Forget any chance you think Gods of Egypt might have at being some sort of stealth classic or ahead-of-its-time visionary fantasy. I was hoping for that; it's directed by Alex Proyas, who provided us with Dark City and Knowing, two great films that also seemed to be genre lightweights. But eventually, we must all forfeit some of our hopeful idealism. This is pure, pulpy, cataclysmically silly tomfoolery, a C-movie story and characters wrapped in a B-movie's emotional temperature and given an A-movie's budget. Its special effects look awfully attractive, except for the many parts where they look clunky and clumsy. The cast occupies paper-thin, wildly visual characters with what appears to be honest (or possibly drunken) relish. I try to maintain decorum in a movie theater out of respect for the patrons around me; I succeeded in maintaining that decorum most of the way through the film, and only just. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Movie Review: Gods of Egypt
By Ben Gruchow
March 10, 2016
How am I to properly review this? The proceedings take place in ancient Egypt, which is visualized at about the same level of restraint that the Luxor’s remodeling team might’ve come up with, if they’d aimed for paradise instead of an airport terminal. Egypt housed gods as well as mortals in these days, so perfect and glimmering was their land. The gods are roughly twice the size of a mortal person, but otherwise look just like them - except when they’re in need of the full range of their powers. Then they morph into metallic animalistic avatars: think a traditional mythological beast, by way of a Transformer. As gods, they possess colossal physical and mental skills; when injured, they bleed not red, but gold. This helpfully allows the filmmakers to avoid an R rating when characters lie in widening pools of their own viscera. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the god of many things in Egyptian mythology and restricted to a gift of sight here; he is preparing to take over the kingdom from his father Osiris as the movie begins. The ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of Osiris’ brother, Set (Gerard Butler); since we in the audience know the basics of Egyptian mythology, we know well before our protagonists do that this is not a good development. Indeed, Set murders Osiris in the first of many action and combat sequences; Horus attempts to avenge his father, but loses the fight and his perfect vision to Set.
With the royal family defeated, Set announces a new path to the afterlife for Egypt’s citizens: they will now need to buy their way into the afterlife. This will be done, as we see, in a phantasmagoric temple wherein the dead line up to place their riches on one of two scales; on the other scale, as we know, is the white feather. Egyptian mythology teaches us that the heart is to be placed on the opposing scale, and a virtuous person destined for the afterlife has a heart lighter than the feather. Here, riches lighter than a feather consign one to non-existence. This does not bode well when one of our characters ends up before the scales, under Set’s regime. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The audience surrogates here are Bek (Brenton Thwaites, absolutely not Egyptian) and Zaya (Courtney Eaton, slightly closer to the ballpark but still not Egyptian). They are mortals, and while Set takes over Egypt and marries Horus’ beloved Hathor (Elodie Yung), Zaya is enslaved, and eventually comes into dire circumstances. Bek tracks down Horus, and the two strike a deal: Bek helps Horus overthrow Set by killing the power of the desert, Horus helps rescue Zaya.
We thus have a plot put into motion that would not be at all out of place in the Capitol Pictures world of Hail, Caesar!: grand, capricious in mood, with acres of scenery created at vast expense primarily to ensure that there is enough of it to chew. In case the odd-coupling of Horus and Bek are in danger of getting stale, we are also offered Urshu, Set’s right-hand man and architect (Rufus Sewell, not Egyptian). He’s the one who builds the obelisk in honor of Set, which is designed to be seen from everywhere…including the Source of Creation, up in space. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let us give credit where credit is absolutely, objectively, immeasurably due: Alex Proyas does not believe in doing anything halfway, and Gods of Egypt commits to its goofiness with a tenacity and confidence that very nearly makes the film great in spite of itself. And there are visuals here that rank with the best of his work. Let’s visit the Source of Creation for a moment; this is a vessel piloted by Ra, who in Egyptian mythology is the god of the Sun. Fittingly, the Source of Creation pulls the Sun behind it on a massive chain, passing it over the land of Egypt from sunrise to sunset - and here, of course, Egypt is not a Mediterranean country bordered by other territories but a city and desert that span the totality of a flat obelisk in space.
Ra (Geoffrey Rush, not Egyptian, doesn’t care, and looking like he’s having the time of his life) has to regularly head off the malevolent advances of Apophis - represented as a serpent in Egyptian mythology and represented here as a colossal, Old God-esque carnival of smoke and huge rows of teeth. He does this by firing energy bolts from his staff into Apophis’ incorporeal form, and if Apophis isn’t defeated on one of his nightly approaches...but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s also not attempt to criticize Proyas for baring even a vestige of timidity. He knew what he was up to here. He went on record last December, stating unequivocally that this film has little to do with Egyptian mythology and it doesn’t take place in Egypt. I can believe this; all of Proyas’ stories have taken place just outside of common reality. Even Knowing, which nominally took place in a “normal” setting, ultimately revealed its stakes and groundwork to be far bigger and more ethereal than anything in the mortal realm. I can imagine the lights coming on in his eyes and mind at the pitch for this film: an adventure taking place in some ancient land that tangentially resembles Egypt, with all of the vaguely birdlike, doglike, and catlike beasts that implies, but involving supernatural deities and phenomena at war with each other. Proyas is and always has been a visualist, and this is no letdown on that front. I’ve heard and read others who compare the effects unfavorably to its kin, isolating shiny textures and evident bluescreen.
To that I would say, “And…?” The Crow and Dark City are notable and transcendent of their genre for many things, but photorealistic effects aren’t on that list. Those films, and this one, are persuasive evidence in favor of my argument that what matters most to successful effects isn’t the accuracy or seamlessness of their presentation, but the energy they’re conjured with. What we have here is a world and participants that are drawn sometimes with haste and sometimes in moments of colossal detail and beauty, with the dodgy moments having the benefit of serving a temperament that is even-keeled and knows what it wants to do and how it wants to go about doing it.
Gods of Egypt is not transcendent, though, and fails in comparison with his earlier work when it comes to the story and characters, as well as, yes, the problematic ethnic issue of the movie’s cast. Fair is fair; Lionsgate and Proyas have publicly apologized for overlooking what should have been a straightforward decision in preproduction. I do not believe that this would have been a better or worse film for having a cast of the proper nationality and tone; it would have been a better film had the characters (regardless of race) had a little substance to them beyond semi-clever retorts and puns, or half-realized pronouncements of love, hate, victory, and defeat. A day after seeing the film, there are visuals that still stick out vividly in my head, asking to be picked over and examined; I am having no such luck with the dialogue and motivation, which is wispy in the moment and definitively thin in retrospect.
The screenwriters, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, wrote last October’s The Last Witch Hunter; I liked that film, although many understandably didn’t. Here, as before, they establish a world of outré sensibility and goofy, giddy excess, and they believe in their world enough for it to make a fractured kind of sense within its own context. The characters are less successful, and pale in comparison with the director’s unique gift for realizing worlds only a fever-dream or two away from reality.
I cannot in good consciousness recommend the movie, because its only real assets begin and end with the visuals, and because some of the individuals who read this site know where I live. I can almost certainly posit that it’s better than you expect, while being about as bad as you hope, and while giving us some moments of overheated imaginative creativity that really deserve a big screen, like the giant carnivorous sand worms that breathe fire, yet can be brought down by a single look. But I’m getting ahead of myself.