Gods of Egypt is pulsating with adventure: Golden cities, mythic creatures, and epic sword fights are standard fare, and the characters are literally larger-than-life. But there’s only so much entertainment a person can take, and this film is $140 million too garish.
It’s as though director Alex Proyas, known for action-packed think pieces like I, Robot (2004), tried to stuff the action and myth of 9 hours of The Lord of the Rings into 120 minutes. His latest sword-and-sandal flick, Gods of Egypt, feels more like a video game than a feature motion picture. Action permeates nearly every scene, and the film cuts to close-up shots in slow motion with every blow.
The dazzling images of gold and sand overwhelm the eyes of the audience, and the 3-D editing renders it completely exhausting to watch. A movie like this makes you wonder whether humans were built to withstand such entertainment.
The film revolves around two deities, and tells the biblical story of David and King Saul—or was it Hamlet and Claudius from Shakespeare’s famous play?—no, it’s Simba and Scar in The Lion King (1994). The upstart uncle Set (Gerard Butler) kills his brother King Osiris (Bryan Brown), but lets his nephew Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) live. And voila—you have the classic revenge plot.
From the beginning, Set is ominous and Osiris is just. In a bizarre twist on mythology, the king of Egypt is not only a god—he also controls who gets into the afterlife. Osiris allows even the poor to enter, but Set has another idea: “My brother thought the afterlife was a gift, but I have higher standards. You have to buy your way in with riches earned.” This raises the stakes to absolutely absurd levels, and shows a world fundamentally lacking in justice.
Set allows Horus to live, but steals the prince’s powerful eyes. Horus is weakened—physically by the loss of his eyes, and emotionally by the loss of his father. He requires motivation, which he finds unexpectedly in a lesser mortal, Bek (Brenton Thwaites).
What Works and What Doesn’t
From the outset, Gods of Egypt is garish and over the top. It’s a mish-mash of mythic heroes and villains (think The Lord of the Rings); menacing mythological creatures (Harry Potter) and dark ideas (Game of Thrones); and quasi-robotic, human-to-weapon transformations (Transformers). It is everything a little boy could ask for, and the 5-year-old inside me had a field day.
But the acting was very mixed, the cinematography forced, and the plot ended up horribly complex.
Coster-Waldau seems typecast and perhaps half-asleep in his Gods of Egypt role. As the witty villain-turned-hero Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, the actor presented a compelling drama—a character conflicted within and damaged without, coming to terms with his situation and choosing a path of redemption. As Horus, he follows the same character arch, with a much weaker performance.
Gerard Butler, best known for his role as King Leonidas in 300 (2006), makes a terrifying villain, but he also appears to be a stock character. His evil is clear from the outset, and there is very little nuance. Brenton Thwaites [Maleficent (2014) and The Giver (2014)] presents a compelling Everyman, a noble thief a la Aladdin (1992) caught between huge gods.
The supporting actors and actresses really steal the show, however. Chadwick Boseman [42 (2013)], who is slated to play Black Panther in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (2016), presents an exceptional and mysterious Thoth, god of wisdom. Elodie Yung [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)], the gorgeous goddess of love caught between Horus and Set, delivers a passionate and conflicted performance. Both give good laugh lines to great effect.
Honorable mention also goes to Rufus Sewell, known for A Knight’s Tale (2001) and The Man in the High Castle (2015), who plays a wonderful, cold-hearted, elitist villain. The iconic villain in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Geoffrey Rush, enjoys a short but strong role as the sun god Ra, fighting back the darkness of the giant evil worm Apophis.
A Mythic Story
Criss-crossing all possible Egyptian scenes, the movie features the pyramids, the sphinx, numerous temples, sprawling deserts, an expansive city, and even a chariot of fire flying across the sky. It even presses deep into the underworld, where the audience sees souls marching to the final judgement. Gods of Egypt fits far too much adventure into the story, quickly introducing too many elements of this fascinating world without delving deeply into how or why.
The central themes of ancient Egyptian religion each make an appearance: the sun god Ra fighting the darkness so the world continues, the god of the dead Anubis guiding souls through the underworld, and the final scales with a feather on one side to judge a person’s ultimate worth.
But these themes don’t quite fit. Under the rule of Set, each dead person puts gold on the scale instead of her soul, to weigh against the feather. Ra does not rule over anything, but spends all his time fighting the darkness. Set is supposed to be the second king of Egypt, but the pyramids at Giza look the same way they do today despite being built by later pharaohs.
The world’s mechanics involve impressive amounts of CGI, but they strain more than just credulity. It does not make sense that the pyramids consist of shifting sand (no matter how cool it is to watch), nor that a god’s eye is made up of countless gears, nor that supposedly immortal deities bleed gold and die. It’s fun to watch—if you can stand it—but also tremendously confusing.
The plot is similarly byzantine. Despite being a relatively straightforward revenge narrative, the story takes hundreds of twists and turns, featuring interesting vignettes of ancient Egypt and the fascinating world that director Proyas has built. There are ways to do this right, but Gods of Egypt did not follow them. Every moment is rich to bursting with plot, emotion, action, and mythic meaning.
What Do We Make of This?
Despite its $140 million budget, Gods of Egypt is expected to only bring in $15 million during its box-office debut this weekend. How did such a dazzling and entertaining film go so wrong? It tried to do everything, and threw caution out the window.
The three films of The Lord of The Rings each made it in the top 40 of the 100 highest grossing films of all time, and the trilogy ranked fourth on FiveThirtyEight’s list of the 25 most rewatchable movies. No franchise comes close in the fantasy genre, and Gods of Egypt is vying to be a long-term franchise in this vein. But everything The Lord of the Rings did right, Gods of Egypt botched.
The Lord of the Rings develops characters over a long period of time, and multiple characters change. The action is earned and plays a key role in the story, which is not dependent on it. While the world-building is similar, each different realm in The Lord of the Rings is on a path from one place to another, with a clear goal, not haphazard.
In short, The Lord of the Rings has discipline. It has story discipline, character discipline, and action discipline. Gods of Egypt has none of these things, and this is why it fails. This is why it explodes beyond what you and I want out of a movie.
To be fair, it is rare to find a film that overperforms, rather than underperforms. I would compare the immersion and action of this movie to Avatar (2009), but the sad thing is that even that film had more discipline than this one. Gods of Egypt does have one redeeming quality from a Judeo-Christian perspective, however: It shows the value of a just God who judges people on their actions, balancing the injustices of life. That’s no small thing, but is it worth such an explosive experience? You be the judge.