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ETERNALS – Ramin Djawadi

November 12, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand and expand, it’s inevitable that the films will begin to introduce characters that are unfamiliar to mainstream cinema goers not as well-versed in comic book lore. With them having mostly exhausted Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and much of the rest of their core superhero complement, Marvel are now turning to a new group to fill the void: the Eternals. Despite me having never heard of them before now, they actually first debuted in print in 1976, and are essentially an alien race of immortal beings sent to Earth by their creators, the god-like Celestials, to protect humanity from a race of creatures known as Deviants, as well as to generally aid and guide human development. Over the course of thousands of years the Eternals eventually fought and defeated all of the Deviants, and having done so retired into anonymity; they were instructed to observe and gently guide the population from afar, but never become directly involved in human affairs – which is why they did not intervene during Thanos’s fight with the Avengers. However the ‘snap,’ which brought back the population previously destroyed by Thanos in the Infinity War, also apparently brought Deviants back to Earth, which forces the Eternals to emerge, re-form, and combat them once more. The film is directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloe Zhao, and stars an ensemble cast featuring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie, among others.

Eternals is an ambitious film which asks some really important questions about destiny and free will, and addresses existential concepts about religion and the weight of expectation that comes with almost literally being a god – things which most superhero films gloss over in favor of fights and explosions. It’s also a very visually striking film that takes its time to linger over details, landscapes, and faces, creating interesting tableaus that are accentuated by some very delicate and subtle special effects that surround the whole thing in a filigree golden glow. It unfolds with the same languid pace of director Zhao’s previous films The Rider and Nomadland, which may come as something of a shock to Marvel fans more used to things being livelier and more kinetic, but Zhao also handles the action sequences with a great deal of competence, especially one sequence that takes place in a village in the Amazon rain forest, and the finale which takes place on a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean.

The problem, for me, was that I felt no chemistry between most of the cast, who often just stood around looking at each other in awkward silences, spoke in emotionless monotones, and reacted to what should have been devastating events with a stoicism bordering on indifference. Even the moments of lightness and humor often fell flat, or felt outright clumsy. This lack of connection with the characters is what ultimately let the whole thing down for me – these enormous events occurring on a cosmic scale really didn’t have much of an emotional impact; so it was a film I admired as an exercise in filmmaking and ideas more than I enjoyed.

In fact, the only aspect of the film that really did give me the emotional content I needed was the score, by Ramin Djawadi, without whose input the film might have passed me by entirely. It’s now been 13 years since Djawadi scored the very first movie in the current MCU, Iron Man, back in 2008, which means that in essence the entire franchise has now come full circle in musical terms. In the intervening decade or so Djawadi has scored popular films such as Clash of the Titans, Pacific Rim, and Warcraft, while also becoming something of a global phenomenon via his work on the Game of Thrones TV series between 2011 and 2019. What’s interesting is that, when it first came out, I actually thought that Iron Man was a terrible score, whereas I think that Eternals is probably the best thing he has ever written for cinema. Progress indeed.

The contrasts between Iron Man and Eternals are quite striking. Iron Man was essentially a rock score, full of wailing electric guitars and thunderous orchestral outbursts to illustrate the swagger and cockiness of the young Tony Stark. Eternals, on the other hand, is very much a score with more grandiose ideas. Like the film, it seems to exist in a higher plain of existence, and is much more concerned with the grand scheme of celestial consciousness than the dirty nitty-gritty of daily life on Earth. Much of it has an operatic, heavenly tone, and at times it is very, very beautiful. There are action sequences and moments of more dramatic intensity too, of course, but for the majority of its running time Eternals feels like a religious experience, which is of course entirely appropriate considering that in the context of this film the group is, essentially, the original inspiration for all the world’s major religions, creation myths, and deities.

The main core of the score is the “Eternals Theme,” which is actually several themes brought together in a suite. The first main element is a rhythmic idea, ascending and descending, a fluctuation of six notes and seven notes, which is carried initially by a keyboard idea designed to sound like a church organ, again playing on the film’s spiritual ideas. This eventually gives way to the score’s main heroic theme just before the 1:00 mark, a bold and noble anthem initially carried by rich horns, but which then switches to powerful strings underpinned by dramatic percussion, still performing the original rhythmic pattern. A lyrical bridge for cellos appears at 1:48, before both the Eternals Rhythm and the Eternals Anthem return for several expansive additional statements in the cue’s second half. The Anthem theme inserted itself into my memory almost immediately, much to my own surprise as much as anyone else’s, and it has quickly become one of my favorite themes from the entire MCU to date.

Several of the subsequent cues introduce additional ideas into the palette. “It is Time” introduces the enormous throbbing brass idea associated with Arishem and the Celestials, which is intended to convey the weight and scale and overwhelming power of these gargantuan creators of life across the universe. Electronic chords and textures give the piece an otherworldly grandeur, while the use of church organs further enhance the religious undertones, and give it a sonic impact similar to Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar. This motif for the Celestials appears frequently, especially in scenes which directly deal with Arishem and the interactions he has with the Eternals on a 1:1 basis; it is especially prominent in cues like “Somewhere in Time,” “Celestials,” “Remember,” and with great eminence in both “Audience With Arishem” and “Emergence Sea”.

However, by far the most notable part of Eternals is given over to music which is at times sensationally stunning. Ramin Djawadi is not a composer known for music that pulls at the heartstrings in that way; parts of Game of Thrones were certainly moving and emotional, and there were other moments here and there in other scores, but Eternals is really built around this sound. I suppose, at its core, Eternals is a movie about love – not romantic love (although there is some of that, especially in the love triangle between Gemma Chan’s character Sersi, Richard Madden’s character Ikaris, and Kit Harrington’s character Dane), but more in terms of the love the Eternals have for humanity as a whole; I suppose spending 7,000 years helping to shape and mold an entire civilization will do that. There are several recurring themes that address this topic, and they are clearly different from each other, but Djawadi doesn’t make any obvious topical distinction between them, so it’s not always immediately apparent what each individual theme represents. One thing they all have in common is their exceptional musical beauty, and this is something very much worth celebrating.

One theme, which I’m assuming represents the Eternals’ collective love for Earth, is introduced in “Mission.” It begins with some lovely piano writing – soft, intimate, tender, human – and is slowly joined by gorgeous ethereal wordless voices that have an emotional depth and profundity that I find captivating. Warm strings gradually take over from the voices, and then the finale of the piece combines the two to majestic, moving heights. A second theme, which I’m assuming represents the enduring love between Ikaris and Sersi, is introduced in “Celestials.” It begins with heavenly vocal textures backed with lush strings, revels in gorgeous harmonies and chord progressions, and includes more of those Interstellar-style church organs, before it emerges into a stunning swell of emotion after the 1:30 mark.

Several other cues feature these themes prominently, often with a different instrumental focus, or a subtly different emotional intent. For example, “Life” opens with a light, airy piano melody, but eventually becomes grand and sweeping, with more church organ chords, a powerful orchestra, and a bold chorus. “Remember” seems to be related to the tragic fate of Angelina Jolie’s character Thena, and her relationship with her fellow Eternal Gilgamesh, and is awash in pretty woodwind textures, soulful cello harmonies, moody piano writing, and a soothing chorus. “Across the Oceans of Time” has a very spiritual sound, and features a version of the theme with vocals performed in an ancient language, and which grows in scope to its sweeping, grandiose finale. Both “Isn’t It Beautiful” and “A Wish” return to the theme first heard in “Mission,” often with a contemplative, thoughtful tone, while the “Eternal Loss” cue offers a very slow orchestral version of the Eternals Anthem which is at times quite heartbreaking and emotionally wrought.

Three cues during the first half of the score address the fact that the Eternals have been on Earth for thousands of years. “Somewhere in Time” offers an interesting version of the Eternals Anthem for hesitant strings and what sounds like a mandolin, which gives it an ancient, tribal sound. The subsequent “The Domo” uses ambient textures and manipulated electronic sounds to represent the angular spaceship that brings the Eternals to Earth in the first place, and then accompanies the first appearance of the ship on Earth in 5,000 BC over ancient Mesopotamia, where early humans are being attacked by Deviants. A majestic choral statement of the Eternals Anthem heralds their arrival, and marks that they are seen as gods by these early tribesmen. Then, “Joie de Vivre” sees the Eternals living and enjoying life in ancient Babylon, defending the city from Deviants and helping the Babylonians develop and thrive; here, lively tribal percussion supports a bank of rich ethnic woodwinds led by a duduk, as well as some Middle Eastern dulcimers and string instruments, the latter performing what appears to be a variation on the theme from “Mission”.

And then there is the more intense action music, which tends to be darker, more rhythmic, and more dissonant, often featuring keyboards and manipulated electronic textures over chugging strings and heavy brass writing. “This Is Your Fight Now” features an impressive section where a slow version of the Eternals Anthem is accompanied by a variation on the Eternals Rhythm transposed to electric guitar. “I Have Been Waiting for This” is probably the most traditional action cue, in which Djawadi makes references to both main themes and the Celestials Motif amid banks of heavy percussion and rousing brass. The subsequent “Emergence Sea” is positively apocalyptic – massive chords, huge explosions of brass and strings, references to Celestials motif, and an obligatory colossal choir.

However, it’s more than a touch disappointing that a great deal of the most striking action isn’t included on the album. Several of the score’s major action set pieces – the opening fight in ancient Mesopotamia, the Deviant attack on Camden Lock, the attack on the Amazon village, the sequence in the Aztec Empire – included music in which the Eternals Anthem goes through some interesting development, including powerful arrangements that were seriously impressive in context. I understand that Djawadi clearly wanted to showcase the more emotional side of his score on the soundtrack album, but omitting many of these quite remarkable action moments, combined with the fact that the album is sequenced out of order, really does something of an injustice to the score in terms of the fact that Djawadi’s thematic development and narrative structure gets a little lost. The music that is on the album is still superb – as I have said, at times sensationally beautiful – but by concentrating on that alone gives a little bit of a false impression of what the score as a whole actually sounds like.

The finale of the album, “Earth is Just One Planet,” ends things on a slightly downbeat note with a series of ominous textures and electro-acoustic dissonances, a final exploration of the Celestials motif accompanied by a dark chorus, and a final statement of the Eternals rhythm that simply fades out. The last track is actually a bonus piece of source music – a Bollywood song called “Nach Mera Hero” performed by Celina Sharma, which is heard in the scene where Kumail Nanjiani’s character Kingo (who has been hiding in plain sight as multiple generations of a Bollywood acting dynasty) is filming a dance sequence for his new movie.

When you look at the musical choices made by Chloe Zhao in her earlier films – Nomadland, for example, made extensive use of pre-existing classical music by Ludovico Einaudi – it’s perhaps not surprising that Eternals sounds like it does, but even with that in mind it may come as a shock to anyone expecting the usual Marvel bombast and heroism. Eternals is a film more interested in heavy existential and philosophical ideas than black-and-white good vs evil, and so the religious reverence of the majority of the score is appropriate. The main theme is strong and memorable, and what action music is included is enjoyable and competent, but it’s the emotional power of the score that receives by far the most attention. With this score Ramin Djawadi has showcased a side of him that hasn’t really been heard outside the best parts of Game of Thrones, and I have to say I’m greatly impressed. As I mentioned earlier, taken as a whole, this score is probably the best thing he has ever written for cinema.

Buy the Eternals soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Eternals Theme (3:47)
  • It is Time (2:17)
  • Mission (4:30)
  • Somewhere in Time (1:39)
  • The Domo (1:57)
  • Joie De Vivre (2:13)
  • Celestials (6:46)
  • Life (5:22)
  • Not Worth Saving (2:49)
  • Remember (5:32)
  • Across the Oceans of Time (3:50)
  • This Is Your Fight Now (2:46)
  • Audience with Arishem (5:33)
  • Isn’t It Beautiful (2:38)
  • I Have Been Waiting for This (3:23)
  • Emergence Sea (2:22)
  • Eternal Loss (3:24)
  • A Wish (2:41)
  • Earth is Just One Planet (1:39)
  • Nach Mera Hero (written by Francesca Richard, Celina Sharma, Daniel Stephenson, Vishal Patel, Nana Rogues, Sara Strudwick, and Tremain Sandhu, performed by Celina Sharma) (3:09)

Running Time: 68 minutes 17 seconds

Hollywood Records/Marvel Music (2021)

Music composed by Ramin Djawadi. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Brandon Campbell, Stephen Coleman, Andrew Kinney, Nicholas Cazares and Michael J. Lloyd. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Chris Fogel. Edited by Alex Levy. Album produced by Ramin Djawadi.

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