Gods of Egypt (2016)

The battle for eternity begins

After a seven-year hiatus, Aussie cult sci-fi filmmaker Alex Proyas — having last helmed Knowing back in 2009 — returns to the directing chair, this time reimagining the Osiris myth in the CGI-encrusted sun-and-sand epic, Gods of Egypt. Initially, it seemed a little odd that Proyas — a man whose previous films generally carried grim overtones and were set in post-apocalyptic type environments — would tackle a feature steeped in ancient Egyptian lore; but hey, Proyas (having Greek-Egyptian ancestry) was born in the valley of the Nile after all.

'This ... is not Sparta.'
‘This … is not Sparta.’

Taking some creative liberties with the Osiris blueprint, Gods of Egypt attempts to fold multiple well-known mythological narratives into one grand storyline — the result: a bizarre hodgepodge of ideas that don’t quite mesh. While Gods of Egypt isn’t the adrenaline-pumped blockbuster it wants to be, its stylish photographic flair, wild expansive vision and just plain go-with-it silliness keep it from sinking into the hot desert sand.

Gods of Egypt tells the story of Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a mischievous mortal who’s thrust into a ‘Clash of the Titans meets Stargate’ type crusade (across the heavens and earth) in order to save mankind after his humble, one-true-love Zaya (Courtney Eaton) is struck down by an arrow and killed while trying to flee from her egocentric, gold-worshiping master, Urshu (Rufus Sewell), an arrogant pyramid builder. To reach the Afterlife and rescue Zaya, Bek enlists the aid of the Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), forging an alliance with the fallen lord of the Air, whose all-powerful eyes were stolen by his uncle Set (Gerard Butler), the merciless god of the Sand, who usurped the throne and plunged the once prosperous and idyllic kingdom into chaos; Horus agrees to the team-up in order to avenge his father, Osiris (Bryan Brown), murdered by the vengeful Set. Now, in an unlikely partnership, the pair set off on a journey to reclaim the empire and restore the cosmos back to its peaceful state, with the survival of humanity hanging in the balance.

First and foremost, Proyas’ vision clearly ignores historical accuracies and instead goes with the ‘rule of cool.’ Let me explain. For instance, towering gods inhabit the earth and co-exist with normal-sized humans in an Egyptian landscape that’s about as far from factual as the utopian paradise from Disney’s Tomorrowland (2015) — we have the pyramids placed smack dab in the center of town (aren’t they really situated on the west bank of the Nile, in Giza, and in the Valley of the Kings?) in an outlandish metropolis that sees impossible architecture such as superhighways built for pedestrians and opulent skyscraping statues within its landscape. Furthermore, every female character that appears on-screen looks as though she’s a smokin’ hot Victoria’s Secret model, straight off the catwalk. So, is any of this stuff historically accurate? No. But hey, it sure looks cool.

'Fangs for the ride.'
‘Fangs for the ride.’

On the topic of casting, a frenzy of ‘Egypt so White’ comments have been surrounding Gods of Egypt ever since the initial trailer dropped back in November of 2015, which revealed a white-washed ancient Egypt, populated almost entirely by Caucasian actors and actresses. Since then, Proyas (calling himself a ‘modern day Egyptian … born into a color blind culture’) has issued an official statement apologizing for ‘the lack of racial diversity’ while defending his ‘artistic freedom of expression,’ claiming that his film was simply a ‘work of the imagination’ and ‘not the best [movie] to soap-box issues of [ethnic] diversity with.’

It’s no secret that big-budget studio flicks require well-known names, faces and personalities to bring in the Benjamins, as the mega-corps who finance these large-scale would-be super-grossers want to safeguard their investment. Add to this, the fact that Gods of Egypt was made entirely in Australia (to lower production costs) following Aussie content ‘quota’ requirements, these guidelines (that restrict the number of imported actors that can be used) no doubt having a large part to play in who was eventually cast. Yeah sure, Gerard Butler’s Scottish-Egyptian god definitely looks a tad goofy, but would anybody have gone to see this thing had Karim Abdel Aziz, The Blue Elephant (2014), been cast in the role of Set instead? Probably not. So, I can certainly understand the reasoning behind these ‘controversial’ cast calls, but it’s not like Proyas went with overly charismatic actors either.

Alas, a beefed up Gerard Butler, 300 (2006), channels his inner Leonidas, barking out lines while chewing up the scenery whereas Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones (2011), does next to nothing to hide his Danish accent — this surely feels like a phoned in performance from the 45-year-old, whose already proven himself as a gifted rising talent. Brenton Thwaites, Maleficent (2014), puts in an ounce of effort as Bek, though the plausibility of his character (who’s apparently smarter, stronger and more resourceful than a god) throws much of the flick’s credibility out the wazoo. At the very least, Chadwick Boseman, 42 (2013), can muster up some (intentional) laughs as Thoth, the god of Wisdom — a promising sign, considering Boseman is set to play the Black Panther in the upcoming Marvel pic.

'Where's my shirt, thief?'
‘Where’s my shirt, thief?’

Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless — the guys responsible for penning other so-so CGI-heavy fable inspired flicks The Last Witch Hunter (2015) and Dracula Untold (2014) — Gods of Egypt mostly suffers due to its dull, mindless and derivative narrative which sees our bantering adventurers travel from one visually whimsical set-piece to the next, cracking jokes (most of which never quite land) and beating up mythological baddies while CGI structures come crumbling down around them. All of this is weighed down even further by cheesy dialogue, cliché plotting, weak character motivations and the sheer convenience of it all — not for a second did I believe that our heroes were in any sort of real danger.

But the frustrating thing here is, that interweaved between these ‘meh’ moments are jaw-dropping ‘WTF’ scenes of unadulterated awesomeness — snippets of ‘what could have been’ if the script were right. There’s a sequence where the aging god-king Ra (Geoffrey Rush sporting a tonsured head and greying queue), standing twenty-feet tall, bursts into flames then hauls a celestial fireball (the sun) around a flat earth by means of a magical floating vessel, all the while fending off a giant space worm (the demon Apophis) from devouring the world with a blazing spear — sound ridiculous! Well, yeah it is, but it’s oh so good, too! Then there’s a turbulently insane, wholly-CGI airborne brawl between an armored jackal-like creature and a steel-plated falcon-like thingy (Horus and Set in their god forms), beings who bleed gold (huh?). But despite all of this, the real showstopper here is a fierce yet loony confrontation set in a dilapidated digital paradise which sees Bek and Horus ambushed by a pair of enormous yin-and-yang looking vipers who breathe liquid-fire-venom and are steered and commanded by two beddable hot messes, the goddesses of War, Astarte (Yaya Deng) and Anat (Abbey Lee).

With Proyas putting his unique spin on a familiar genre, Gods of Egypt is an aesthetic treat — a stylistically beautiful, batty Egyptian pastiche. However, while the eye-popping effects are pretty top-notch, they’re often cheapened by some shoddy, rough-looking compositing (and this is particularly bad in 3D), which, sorry to say, could potentially pull viewers out of the action (well, it certainly pulled me out of it), discrediting the excellent VFX work (generated by Cinesite, Iloura, Rising Sun Pictures and Tippett Studios) as a direct result.

Iron Man 1000 B.C.
Iron Man 1000 B.C.

When the sun has set over the sandy Sahara dunes, Proyas at least deserves credit for attempting something this ambitious, even if Gods of Egypt is marred by a threadbare narrative, banal characters and shoddy (laughable) dialogue. Still, its offbeat tone and audacious (often bonkers) visuals almost make up for all its shortcomings. So, what we’re ultimately left with is a zany and uneven, leave-your-brain-at-the-door entertainer which, despite all its flaws (and my goodness does Gods of Egypt have its fair share) I actually enjoyed. Look, this is a love-it-or-hate-it sorta affair, a campy, well-designed fantasy spectacle that’s a whole lot of style and very little substance; you either go with it or you don’t — personally, I did. Please don’t mummify me for digging this one!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Gods of Egypt is released through eOne Films Australia