Gods of Egypt (2016)




Director Alex Proyas has been going on some epic Facebook rants lately, decrying the violently dire critical & commercial response his latest film, Gods of Egypt, is being met with at the box office. He’s particularly frustrated that what he describes as “hate bloggers” have organized a boycott of the film due to its predominately whitewashed casting of its Egyptian characters. Much like the recent Ridley Scott epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt represents for a lot of people yet another example of a long line of Hollywood pictures in which POC actors have been locked out of the lead roles that, at the very least for historical accuracy, should not have been granted to white actors. Proyas claims that the reason critics have been harping on his film’s problematic casting is that they’re too overworked to form opinions on their own & instead parrot the shrill voices of “hate blogging” (whatever that is) out of convenience or laziness. Proyas genuinely believes that if his film were able to stand on its own merits outside of its political controversy, it’d be doing much better at the box office. He’s taken to the soapbox he claims to hate the most (online criticism) to cry foul, to complain that he hasn’t been given a fair shake as a filmmaker.

Now, I’m not sure if this makes me a lazy critic or a “hate blogger” (maybe both?), but I also hated Gods of Egypt. However, despite what Proyas might believe, I didn’t enter the film wanting to hate it. In fact, I set the bar for my enjoyment so pathetically low that it’s incredible that the film failed to clear it (despite its excess of golden wings). Equipped ahead of time with foreknowledge of the film’s controversial casting, dire reviews, and crackpot director (whose work ranges from total shit like The Crow to actually-enjoyable nonsense like Knowing), I felt like I was steeled to what the film had going against it. Still, there was a visual element in the trailer that made me hopeful that it might be mildly enjoyable as a campy trifle. What I was expecting was the visually striking, narratively undercooked mess of Snow White & The Huntsmen, which I enjoyed despite its negative critical consensus. What the film delivered instead was the bland CGI worldscape that put me to sleep (literally) both times I tried to watch 300 in the theater (and, curiously enough, both films star Gerard Butler). Gods of Egypt has problems that extend far beyond its racially tone deaf casting & temper tantrum-prone director. The film is also a hopeless bore, which might be the most damning fault of them all.

Similar to the way The Witch attempts to breathe life into the religious paranoia of Puritan beliefs, Gods of Egypt aims to illustrate the myths of gods living among men that once populated ancient, polytheistic Egyptian philosophy. The difference is that The Witch dealt in sincere historical recreation while Gods of Egypt attempted to mold its subject’s mythology into a goofy action epic framework & the most despicable genre of them all: the shameless franchise-starter. Through overbearing storybook narration, Indiana Jones-style action adventure, and flat-on-their-face quips, Gods of Egypt tells the story of a half-blind god & a mortal thief who team up to stop a deranged relative who plans on merging life & the afterlife in a quest to claim absolute power. I won’t bother you with many plot details, since very few are of interest & can be boiled down to dual damsel in distress rescues. True love prevails over death & destruction, the men save their ladyfriends, the universe maintains its balance, etc. The stakes rarely feel high in Gods of Egypt, because each challenge is conquered with ease by a pair of protagonists who have no option but to succeed. The Egyptian mythology setting mostly serves as a backdrop for a white knight story we’ve all seen play out countless times before.

The best chance you have of enjoying Gods of Egypt is either as mindless eye candy or as a so-bad-it’s-good camp fest. May the gods pity you in either case. The film’s costume & set design are bathed in sweet, delicious gold, but the effect was tiring after its initial introduction. The brevity of the film’s trailers did its visual style a huge favor, distracting the eye from its bland CGI mediocrity by making it seem downright lush through rapid editing. There’s a few interesting details here or there: a masked army in blood-red robes, a flying chariot pulled by scarabs, gods bleeding gold when wounded in battle, etc. For the most part, though, the film is about as visually interesting as a video game cutscene (something else I find unbearably boring). The creatures were particularly disappointing on that front. I kept waiting for them to prompt me to press “X”. As far as goofy camp goes, there isn’t much of interest to chew on there either. There’s exactly one line that made me laugh. When asked where his buddy is hiding, the mortal half of our heroic tag team responds “Up your butt,” which, you know, isn’t the height of wit or anything like that, but I’m honestly an easy audience. I also found a lot of humor in the way that they visually conveyed the gods’ imposing stature by making giant-sized versions of their props to dwarf their human counterparts. That’s the kind of tactic you’d expect in an old midnight movie like Attack of the Puppet People, not a modern $140 million action epic.

Acting wise, most of Gods of Egypt‘s (again, controversial) cast is on autopilot. Gerard Butler performs as if he’s in 300 Part Deux. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau phones it in as a barely-engaged Jamie Lannister, trading in his missing hand for a missing eye & swapping the moniker “King Slayer” for “Lion Slayer”. Brenton Thwaites & Chadwick Boseman (a legit POC actor! and he’s not even an extra!) overact in a way that’s far more annoying than it is entertaining. The female leads are given little more to do than to dress provocatively & await rescue. Only Geoffrey Rush’s out of nowhere turn as the sun god Ra stands out as wildly-entertaining scenery chewing. One gets the distinct feeling that the renowned actor is slumming it in this feature-length high resolution screensaver, but his delightfully bitchy take on the all-powerful Ra was one of the sole bright spots in a film that could’ve used a lot more of them. At least half a star in this review’s rating is due to his performance alone, which, as you can probably tell, was a much-needed boost.

Part of me kinda feels bad for Proyas. He’s such a typical 90s Guy that he probably had no idea that such a cultural backlash was going to plague Gods of Egypt from its initial announcement to its dismal box office opening. In his mind, he made a grand scale Hollywood epic with a handsome cast & a lot of browbeating about how “In this world you’re either rich or you’re nothing” & the radical idea that slavery is cruel. He expected to get by on good intentions, particularly perplexed that his own Egyptian heritage didn’t allow him to sidestep criticism for whitewashed casting in yet another mishandled Hollywood take on the region’s past. The truth is that just as many people would’ve been annoyed with Gods of Egypt’s casting pre-Internet, but would’ve had a much more difficult time publishing/publicizing their complaints. Casting isn’t the only way the film feels politically stale, though. Take, for instance, the protagonist god’s jealousy that his lover had sex with her wicked, power-hungry enslaver. It’s the romantic jealousy that’s played as a character fault, not the fact that he’s slutshaming his lover for being serially raped. That’s the exact kind of outdated sentiment that seems to be going over Proyas’s head, making him subject to intense scrutiny from “hate bloggers” & “lazy critics”. If released sometime in the 90s, Gods of Egypt might’ve been able to skate by as a mediocre prequel to a forgettable blockbuster like The Mummy. In 2016 its moral ickinees is too much of a sore thumb to overlook, especially for something that aims to be a franchise starter. You get the distinct feeling throughout the film that Proyas & company should’ve known better (or at least tried harder). After reading Proyas’s rants it’s all the more confusing that Gods of Egypt is such a dull slog. This is the film he’s going to bat for? This is what he’s confused about no one liking?

There’s a single scene in Gods of Egypt that perfectly sums up my whole experience watching the film. During a heavily green-screened chariot chase an arrow strikes & kills the mortal doofus hero’s beloved & she dies while he blankly looks on & continues to steer their escape. This scene is everything Gods of Egypt is in a nutshell: visually uninteresting, passionless, seemingly plucked from a time long gone (and I don’t mean ancient Egypt). Again, Proyas should’ve known better. Or he at least should’ve known to concede defeat when it failed to connect with audiences & critics, who, despite what the director seems to believe, are the very same people.

-Brandon Ledet