Gods of Egypt
Directed by Alex Proyas. Starring Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Elodie Yung, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Brenton Thwaites, Geoffrey Rush, Rufus Sewell, Chadwick Boseman, Emma Booth, Bruce Spence, Bryan Brown, Goran D. Kleut, Rachael Blake, Julian Stone, Robyn Nevin. Written by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
During the course of the fantastically awful new messterpiece Gods of Egypt, the sun god Ra – played by Geoffrey Rush and enhanced by CGI flames – rides his magical space-ship around a flat disc of the Earth, pulling a fireball sun behind him with a chain.
Ra’s eternal task is to fend off the evil spirit Apophis, who want to, I guess, destroy the Earth-disc and its inhabitants and even their underworld. For some reason. Apophis is traditionally depicted as a serpent, but here looks like a cross between Return of the Jedi’s Sarlac Pit monster and CGI gas cloud Parallax from Green Lantern. He’s the sphincter of your nightmares.
Apophis materializes from the nether every now and then to threaten the Earth, and Ra zaps him a few times with his sun-stick, which sends him sauntering back off into the nothingness.
I watched such scenes in Gods of Egypt with a kind of detached fascination, because I had little idea what was going on. Sure, there’s a good guy and a bad guy and the fate of the world is at stake somewhere in this movie. But as characters travelled throughout space and worlds and dimensions and transformed into beasts and battled monsters, the reality of what I was watching simply escaped me.
This is the vision of a madman, director Alex Proyas, who once made The Crow and Dark City, movies that could genuinely be considered visionary. And there is, at the very least, a kind of vision behind Gods of Egypt. This is the kind of spectacularly bad movie only a visionary director with $140 million at his disposal could produce.
Gods of Egypt was written by Matt Shazama and Buck Sharpless, whose previous (and only) two credits were Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter. They’re on quite a streak, and with Proyas at the helm this is their finest work.
Here, they had free reign: while countless movies have borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology, the fantastic world of Egyptian mythology has almost been entirely unexplored (Stargate and the most recent Mummy films, I guess, come closest).
But by the end of Gods of Egypt, a Pillar of Light shines up to the heavens while the darkness descends and threatens to destroy the Earth and the heroes must somehow save the day. It’s the same trope that we see in every other blockbuster these days, and the rote formula of the script betrays both the possibilities of the premise and the craft of its director.
In ancient Egypt – which might as well be another planet here a la last year’s Pan – there’s a riff among the Gods when Set (Gerard Butler) kills brother and King of Egypt Osiris (Bryan Brown) and blinds nephew Horus (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) by removing his special blue-glowing, all-seeing eyes.
Set is upset because dad Ra made Osiris the king (and made Set impotent, for good measure), so he not only wants to become king himself, but also destroy the entire world by unleashing the cloud monster Apophis. But why bother to rule the world if you’re only going to destroy it?
That’s where young mortal Bek (The Giver’s Brenton Thwaites) and romantic interest Zaya (Courtney Eaton) come in; while Set has shown no signs of world-destroying just yet, they plot to rebel against him anyway by stealing back Horus’ eyes and teaming up with the God to stage a revolt. And so Bek slowly gains Horus’ trust and admiration and so on and so forth.
Basic comprehension is an undervalued commodity in mainstream film. When I see, for example, Harry Potter and Voldemort throwing spells at each other I’m never sure who’s winning or what’s really going on, who is stronger or better or what’s stake when the CGI connects with a human being.
Well, I felt that way throughout the entirety of Gods of Egypt, not only during fight scenes but during major plot points. Wait… what is that magic water supposed to do? What is the point of the giant tower? Why is any of this happening and why should I care?
While details about the Gods and their actions unfolded in front of my eyes, I failed to fully comprehend them. Horus can transform into a bird and fly into outer space at will, yet he spends most of the movie walking through the desert, and spends precious minutes climbing up the giant tower at the end of the film as Apophis devours Egypt.
Many will complain about the special effects. There are minotaurs and sphinxes and shining metallic gods that are entirely animated and atrociously rendered; they’re at a 90s video game cutscene level, below the Jar Jar Binks Phantom Menace standard.
The effects are so bad, in fact, that you begin to wonder if they’re intentionally awful; with convincing CGI work easy to come by these days, this must be a stylistic decision. Here, it’s the live-action actors who feel out of place with the cartoon that surrounds them, though the performances are plenty cartoonish (Butler is especially hammy).
But I must say this: the shoddy effects of Gods of Egypt bothered me a lot less than say, the bear in The Revenant, because this film isn’t trying to convince of its unblinking realism. And the sketchy plot details bothered me less, too, because this thing is so far removed from reality I might as well accept it on face value.
Gods of Egypt is a terrible movie, but’s it’s also one with a sense of humor and panache and the kind of grandiose vision that only someone like Proyas could bring to it. Like last year’s Jupiter Ascending, this is the kind of bad movie that’s bursting at the seams with crazy ideas that keep it interesting.
Much has been made about apparent “whitewashing” here, casting white actors in roles that should theoretically go to people of color. But given the absurd nature of the rest of the movie, that’s one level of realism that we can, perhaps, forgive.