Directed by Alex Proyas
Starring Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler, Elodie Yung, Chadwick Boseman
There’s a thing they don’t teach in Critic School* because it’s an ineffable truth that really makes you question our culture’s whole approach to judging art and that thing is this: the pleasures of art do not necessarily correlate with the quality of that art. You can enjoy trash and you can find great works boring, and that’s true regardless of how steeped you are in the medium’s lore and theory. This is a universal truth, I swear. It applies to all art, it applies to film, and it most certainly applies to Gods Of Egypt.
Gods Of Egypt is not a good film: its characters are weak, its dialogue is risible, its plot is thin and its epic ambitions frequently lie just beyond its grasp. But its a fun film and it has the courage to be balls-out weird, and that in itself has value. It takes all the bugfuck excesses of Egyptian mythology that a more cautious film would attempt to explain or handwave and just sticks them right up front for the viewer to grapple with. If you ever wanted to see Gerard Butler ride into battle in a chariot pulled by giant flying bugs or watch Geoffrey Rush literally tow the sun across the dome of the heavens in a magical boat, this is the movie for you.
In a world where the gods walk the earth and rule over mankind with benevolence, the king of the gods, Osiris (Bryan freakin’ Brown, looking more like a man proud of his new wall cladding than the literal king of the world) is ready to hand over power to his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, essentially playing Chris Hemsworth playing Thor) but Osiris’s brother Set (Gerard Butler, and we’ll get to him in a minute), god of desert and darkness, has other ideas. Set kills Osiris, rips out Horus’s magical eyes, and plonks himself on the throne.
A short but indeterminate time later, wily thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites, a man whose name probably won’t be seen above the title any time soon) steals back one of the eyes and teams up with the deposed god-king to put things aright. Cue epicness.
A big part of the film’s charm is how it presents the fantastical without paying much lip service to notions of realism. The Lord Of The Rings did a lot for fantasy cinema, but it left behind the idea (largely abandoned by the time The Battle Of Five Armies rolled around, to be fair) the idea that the fantastic should feel grounded. lived in, believable – for a certain value of “believable”. This is similar but not quite analogous to the Star Wars “lived-in universe” aesthetic. Gods Of Egypt dispenses with all that, giving us a world where nine-foot-tall gods walk the earth and transform into weird, mechanical-looking beasts, where evil hunters ride giant, fire-breathing cobras, where the afterlife is not a matter of theology but an actual, knowable place. Heck, in the movie the earth is literally flat; the Nile Valley is on one side, the underworld is on the other, and nothing else exists.
All this is presented in a lushly over the top style, all gold and gossamer and peacock feathers. Proyas, who gave us The Crow and Dark City, remains a prodigiously talented visual stylist, and he’s not afraid to go big here. You could argue that the film is over-designed, and that’s a hard criticism to counter, but you’d have to look to, say, Baz Luhrmann to find a more sumptuous, baroque movie. It becomes clear early on that realism is not a goal here, and not only does that free us to enjoy the spectacle for its own sake, it also makes the sometimes sub-par CGI more palatable. Gods Of Egypt is almost but not quite an all-green-screen affair and while by and large it works there are a couple of points where the budget appears to have popped a seam; the most egregious is a scene where elephant-drawn wagons are hauling treasure to Set’s temple and the poor beasts look like Max Rebo. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the sometimes woeful effects that populated the fantasy B-movies of the ’70s and ’80s – your Krulls and your Beastmasters. You’re gonna want to bring the same kind of charitable approach to Gods Of Egypt that you would to those old video store mainstays.
It would take more than charity to appreciate the lead characters, though, and the performances that animate them. Brenton Thwaites’ Bek is a non-event, and so is Courtney Eaton’s Zaya, his main squeeze/moral compass. To be fair, neither of them are given much help from the script by Matt Sazarma and Burk Sharpless (The Last Witch Hunter and Dracula Untold – these guys know their wheelhouse), which is all expository dialogue and flat one-liners linking scenes of action and spectacle. Zaya actually dies early on – not much of a spoiler there, folks – and Bek’s motivation is to rescue her from the afterlife, but he never seems too upset about the situation. I guess that’s what you get when the metaphysical is factual.
Coster-Waldau does better as the haughty but noble (or at least learning to be) Horus, while Elodie Yung is pretty terrible as love goddess Hathor, which does not bode well for her turn in Daredevil Season 2 next month. The whole affair is elevated by some sterling turns in the second rank: Geoffrey Rush bringing gravitas and a winking sense of fun as the sun god Ra and future Black Panther Chadwick Boseman as the arrogant god if wisdom, Thoth. Boseman actually manages to wring some laughs out of the dialogue, a feat that will go criminally unrecognised come the next awards season.
And then there’s Gerard Butler’s gleefully evil Set, who spends the movie pulling limbs off of and organs out of fallen gods to build his own pick ‘n’ mix battle armour. Butler clearly reacted to the script by muttering “needs more Brian Blessed” to himself before moving his bed into the gym and it shows; he bestrides the film like a shouty colossus, overpowering every scene with panto-villain bravado. There’s a good chance they went the digital backlot route out of fear that Butler would eat all the actual scenery on the first take. It’s a wonderful performance, and a clear indication that Butler Gets It.
And if you Get It too, you’ll get something out of Gods Of Egypt. It’s a fun film that’s frequently wrong-headed but rarely boring. I’m loathe to describe a $140 million tentpole flick as a scrappy underdog but seeing that the critical brotherhood have designated the film as this year’s whipping boy, I’m feeling rather protective. So bear that in mind that while everyone is lining up to expend a full clip of hyperbole into the poor flick’s twitching corpse.
*There is no such thing as Critic School. Hell, these days there’s almost no such thing as Journalism School or Film School.