A funny thing happened on the way to the box office for Gods of Egypt, Lionsgate’s pricey fantasy about epic discord among ancient deities. A full three months ahead of release, both the studio and director Alex Proyas stood up and essentially apologized in advance for what audiences were going to see once the film opened. The motive for their mea culpa? Despite being set in ancient Egypt (which, yes, is in the continent of Africa), it had been cast, damn near top to bottom, with Australian, Swedish, English, and French actors.
This race-bending snafu, exemplifying Hollywood’s shameful epidemic of whitewashing smack-dab in the middle of a year laser-focused on the issue, turned into a headache so massive that Lionsgate decided its best course of action was to simply fess up to the (likely intentional, unquestionably tone-deaf) mistake and hope audiences would respect their candor enough not to boycott. And yet, though active rebellion against Gods of Egypt hasn’t materialized, it still seems unlikely the apology will pay off financially. The film is on track for a very inauspicious debut, and with the painfully white Academy Awards airing on Sunday, this has turned into a cosmically bad weekend for a ’50s-style-whitewashed blockbuster to hit screens.
Still, there are two silver linings to this unfortunate storm cloud of a production. One: the studio’s financial exposure is fairly minimal here, due to tax incentives and pre-sales. And two: at least the movie itself is a fun-enough effects extravaganza that Proyas and Lionsgate shouldn’t feel compelled to embark on a second apology tour.
Yes, there’s warmer praise one could give a film than that it exceeds very low expectations. But Gods of Egypt had some of the most toxic advance buzz of any movie that’s hit theaters in a long time, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that – whitewashing aside – this thing actually holds together as a cinematic invention. Instead of an unmitigated disaster of Wrath of the Titans proportions, what Proyas has painstakingly crafted here is an agreeably bonkers, lavishly decadent lark that delivers enough visual spectacle to offset its narrative absurdity and piss-poor casting choices.
In the movie’s mythology-spiced, lovably batty universe, the mortal denizens of ancient Egypt live alongside the gods they worship – though, with gold running through their veins instead of blood, said gods tower over humans, and rule accordingly.
All is well, with the noble Osiris (Bryan Brown) presiding over the society with grace and humility, until it comes time to crown his successor: the dashing Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), god of the air. But Bad-boy god of disorder, Set (Gerard Butler), crashes his party, slaying Osiris, blinding Horus, and ascending to the throne. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for most mortals, forced into slavery and screwed over by a newly capitalist method of gaining entry to the afterlife (material wealth replaces good deeds as immortality-ensuring currency).
Fast forward a year: Horus is slumming it in a crypt, useless and miserable without his eyes, while Set carries out his plans for world domination. Mortal thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites) could care less about the divine political gaming – a scrappy Aladdin type, he spends his days thieving for his one true love, the gracious Zaya (Courtney Eaton). Because this adventure needs a bit of a kick to get going, though, Zaya winds up on the receiving end of an arrow and starts her long trek through the underworld, accompanied by the vaguely menacing Anubis.
Bek, desperate to save his love, seeks out Horus and gives him one of his eyes back, having pilfered it (during a tremendously enjoyable sequence straight out of the Indiana Jones playbook) from Set’s booby-trapped vault. He’ll help the wounded god get the other back, on one condition: Zaya lives. So the two set off, hounded by Set’s minions, with only a few days to retake the throne before Zaya passes through to the afterlife for good.
That’s a solid setup, with a ticking-bomb conceit that actually works. And as a result, Gods of Egypt barrels along quite thrillingly at first, with Bek and Horus gradually growing to respect one another amid showdowns with all manner of mythological beasties the closer they get to Set’s palace.
Neither Thwaites nor Coster-Waldau are working with particularly complicated protagonists, but their chemistry is of an old-fashioned, brains-and-brawn variety, and neither actor is phoning it in. They’re aided tremendously by Proyas, the best thing this movie has going for it, who has a firm handle on how to conduct a swords-and-sandals story. He keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, parsing out the deity-on-deity smackdowns while leaving enough room for some less central characters (like Elodie Yung’s god of love, Hathor) to leave strong impressions.
What’s more, there’s a method to the director’s madness here – the slow-mo shots and whirling camera-play he employs to capture destructive brawls between the gods (who sometimes enter a kind of beast mode, transforming into super-sized mech creatures of combat that resemble an unholy cross between one of Immortals‘ gold-fetishizing warriors and a super pissed-off Transformer) make those sequences an absolute blast to behold.
Unlike most blockbuster helmers, he knows how to be both smart and spectacular with his visuals at once – despite its scale, the action is atypically (though not always) coherent and clever. Proyas is doubly savvy for grounding it in the tones and trappings of an over-the-top Egyptian period piece – the costuming is suitably daffy, with ample heaving bosoms and glistening torsos, and the dialogue (by Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless, much stronger here than in Dracula Untold, if still a tad workmanlike) includes grin-inducing laments like, “Why was I made to walk on burning sands while my brother strolled barefoot, alone, on the shores of the Nile?”
Such lines are delivered with the hammy sincerity that can only be achieved by actors fully in step with the sort of movie they’re making. In Gods of Egypt‘s case, that mostly means they’re willing to step up, spout off some ridiculous declaration, and step back down to let the CGI wizardry take center stage.
It’s a winning strategy – every penny of the $140 million budget is up on screen, and Proyas, Sazama, and Sharpless showcase a visual imagination that far outweighs their grasp of plot structure. From the presence of Ra (Geoffrey Rush), the all-powerful Sun God who hangs out on some sort of a spaceship above the (flat!!) Earth in order to fend off the constant advances of a giant, hungry space-worm with the help of his trusty sun-staff/ray-gun (because why the hell not), to the sheer existence of a sequence in which Set rides into battle on a chariot fronted by two huge, flying scarabs without any explanation of how he gained access to such a contraption, Gods of Egypt has a go-for-broke gonzo streak that serves it well.
If only the movie leaned more into its original, audaciously out-there ideas than the mess of action-adventure tropes that surrounds them. There’s no building too tall to decimate in a bruising battle to the death, no monstrous foe or collapsing structure too fast to run away from, and no howlingly dramatic one-liner left unsaid.
Even the actors fit snugly into the same mold as every other recent entry in this genre – Butler’s all megalomaniacal machismo, and Coster-Waldau balances him out with a great jawline and Arthurian smolder to spare. Especially in its logic-be-damned final act, wherein Horus has to drag himself up the side of a massive tower so Bek can engage in his own round of climactic fisticuffs riding a spacious elevator to the same exact high point, Gods of Egypt opts to entomb its crazed sense of grandeur, erecting a mighty pyramid of perfunctory action beats that eventually contains it.
Should Proyas get to make a sequel (and with some majorly diverse casting additions, that wouldn’t be the worst idea), one would hope he ditches the clichés and takes this ballsy, bananas vision even further, from exploring a gold bracelet that repels no less than 42 demons to investigating exactly where that bizarre space-worm hails from.
There’s a scene in Gods of Egypt where Bek impishly asks the snobbish god of wisdom, Hoth (Chadwick Boseman), where he claims to have watched the beginning of the universe from if there was no existent place in the universe from which to observe. It’s a fair question, but Hoth sneers and replies something to the effect of, “If I even tried to explain, your mortal brain would melt and run out your ears.” That’s Hollywood’s way of covering its ass by saying, “Save it for the sequel.”
But luckily, if any property has the loony latitude to provide a suitably outrageous answer somewhere down the line, it’s this one – and if Gods of Egypt can remedy its tone-deaf casting woes and more wooden pieces of dialogue, it has everything else it needs to check all the graphic, goofy, gung-ho boxes required of a true summer popcorn blockbuster.
Batty and bonkers beyond belief, Gods of Egypt is an unusually audacious exercise in fantasy world-building, and the visual imagination it displays almost makes up for its shameful casting calls. Almost.