Note: This review will contain some spoilers.
I was having a great time with Gods of Egypt right from the start. The moment I knew that I was kind of in love with it, however, came not far into the film. I’ll get to that shortly, but first let’s examine the set-up. The picture starts with a narration given by an older version of its protagonist, mortal thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites, Maleficent). This means that we know that Bek survives, but since this isn’t some dark crime tale or a perilous horror film, that doesn’t matter. When it comes to fantasy, the fun is in the journey and less in the final destination.
Bek is a thief with a heart of gold, stealing less for his own gain and more to get by in his meager life in a very fairytale-esque version of Ancient Egypt. Well, and also to please and impress his one true love, Zaya (Courtney Eaton, Mad Max: Fury Road). As the film opens, the two are poised to attend a coronation ceremony for the god, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones“). Horus is meant to succeed his father Osiris (Bryan Brown, F/X 1&2) and rule all of Egypt. The people are all excited. Horus, like his father before him, is well-beloved and expected to be a great king.
Problem is, Osiris’ brother Set (Gerard Butler, 300) is none too pleased with this notion. In his egomaniacal, malevolent eyes, it’s his turn to rule. He naturally crashes the party with his army and attempts to overthrow the kingdom. After killing Osiris and stealing Horus’ eyes, he does just that. The kingdom is plunged into darkness, with the mortals (and even the other gods) forced to worship Set and do his bidding, lest they suffer his wrath.
Bek is put to work building monuments and Zaya is sent off to slave away as an assistant for Set’s slimy master builder, Urshu (the always-reliable Rufus Sewell, A Knight’s Tale). Zaya, ever the believer in Horus (who is now living in exile), convinces Bek to sneak into Set’s treasure chamber and steal back Horus’ eyes. He complies and succeeds, although he finds that only one eye is stored there. Sadly, during their escape from the capital, Zaya is fatally wounded by an arrow.
Bek makes it to Horus’ temple and strikes a bargain with the fallen god: in exchange for helping Horus reclaim his other eye and get his revenge on Set, Horus will rescue Zaya from the underworld. What follows is a classic adventure tale full of heroes, gods, monsters, and a devilish villain. It’s a light-hearted romp of an adventure film that would often make the late Ray Harryhausen himself fistpump through its setpieces and wild creativity.
Let’s get back to that moment where I realized that I was starting to love Gods of Egypt. It came not long after Horus and Bek set out on their epic quest. In an effort to get some help and guidance, Horus goes to visit his grandfather, the great god Ra (Geoffrey Rush, Pirates of the Caribbean). Ra, in a rather Terry Gilliam-esque sequence, resides on a boat floating around the planet up in space. What is he doing up there? At first, he appears as a feeble old man who is simply grinding a spear on a sharping stone. Things get weirder when he grows to gigantic size, covered in flame, to begin his daily ritual.
What is that ritual? Bringing the sun up in the morning, of course. He accomplishes this by towing it with his boat from one side of the Earth…which here is depicted as being flat(!)…to the other, bringing it from the horizon to a position high about the sky. If that weren’t enough, once he does this, he has to shoot firebolts from said spear at a giant Lovecraftian demon wormbeast of darkness named Apophis, who would devour all of creation if Ra slacked off from his daily chore. If that doesn’t sell you on Gods of Egypt, no amount of unexplained craziness contained elsewhere in the film will.
This is one of the most original blockbusters I have come across in a long while and it comes courtesy of director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City). Proyas hasn’t had the best luck over the past dozen years, giving us entertaining but clearly flawed science fiction fare like I, Robot (2004) and Knowing (2009). With Gods of Egypt, he’s easily crafted his best film since 1998’s Dark City and one that, if it doesn’t land with audiences, is destined for cult fame in the decades yet to come. This is a bonkers piece of fantasy cinema on a level rarely seen since the 1980s. Not since the likes of Legend and Krull have I seen an original fantasy picture this wacky.
Those students of Harryhausen among you who found the attempts in Clash of the Titans (2010) and Wrath of the Titans (2012) lacking? You’ll find what you were longing for here. There’s some new dazzling pieces of magical absurdity and monster action on display here nonstop throughout the film’s 127 minute running time, which, incidentally, absolutely flies by. Where I absolutely felt similar failed attempts like Prince of Persia and the aforementioned Titans duo plodding along, the pacing never really felt off here for me. Even when the storytelling got messy from time to time, I always felt entertained.
Performance-wise, everyone is on point. If any of the main and supporting cast members are embarrassed by the film they are in, they don’t show it. Everyone gives it their all and the result as a wild adventure made all the more enticing. Gerard Butler chews through scenery like there is no tomorrow, strutting across scenes as Set like a musclebound ego on two legs. Elodie Yung, who I could have used a bit more of, is an utter delight as goddess of love, Hathor, Horus’ true love and slave to Set’s power. If this film and what we’ve seen in the trailers for the second season of “Daredevil” are anything to go by, she’s going to make an excellent Elektra for Marvel.
Speaking of future Marvel stars, Chadwick Boseman is also on fire here. As knowledge-filled god Thoth, his above-it-all attitude towards everyone around him (be they god or mortal) is a hoot and Boseman is a riot in the role. If there is any character’s ego in the film that can match Set’s, it is Thoth’s. He’s already impressed repeatedly elsewhere and this just gives us yet another reason to love Boseman before we even see him don those Black Panther duds in Captain America: Civil War this May.
If they weren’t enough, we still get very capable leads in the form of Brenton Thwaites, Nikolaj Coster-Wadau, and Courtney Young. The latter spends most of the film wandering along a path toward the afterlife (accompanied by a gnarly-looking god, Anubis!), which is a shame, but she shines whenever the film deems to show here. Thwaites and Coster-Wadau have a great camaraderie, tossing out quips and comedic insults left and right, most of which land. Given that we’ve seen quite a few dud heroes recently (Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim comes to mind), it’s nice to see a pair of adventurers that actually have some charm and chemistry with one another.
As far as I can tell, every penny of that $140 million budget has made it onto the screen. The FX can get a bit cartoonish at times, but that only adds to the fun. When you’re experiencing a tale with a flying chariot pulled by giant scarabs, a pair of kaiju-sized fire-breathing cobras, a riddle-happy Sphinx, and oversized gods that can transform into metallic manbeasts, some occasionally wonky CGI just adds to the charm of it all. It’s the modern equivalent of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts and all that comes with such a comparison. It’s the kind of film where you know EXACTLY where you stand on the material the moment you see a full trailer for it.
In today’s climate, it almost feels wrong to enjoy this film as much as I did. After all, we’re talking about a movie centered around Egyptian mythology that has 6 of its 8 leads played by white actors. I could bring up the fact that while director Alex Proyas was raised in Australia, he was actually born a Greek Egyptian. I could also go into the fact that, as much as we hate to admit it, the rest of the world is just as racist as America, making it hard to finance films that don’t have at least a few white leads. Both statements are very much true, but they are also excuses.
There’s no reason this film had to have 6 of its 8 lead characters played by white actors, even if they are good actors. As a result, a stigma lies upon the film, much like Prince of Persia, Exodus: Gods & Kings, and The Last Airbender before it. Problem is, unlike those mostly forgettable pieces of cinema, Gods of Egypt is an incredibly enjoyable film. Instead of being something we can cast aside and ignore, it sits alongside other fun films with questionable casting like Edge of Tomorrow (which itself was a Japanese novel adaptation starring an all-white cast) and Stargate (another white savior-filled Egyptian-themed genre film).
It’s very clear that Proyas set out to make a film evoking the fantasy adventure films of his youth, like the ones I mentioned above. It turns out that problematic casting is yet another layer added to the comparisons between those films (all three of Harryhausen’s Sinbads were white Americans) and Gods of Egypt. While the notion that this could have certainly cast more POC actors in main roles (there are plenty in smaller supporting parts and background roles) will likely always be creeping around in the back of my mind as I sit down with this film in the future, I still cannot deny my enjoyment. It might not be based on a comic book, but I suspect we’ll be hard pressed to find a more comic-booky pulp adventure hitting cinemas this year.
Simply put, Gods of Egypt is one hell of a great time at the movies. If you are interested and have the ability to see this in 3D on an IMAX screen, jump on it like a live grenade. See it as big and as loudly as you possibly can.
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