Editor’s Notes: Gods of Egypt opens in wide theatrical release today.
For at least some social critics, “whitewashing” – casting melanin-deprived actors in non-Caucasian roles (and the cycle of non-diversity that inevitably results – is the end all be all when it comes to evaluating the latest big-budget spectacle that regularly unspool across multiplex screens. To be honest, it’s an important, even vital, question to ask about any Hollywood or English-language film regardless of the budget, but it shouldn’t be the only question asked and/or answered. There’s s probably no better recent example than Ridley Scott’s semi-unjustly forgotten Biblical epic, Exodus: Gods & Kings. Easily dismissed for its Caucasian cast, Exodus: Gods & Kings’ complex, layered spin on the story of Moses and the flight from Egypt didn’t receive the thoughtful, dispassionate analysis it deserved from the critical community. But that was then and this Gods of Egypt, Alex Proyas’ (Knowing, I, Robot, Dark City, The Crow) semi-anticipated return to the big screen after a seven-year hiatus (an adaptation of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” foundered when Proyas’ financiers backed out abruptly just months before production started).
For at least some social critics, “whitewashing” – casting melanin-deprived actors in non-Caucasian roles (and the cycle of non-diversity that inevitably results – is the end all be all. . .
That certainly would have been epic if nothing else. Unfortunately, Gods of Egypt will have to suffice for moviegoers eager to mix mythology and spectacle, the Hero’s Journey (name check: Joseph Campbell) and contemporary superhero narratives. As expected, Gods of Egypt is just as – if not more – ridiculous, absurd, and ludicrous as the premise, trailers, and TV ads have been promising for several months now. The gods we meet in Proyas’ films resemble a certain group of Asgardians ever-present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): They resemble humans in appearance, but they’re nine-feet tall. They’re stronger than we are, capable of tossing a normal-sized man twenty or thirty feet. They have appetites double or triple that of mere mortals. And they bleed like we do, albeit their blood isn’t red. It’s gold, as in the gold they covet and horde, collecting tribute from followers and foes alike or simply taking what they want by force. They’re arbitrary and capricious gods, petty, selfish, and on occasion, cruel, but their king, Osiris (Bryan Brown), rules not with an iron fist, but with whatever passes for a velvet glove in ancient Egypt. They’re also not immortal. Their lifespans encompass millennia, but they can die through violence.
It’s a standard-issue quest narrative typical of fantasy role-playing and video games, except moviegoers are forced to watch passively, not participate actively.
But there’s a problem – there’s always a problem, a systemic one – when a non-elected, non-democratic king or ruler willingly or unwillingly relinquishes his crown to his successor/heir. In this case, the successor/heir, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), doesn’t exactly deserve to become ruler, but his birthright says otherwise. So does Horus’ war-loving uncle and Osiris’ petulant brother Set (Gerard Butler, quickly dispensing with a formal accent for his usual Scottish burr). Exiled by his father, Ra (Geoffrey Rush), the sun god, to the emptiness and isolation of the desert, Set wants his turn at playing king. When Osiris objects, Set easily removes him from the playing field. When Horus, in a justifiable fit of rage, attempts to take down his uncle, he loses the crown, the goddess he loves, Hathor (Elodie Yung), and his eyes. Set, however, spares Horus, allowing him to go into permanent exile, which he promptly does to drown his sorrows in self-pity, remorse, and wine while Set enslaves the Egyptians to build massive monuments, including a towering obelisk, to his equally massive ego.
Despite the title, humans play a role, albeit a supporting role, in the struggle between Set and Horus. One human, Bek (Brenton Thwaites), contemporary in his distrust of gods and an occasional thief (c.f., Aladdin), eventually joins Horus on his crusade (a loaded term if there ever was one) to bring a benevolent kingship back to the Egyptians (swap out gods with lions and you get yet another iteration of the The Lion King). More importantly for Bek, he agrees to help Horus only if Horus can help him retrieve his recently deceased girlfriend, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), from the Land of the Dead (c.f., Orpheus and Eurydice in case you’re keeping track of Gods of Egypt’s innumerable influences). The CG adventures and misadventures that follow – devoid as they are, of all but perfunctory attempts humor (not counting unintentional camp, of course) – quickly becomes tiresome and tedious. It’s a standard-issue quest narrative typical of fantasy role-playing and video games, except moviegoers are forced to watch passively, not participate actively. In short, Gods of Egypt soon devolves into the equivalent of watching someone else play a video or role-playing game. There’s little, if any fun, in that.
But then there’s the CGI to talk about. There’s so much, really too much. It practically fills every square inch or millimeter of space within each frame, much of it golden- or brown-hued to match the ancient Egypt environments. Everything, however, looks artificial, weightless, and insubstantial. The actors look pasted in, sometimes poorly, sometimes not, into under-rendered backgrounds. And once Proyas goes into full-battle mode, he untethers his camera, swooping this way and that, circling, and diving, following his transformed gods (when they get angry, they go into Hulk-like mode) as they fight and slash at each other in mid-air or from great heights. Conceptually at least, they show a tremendous amount of imagination, especially when Gods of Egypt goes off-earth to visit the world-weary Ra in his sun-barge, tolling selflessly to keep the world, his hand-crafted creation, in daily illumination while fighting the literal forces of Chaos (night) just as regularly. Unfortunately, ideas, concepts, and even themes (shallow here, again as expected), no matter how cleverly realized, can cover up a barely there, woefully underwritten screenplay, under-motivated characters, or barely functional, expositional dialogue.
Unfortunately, ideas, concepts, and even themes (shallow here, again as expected), no matter how cleverly realized, can cover up a barely there, woefully underwritten screenplay, under-motivated characters, or barely functional, expositional dialogue.