossroads) but it mostly works on its own terms. These people are layered, allowed to be flawed and interesting human beings. It’s an unsentimental movie that finds ways to big emotions that feel completely earned. If you’re ailing for an enjoyable, funny, and heart-warming movie that respects your intelligence, try The Big Sick.
Nate’s Grade: A-