Gods of Egypt is a weird and watchable mess that does a tacky disservice to its mythological sources
Gods of Egypt Lionsgate
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Elodie Yung, Gerard Butler, Chadwick Boseman, Courtney Eaton, Rufus Sewell and Geoffrey Rush
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 7 minutes
February 26, 2016
(out of four)
Despite its relationship to the culture(s) that created it, ancient mythology has proven uniquely adaptable, from era to era and medium to medium. Its DNA - Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, you name it - is ingrained in the fabric of modern storytelling in a way that allows its ideas to be perpetually transformed and reinterpreted.
But as much as the stories themselves intend to reflect and explain the world around them, the more direct and specific adaptations tend to tell us more about their chosen medium than the narrative ideas themselves. Form becomes the de-facto subject, the myths divorced from their actual meaning in all but the broadest sense.
And so: Gods of Egypt, which, as representations of form go, is out of place even in its own time, not just antiquated but flat-out obsolete. If it were unearthed a thousand years from now, studied as a means to understand 21st Century cinema, it would provide a narrow glimpse of only the tawdriest version of the CGI blockbuster era: the Green Screen Movie. Somewhere between Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the Star Wars prequels, and those old Marines commercials from the '90s, Gods of Egypt is indicative of some of the worst impulses of recent big-budget filmmaking, the kind of thing that looks vulgar and primitive almost instantly. Among the lessons future humans will learn from it? That in 2016, a price tag of $140 million somehow wasn't quite enough to secure quality special effects or top-shelf screen talent. That in 2016, human civilization still hadn't figured out how to make crowds of CGI extras look remotely believable. That in 2016, someone watched this scene from Galaxy Quest and thought to himself, "I bet I could make that idea stupider, and hinge the entire plot of my movie on it."
It's certainly not the first time Egyptian mythology has been repurposed as a big dumb CGI spectacle, but at least The Mummy had some wit and charm to it. Gods has neither; it's just this big gaudy thing, not entirely uninteresting to watch but almost bafflingly free of any specific purpose. Its best quality is the inexplicability of its existence, its fluctuation between cheesy swashbuckling fantasy and contemplative outer-space drama.
There's a certain problem of interpretation - or rather translation, from ancient texts to a contemporary visual medium. Sometimes you read something - or think it, or dream it - that sounds spectacular, that ignites your imagination ... and then you see it in the flesh and it doesn't seem so magical anymore, perhaps even looks downright silly. It might even ruin that spectacular image the original words conjured. That's the feeling I got time and again in Gods of Egypt, particularly when we see the sun god Ra (Geoffrey Rush) perform his routine nightly battle with Apophis, the violent, shadowy incarnation of chaos. This ceremony is meant to have colossal implications - Ra essentially saves the world night after night - but it plays out as a mundane, perfunctory act, like sweeping the back porch or flushing the toilet. It is as dull to watch as it seems to be to perform.
Sometimes a metaphor is best just left as a metaphor. Sometimes an idea is better thought than made manifest. Figurative language exists for a reason.
That disconnect is felt throughout the movie, with setpieces and ideas that would make sense and come to life when read or spoken, but when visualized - often with a fatal literal-mindedness - it comes across like tacky adventure and even tackier romance. If I were unfamiliar with Egyptian myths and saw this movie, I'd assume it had been based on an old video game or something. The majesty of the source material is gone, replaced by stories and worlds that feel as weightless as the ones and zeros used to create them.
The movie narrows its focus to the unlikely pairing between the blinded god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the mortal Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a thief who has gotten his hands on one of Horus' stolen eyes (the source of his power). The two make a deal: Bek will help Horus get his other eye back from Set (Gerard Butler), the uncle who betrayed him and killed his father, and Horus will help bring Bek's fallen love Zaya (Courtney Eaton) back from the dead.
Various other characters populate this world to fill various narrative functions - goddess of love Hathor (Elodie Yung); god of knowledge Thoth (Chadwick Boseman); Set's (mortal) chief architect Urshu (Rufus Sewell).
I can't help but carry some admiration for a film that commits so fully to bringing to screen every elaborate fantastical concept it can fit into a single script. What comes across, though, is not a mad, colorful vision or a bold new interpretation of old myths, but a flimsy cartoon that has turned intrinsically meaningful ideas into superficial emblems. Here are a few other things those future humans might learn from Gods of Egypt: That the 21st Century film industry still envisioned ancient Egyptians as modern Scandinavians and Brits. That someone working on this movie - either in the costume department or higher up - was rather conspicuously, even excessively, fond of Courtney Eaton's cleavage. And that director Alex Proyas was still, circa 2016, a terrific sci-fi visual stylist.
This is Proyas' first directorial effort since 2009's generally reviled Knowing, of which I'm a committed supporter despite the film's unfortunate reputation. And despite my comments on this movie, I like his propensity for big, strange, pulpy canvases that risk coming across as corny or sentimental. But unlike his best work, Gods of Egypt's experiments with old-fashioned templates and genre storytelling lore don't really go anywhere, nor do they do much service to their source. This is the kind of big expensive spectacle that gives big expensive spectacles kind of a bad name.