“Gods of Egypt” (2016) – I am not a student of Egyptian mythology, but 10 minutes into “Gods of Egypt” – from a pure moviegoer’s perspective – two observations became clear. One, the filmmakers cooked up oceans of CGI to recreate an ancient, North African desert setting. Two, the movie incorporates a Shakespearean bent and lifts its central conflict from 1994’s “The Lion King”. The latter truly makes the overall story arc predictable, so the movie needs to rely on its performances, action sequences and general entertainment value in order to work.
Unfortunately, the “Gods” do not answer our prayers.
Director Alex Proyas’ film – set thousands of years ago – opens with a brief, difficult-to-follow narration but leads to a beautiful, ceremonial public space with packed stadium seating and laced with gold statues. Possibly 100,000 Egyptians eagerly anticipate the crowning of a new God-king, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the son of Osiris (Bryan Brown), when suddenly, Set (Gerard Butler) arrives fashionably late. Set – Osiris’ brother – demonstrates a more than forceful claim to the throne (i.e. my previously-mentioned “The Lion King” comparison) which sends Horus away on a winding journey to find himself and fulfill his destiny. Accompanied by a trusty young mortal named Bek (Brenton Thwaites), Horus and his young protégé travel over Egypt and through (seemingly) dozens and dozens of odd-looking, alchemistic locales this side of “Jupiter Ascending” (2015) meets “The Mummy” (1999).
Although ambitious visual and special effects teams probably poured “1,000 years of effort” into manufacturing incredibly detailed environments – including a brooding underworld, a gateway to the afterlife and a wildly-developed metropolis – it all feels synthetic. Filmed in Australia, Proyas may have shot on location in the Australian desert, but it does not appear that way. Instead, the entire picture seems be filmed in front of surrounding green screens at every turn with no escape hatch into anything palpable. Sure, when one’s picture features gods who stand 10 feet high, transform into alter-egos of eagles or bulls and fight across mythical societies which existed 4,000 years ago, one certainly needs to rely on special effects.
On the other hand, director George Miller shot “Max Mad: Fury Road” (2015) in the Australian desert, and the chase and fight scenes that transpired on actual sand, dirt and rock dramatically added to the cinematic experience and authenticity of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic time. I am not suggesting the “Gods of Egypt” filmmakers needed to build massive ancient sets in barren deserts, but its characters taking some tiptoes through actual sand in the great outdoors (or at least appearing to) could have gone a long way.
As distracting as the special effects are, the movie’s general narrative feels clunky and uninspired. First of all, Horus is not a very likable character. Even though he looks the hero-part, Horus is gruff, self-loathing and beaten down through most of the picture. We do root for his eventual rise to regain his self-respect, but his progress moves very slowly, like a Friday evening traffic jam. Thus, his sluggish transformation to “good guy” behavior frustrates the audience (or at least me). Meanwhile he shares absolutely zero chemistry or affection with his supposed, lifelong love interest Hathor (Elodie Yung), and his comedic exchanges with Bek appear more mean-spirited than they should.
Chadwick Boseman and Geoffrey Rush offer some gravitas in their supporting roles, and Butler undoubtedly carries some good moments as a chief villain, but Thwaites’ naivety-act runs thin after about 60 seconds, and regrettably, his character spends much more time on-screen than one minute.
I’ll say this, the “Gods of Egypt” thankfully does not take itself too seriously and adds some surprising, but well-intended comedic moments along the way. As I mentioned, I’m not a historian, but perhaps the Ancient Egyptian gods and mortals had great senses of humor. Well, as I sat in my theatre seat for 2 hours and 7 minutes, I certainly needed it.
Image credits: Lionsgate; Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers (YouTube)