Based on the posters that sparked a whitewashing controversy and the trailer that was beyond bonkers, I developed very specific hopes for “Gods of Egypt.” Its mishmash of Egyptian lore and inexplicable mecha had me ready for a beautiful mess of a movie akin to “Winter’s Tale” or “Jupiter Ascending,” two risky works that are deeply entertaining, although not always in the way they intend.
Alternately, considering this is the latest from “The Crow” and “Dark City” director Alex Proyas, I hoped that despite the promotions, this would be a unique, dark and glorious gem of an adventure. Sadly, it’s neither.
“Gods of Egypt” isn’t good enough to be truly entertaining, and not terrible enough to be “so bad it’s good.” It’s best defined as a garish disaster.
The plot centers on a war between the titular gods, who (for no apparent reason) are about twice the size of mortals, a pricey visual effect that never stops looking ludicrous. A growling Gerard Butler brings his Scottish accent to the role of the evil Set, who throws the world into chaos as he strives to conquer it. “Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau reenacts the Jaime Lannister arc, but as a giant without an incestuous sister or any pathos. As Horus, he’s introduced as a cocky, gorgeous prince destined for glory, only to be betrayed, crippled (he loses eyes instead of a hand) and forced to rebuild himself to save the day. It’s little wonder Coster-Waldau, while still charming, seems to be sleepwalking through this journey.
Lastly, we have the mortal caught in the crosshairs: Bek (“The Giver’s” Brenton Thwaites) is a thief who has no faith in the gods, even as they transform into winged battle bots in the skies above him. Sure, he knows they exist, but he doesn’t agree with his doe-eyed fiancé (Courtney Eaton) that these deities give a damn about humanity. However, when his lady love is killed, Bek reaches out to the fallen Horus to save her and the rest of Egypt. Together, these unlikely allies must take down Set, who grows more powerful as he steals organs and limbs from his fellow gods.
There’s a lot of plot here, but no complexity. Going in you’ll be able to predict every beat, although the script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless throws in some curious bits. There are such strange visuals as flying chariots drawn by giant scarabs, gargantuan fire-spewing snakes, and a sail boat in space where Geoffrey Rush’s Ra rules over the Earth, fighting off a monster made of smoke and teeth while draped in a look that’s best described as flaming space pope. Maybe you hear these details and think this has to be fun. Nope. Despite lots of bold and bizarre production choices, the tone of “Gods of Egypt” is confusingly serious and lacking in character.
Proyas clearly wants to awe audiences with sheer spectacle, be it costly crowd scenes, repeated god-on-god violence, “Transformer”-style shapeshifting or scads of fight scenes. But for a movie that reportedly cost $140 million, it looks painfully cheap. Most of the time, I felt like I was watching someone else play a video game, not only because of the lack of realistic visual effects, but also because of how the action is staged. Again and again the editing cuts from a wide two-shot to a close-up in slow motion of a near-miss strike or a palpable hit. And it feels as if those moments in any fighting game where you pull off a special move and your reward is slo-mo animation of that killer slam. The device didn’t create an exciting sequence; instead, it made me wish “Gods of Egypt” were a video game.
When we talk about whitewashing, a common defense is that “the best” actors should be chosen for the role regardless of their skin color. Sure, but “best” is a nebulous term. Still, I suspect in casting Proyas was looking to hark back to they heyday of sword-and-sandal films, when white men starred and everyone spoke in a British accent. Inadvertently, this move also ties “Gods of Egypt” to a long history of whitewashing, and demands its cast all slap on British accents, no matter their ability to hold on to it (looking at you, Thwaites!). However, it’s difficult to argue these are the “best” actors for these roles when Butler, Coster-Waldau and Thwaites all get shown up by the film’s supporting players.
Chadwick Boseman, who has spoken out about the film’s whitewashing, absolutely steals every scene he’s in, which is too few. I was beginning to ponder how a film this expensive could afford to be devoid of star power, then in came the god of knowledge Thoth, with an entourage made up of his self-created doubles, and a snooty wit that won the biggest reactions from the audience. Boseman breathed life into this joyless journey, making me all the more pumped for his Black Panther debut in “Captain America: Civil War.” And as the film’s lone black star, his performance makes a powerful statement by smoothly stealing the show from the supposedly more bankable white leads.
Rufus Sewell is wonderful as ever in the role of an elitist villain (see also “A Knight’s Tale”), winning me over from his first sneer.
However, the other real standout is Elodie Yung, who’s bringing her sharp allure to the role of Elektra on “Daredevil.” As the goddess of love Hathor, she’s regularly robed like a Victoria Secret model, yet manages to be more than eye candy. Yung and Boseman seem to be the only two who can deliver the script’s lame one-liners and poor punchlines. Her dark eyes burn bright, infusing her slim backstory with a compelling passion. Plus her sharp-tongue and sexy smirk make her more than a match for the feuding Set and Horus, who plant her in an awkward love triangle. Regrettably, both Hathor and Thoth are cast aside for the film’s big finale, which is a nonsensical catastrophe.
I went into “Gods of Egypt” determined to have a good time, whether the movie was a marvel or a mess. As much as I admire big swings, it’s difficult to tell what Proyas was aiming for. His vision is such a perplexing tangle of influences, it’s tough to get a footing in his world. Its action scenes are plentiful but underwhelming. And the film’s heroes and villain fail to be even half as intriguing as its discarded supporting characters, even when they have twice as much screen time or are rendered twice their size. Although there are dazzlingly oases of talent and character to be found here, “Gods of Egypt” is largely a desert of an adventure, lifeless and punishing.
“Gods of Egypt” opens Friday.
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