Guiding humanity and helping them “progress” – even lightly – engages the Eternals in the problematic racist debate of the “ancient aliens”.
After the trailer breaks viewing records in the Age of the Pandemic, it’s clear fans are excited for the upcoming one. Eternals movie. With beautiful costumes, a phenomenal cast, an epic storyline, and months before its actual release, it seems hard to fault the film at this point. Yet where Eternals is already insufficient to the extent that it comes close to a disturbing and pervasive racist theory.
Eternals focuses on the eponymous Eternals, a race of beings who separated from humans early in the evolutionary process due to Celestial experimentation. With markedly greater power and longevity than mere humans, these beings have only intervened lightly in human history, with the trailer claiming that they watch, guide and help humanity to “progress”. The film’s main drama seems to focus on a time when the Eternals have to step in in a much more involved way.
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The problem with the plot promised by the trailer is how disturbingly close it comes to racist theories about ancient extraterrestrial interventions. Popularized by the TV show Ancient aliens, these theories claim that the technological innovations required for massive ancient architecture like the Egyptian pyramids were beyond the reach of indigenous cultures and instead must have been transmitted by alien intruders. In the Eternals trailer, this idea is echoed in the implication that the Eternals “guided” humanity to their cultural achievements.
The obvious problem with these theories is that they deny predominantly non-western cultures of their abilities and achievements. Those who believe these theories, especially scholars and white viewers, watch the works of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Incas, Shona and other peoples and claim that these groups were unable to make big things, so aliens must have been involved. It’s inherently racist and adds to the long history of Western denial that has had a damaging and traumatic impact on storytelling. By including the Eternals in this narrative, he not only further popularizes these theories, but continues the destructive story of culture’s wrenching away from others.
Oddly, the Eternals themselves may not explicitly be aliens. The trailer describes them as a non-aging alien race, but the comics describe them as an offshoot of human evolution on Earth. Whether or not they are truly “extraterrestrials”, the story of Eternals always engages in the narrative of denying historical cultural achievements by crediting intruders with influence and inspiration. If the iconic moment in the trailer where multiple Eternals gather in front of a vibrant blue gate clearly modeled after Babylon’s Ishtar Gate is any indication, these interventions will focus primarily on non-Western cultures.
It is possible that the Eternals the film itself will find a way to sidestep the racism of ancient alien theory or, ideally, tackle it head-on in an enlightened way. But given the connections between the source material and old alien theories, it seems likely that the film will do what the trailer promises and find a new way to repackage this racist idea, possibly in an incredibly mind-boggling way and effective.
Directed by Chloé Zhao from a screenplay by Matthew and Ryan Firpo, Eternals stars Gemma Chan as Sersi, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Angelina Jolie as Thena, Barry Keoghan as Druig and Kit Harington as Dane Whitman / Black Knight. The film arrives in theaters on November 5.
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