"Poetic." "Contemplative." "Malickian." The adjectives used to talk about Chloé Zhao's films tend to be recycled, a testament to a signature style that's earned her rave reviews on the festival circuit, a history-making Oscar, and one of the most lucrative invitations in the industry: to direct a Marvel Universe film.
But aside from a few more nature shots than you'd find in a typical superhero movie, Zhao's hallmarks are suspiciously absent in her first outing for the MCU, the ensemble film Eternals, out this Friday. With a $200 million budget — nearly 40 times that of Zhao's second-most-expensive feature — Eternals was doubtlessly subjected to the same short leash that has led to a number of other stylish auteurs to split with Disney over "creative differences" in the past. But Zhao's willingness to play ball apparently cost the film her considerable talents as well: Eternals is an uncharacteristically sloppy misfire.
Zhao's fingerprints aren't entirely absent, especially in portions of the story that take place in her geographical comfort zone, South Dakota. An astonishing establishing shot of the prairie at sunset is particularly Zhaoesque. Writing for The Atlantic, Shirley Li also positively credits the film's "singular humanistic vision" to Zhao.
But this is a film that runs over 150 minutes, and those glimpses of Zhao are few. In between, there are an exceptional amount of unnecessary cuts; rarely does the film hold a shot for more than a few seconds. One dialogue scene, in which a character confesses love for another, is stitched together from nearly 20 different shots no more than a second or two apiece.
That's a cobbled-together method which tends to suggest a lack of confidence in the actors — or significant script rewrites in post. Either way, it's unusual in a Zhao film; she once let a camera roll on the set of her sophomore film The Rider "for two 40-minute takes," RogerEbert.com reports, just to get the footage required for 20 much slower, more purposeful shots.
That's the sort of creative gamble you have the freedom to take on an independent film. But Marvel is in the business of making a profit, which means Zhao was almost certainly subject to production constraints and steered away from any aesthetic risks that might alienate fans.
Take the action sequences: Marvel has historically struggled with its fight scenes, and Eternals doesn't escape the dynamism problems that come from having superheroes battle CGI monsters on a green screen. While Zhao's talent for natural lighting is on display in all her previous films, in these scenes the light is flattening and uniform, and her color palette is drab.
In fairness, there may be no director in the world who could've made these sequences look good without investing in a high-quality fight choreographer, the time and talent to properly light each shot, and more practical effects. Those are all expensive and time-consuming asks, and, to cut costs and maximize profit, Marvel would usually rather get the job done using a non-union CGI shop. "We're treated as a disposable short-term workforce" is how one VFX veteran put it to The Independent. Zhao, for her part, reportedly had to "really [fight]" for the practical locations she did get on this film.
I don't blame Zhao for taking the job and trying to make the best of it. It's difficult to finance a "poetic," "contemplative" film like The Rider — but a whole lot easier to do so when you're a director with a Marvel blockbuster under your belt. When the cards are stacked against you as both a woman and a minority filmmaker, you take the opportunities you get. Still, a filmmaker as proven as Zhao doesn't forget how to make movies. Only, hand-in-hand with Marvel, you just might think she has.