By Preston Wilder
When critics talk of ‘decadent Art’, Gods of Egypt is roughly what they’re talking about. Watching this two-hour, $140-million, based-on-a-videogame fantasy feels like watching the final throes of an artform that’s destroying itself, and doesn’t even know it. Cinema, in this case, is the fire-breathing snake with very big teeth whom Hathor, goddess of Love, hypnotises into self-incineration. You are cold, says the goddess, flashing her eyes, you must warm yourself up – so the snake breathes fire on itself, ending up a scaly pile of ash. Silly snake.
Hard to say who the goddess Hathor is in that analogy – but maybe it’s the market-based thinking that’s hypnotised Hollywood studios into the belief that you don’t need plot or psychology (that’s what TV is for), wall-to-wall action is how to court the multiplex audience. Game of Thrones fans – which at this point means almost everybody – will recognise Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (aka Jaime Lannister) who plays Horus, god of the Air, and even the title Gods of Egypt bears a kind of family resemblance to Game of Thrones. Both are fantasy adventures that thrive on vivid imagery – but GoT is beloved because it alternates its juicy sex and violence with quotable lines and character arcs, whereas GoE is just mildly diverting spectacle that palls before the end of its overlong running-time.
It’s a shame, because the film is good fun – an ornate faux-historical chimera with cheesy (if expensive) special effects and Gerard Butler enjoying himself as the villain, for once. “My magnificent bloody hounds!” he roars, addressing his soldiers, while a pair of giant beetles frolic in the background (turns out he uses the beetles to pull his flying chariot, like a twisted Egyptian Santa). Even better – ie worse – is eternal ham Geoffrey Rush as the god Ra, a pigtailed, flame-spouting geezer who flies above the Earth in a kind of open-air spaceship, jousting daily with an unexplained demon. “You stinking worm! You shall never feast on my creation…” snarls Rush portentously – then turns away, gives it a beat and turns back again: “…try as you might!”. Comedy gold.
There’s a place for silly B-movies, but it helps if they’re 80 minutes long (as opposed to over two hours) and modestly made on a low budget – though this clumsy behemoth might as well have been low-budget, given its visual tackiness. The CGI cityscapes look predictably fake but there’s also a bizarrely inconsistent ‘hobbit effect’, the gimmick being that gods live alongside men in ancient Egypt but the gods are bigger and taller. Some of the shots feature Brenton Thwaites (as our hero Bek, an Aladdin-style thief) looking like a dwarf next to Horus or Hathor – then again, some of them don’t, especially when god(dess) and man are both sitting down, adding to the general air of shoddy kitsch. If Gods of Egypt had been made by some small production company in Oklahoma, it might be charming. As it is, it’s close to embarrassing.
Couldn’t a few of those 127 minutes have been spent on some clever twists or witty dialogue? (Sample line: “All you care about is your stupid vengeance!”) There’s already more than enough action, even if one buys the (dubious) truism that well-crafted drama would be lost on the non-English-speaking audience. The early fight between Set (that’s Gerard) and Horus is undoubtedly exciting – even though they both end the duel by shape-shifting into giant golden birdmen, which you’d think they’d have done from the beginning – but then we get more fights, and set-piece after set-piece and it just becomes exhausting. There’s no reason for this kind of filmmaking. It’s like a buffet – a $140 million buffet – that’s nothing but desserts, all because ‘kids love sweets’.
Worst of all is that, despite its misjudgments, despite being Exhibit A for why audiences are abandoning films for TV shows, Gods of Egypt is nonetheless quite amusing. Butler builds a hilariously huge phallic obelisk, Elodie Yung makes a slinky Hathor (“Jewellery excites me”), the Sphinx asks a riddle and exclaims “Oh, bother!” when it’s answered correctly, there’s a glimpse of a capitalist afterlife where only the rich go to Heaven, etc. With a little more care – with a little emotional impact – this could’ve been a fun night at the movies. Instead we’re reduced to feasting on crumbs, looking out for funny little bits like Hathor’s golden bracelet turning out to be a portal to the Underworld. She twirls it and is suddenly careening down a narrow chute, surrounded by cackling demons trying to paw her – then gets spat out into the desert where she collects herself, dusts off her clothes and muses, to no-one in particular: “I suppose it’s better than running”. Not by much, though.
DIRECTED BY Alex Proyas
STARRING Brenton Thwaites, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler
US 2016 127 mins