Thursday, June 9, 2016

Gods of Egypt (Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment, Pyramania, Mystery Clock Cinema, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us the recent (just released in theatres last January) movie Gods of Egypt, a big, spectacular fantasy with incredible computer-generated special effects and a pretty no-name cast: the only actor I’d heard of before was Geoffrey Rush, who plays Ra, ruler and apparently parent of all the other gods in the Egyptian pantheon. It’s a spectacular fantasy set in ancient Egypt, or rather a never-never land version thereof in which the Egyptian gods coexisted with ordinary people (in a plot hole I flagged to, ordinary people are referred to as “mortals” though the gods themselves are also depicted as mortal), though there are a few people here who have some modern reputation, including Gerard Butler as Set and Chadwick Boseman (the Black actor who’s been admitted into the Marvel universe as “The Black Panther”!) as Thoth. The film was directed by Alex Proyas (actually Egyptian-born of Greek parents, but Australian-raised) from a script written — or at least compiled — by Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless, and if you’re looking for a movie that combines action with complex, multidimensional characters and a plot line that makes sense, this isn’t it. If you just want to be dazzled by one spectacular CGI shot after another, this is your movie! There is something of a plot: Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, fathered two brothers, Osiris (Bryan Brown, another actor I’ve actually heard of, though his part isn’t long enough to make much of an impression — more on that later) and Set. Ra gave Osiris rule of the fertile valleys on either side of the Nile River, while he palmed off the far less desirable assignment of ruling the deserts that constitute the rest of Egypt as well as the underworld where the dead go to Set. Needless to say, Set was bitter about this, so when he hears that Osiris is about to retire and turn over the throne of Egypt to his son Horus (Nikolai Coster-Waldau, top-billed), he plots his revenge. As a wedding gift — Horus is supposed to go through a combination coronation and wedding to his fiancée Hathor (Elodie Yung) — Set presents Horus with a hunting horn, and of course when Horus set it to his lips and blew one note, I immediately started humming Siegfried’s horn call from Wagner’s Ring. 

Of course, the horn call in this movie serves quite a different function: that one note is all that’s needed to summon Set’s secret army (it’s not clear whether they’re gods, people or undeads like the zombie army in the most recent Mummy film), who take over. Set kills Osiris and plucks out both of Horus’s eyes, whereupon Horus retires into the desert like Oedipus at the end of Oedipus Rex until a busy-body mortal named Bek (played by a really cute twink named Brenton Thwaites) comes along. We’ve already seen Bek (his name is bereft of the usual “c” to make him seem more like an ancient Egyptian but I still couldn’t resist a Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style joke, “If you’re Beck, let’s see what you can do with two turntables and a microphone”) in the opening sequence, stealing something or other (a purse? A jar? An amphora) from a bazaar (where the people are anachronistically costumed in medieval Arab style) to give to his girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton) so she can be properly accessorized for the big event of Horus’s coronation and marriage — only Set not only kills Osiris and blinds Horus but takes Hathor as his own mistress. He also rewrites the laws of Egypt so people will now have to pay their way into the afterlife instead of just being admitted automatically (the argument between Osiris and Set over this just before Set kills Osiris sounds like a debate about economic inequality between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump), and he decrees that any gods who oppose him should be killed while all mortals should be sold into slavery. Bek tries to rescue Zaya from her owner but she ends up dead, and so he signs with Horus to steal back Horus’s eyes from Set in exchange for Horus going into the afterlife and rescuing Zaya so they can be together.

That’s about all the plot there is, and that’s about all the plot it needs, but writers Sazama and Sharpless fall into a common trap of fantasy fiction creators — including such major names as Neil Gaiman — namely, because they’re working in a genre in which anything can happen, they make anything happen whether it makes sense or not. I’ve long believed that fantasies actually require more complex story construction than other kinds of stories so you don’t exceed the audience’s capacity to suspend disbelief. Charles and I talked about this movie afterwards and raised the 1933 King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts as movies this one reminded us of — but Kong and Jason both had carefully constructed scripts that set up the fantasy sequences in the context of a story that was easy to follow and made dramatic sense. Gods of Egypt is just one CGI thrill ride after another, and over the course of two hours it gets wearying after a while. It also doesn’t help that the characters are the typical black-and-white people of fantasy: the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and there aren’t any genuinely conflicted characters like Gollum a.k.a. Smeagle in The Lord of the Rings (another well-constructed fantasy; if anything, J. R. R. Tolkien erred too much in the other direction, so carefully setting up the backstory it got confusing, but he still cared enough to make these realistic people caught up in a world in which fantastic things happened to them, but in accordance with a set of rules carefully worked out by the author instead of being arbitrarily shifted on us in mid-stream just to create a transitorily “spectacular” effects scene).

Because the characters are so one-dimensional and so arbitrarily manipulated in the service of a story whose writers take it anywhere they feel like it, the poor actors are pretty much at sea and it’s difficult to evaluate their performances the way one can in a normal movie — though Brenton Thwaites (despite that mouthful of a name) is at least cute, fun to watch and strongly reminiscent of the title character in Disney’s animated version of Aladdin in his cheekiness and infectious energy. Nikolai Coster-Waldau strikes me as the sort of actor who could probably do very well in a realistic script — when we first meet him he’s sleeping off an all-night drunk that made me briefly wonder if the writers were going to give us a rehash of The Prisoner of Zenda re-set in ancient Egypt (and that might well have been a better movie than the one we got!) and Elodie Yung as Hathor plays the closest this movie has to a multidimensional character, leaving us somewhat in suspense whether she enjoys having been pressed into service as Set’s sex slave or is longing to avenge herself against him and get back with Horus. Gods of Egypt is perfect evidence for film writers like David Thomson who believe that, after 100 years of cinematic evolution, film has reverted to the condition it was in when the Lumière brothers dug a hole under a railroad track so they could safely film a train bearing down on their camera — and audience members, thinking a real train was bearing down on them, fled the theatre. Gods of Egypt is a movie for audiences who want pure sensation — even when nothing fantastic is happening, the camera tracks over the digital representations of ancient Egypt with the vertiginous speed of something in an IMAX movie — and it’s also one of those movies that seems to have been less written than merely compiled; when the writers have the good guys strolling through great expanses of desert (filmed in Australia because the filmmakers decided shooting in the real Sahara would be too dangerous) composer Marco Beltrami supplies us an instantly recognizable quote from Maurice Jarre’s music from Lawrence of Arabia, and later when the bad guys chase them through the desert riding giant-sized desert snakes I joked, “Well, somebody had seen Dune.”