Gods of Egypt
After having finally seen Alex Proyas’s “Gods of Egypt,” the justifiable charges of ethnic “whitewashing” when it comes to casting the main characters are the least of this film’s problems. To be perfectly honest, at a certain point, one simply does not think about the fact that white actors are cast in the main roles of this film set in ancient Egypt, and you start to wonder how they could seem to take the proceedings so seriously at all. How is it the director of two of the great fantasy films of the past 20 years, “The Crow” and “Dark City,” has made a film that seems to set aside serious storytelling altogether, and takes a quantum leap into the absurdity of big-budget filmmaking cheese? I hope to have an answer to that by the end of this review.
In all fairness, I did miss the first few minutes of the film, but it was not difficult to get caught up with the story written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless. In ancient Egypt, Gods roam the Earth, ruling over mortals. In the heavens is the god Ra (Geoffrey Rush), fighting off the darkness of chaos while his sons, Osiris (Bryan Brown) and Set (Gerard Butler), are down on Earth. While Set has been in the sands, surviving and waging great battles, Osiris has been leading mortals with benevolence, giving them a path to the afterlife that is attainable to everyone. On this day, however, Osiris is ready to step down from his duties and hand the crown to Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), sitting proudly with his wife, Hathor (Elodie Yung). Before the coronation, however, Set comes to greet his brother and nephew, and challenges Osiris to battle, killing his brother, and taking his nephew’s eyes, which are the source of his power. Horus is spared, but Set (who has taken Hathor as his lover) is not so benevolent a leader as his brother was, ordering the mortals to build a tower to Ra that will reach the heavens, and telling them that only the wealthy will make it to a peaceful afterlife. Two mortals- a thief (Bek, played by Brenton Thwaites) and Zaya (Courtney Eaton), an assistant to the great builder of Egypt, Urshu (Rufus Sewell, from “Dark City”)- find a way to steal back one of Horus’s eyes, and use it to coax the god into coming to challenge his uncle, and restoring balance to the land.
Writing out the above story outline, I couldn’t help but realize just how similar the narrative of “Gods of Egypt” is to Hamlet or, if you prefer, “The Lion King.” One of the things that feels most baffling about “Gods of Egypt” is how it could come from a filmmaker like Proyas, who up until now, has seemed so focused and set on telling personal stories set to bold visual backgrounds. While his 2004 science fiction action film, “I, Robot,” may have some clues as to what to expect from Proyas with a “tentpole” budget like he has here, the truth is that even that film, for all it’s effects-driven spectacle, managed to stay true to the core ideas of the world Issac Asimov built in not just the titular novel, but others like The Caves of Steel. In “Gods of Egypt,” the responsibilities of creating a potential franchise, and the cliches that brings with it, feel like they’ve overshadowed the smart, character-driven storyteller than delivered small-scale successes like “The Crow,” “Dark City” and his last film, 2009’s “Knowing.” That I made a connection to Hamlet makes me think that Proyas, a Egyptian-born filmmaker, had a stronger narrative backbone in mind, but the desires of Lionsgate, the studio behind the film, to have a franchise it could build on now that “The Hunger Games” is finished took precedent, simply making Proyas a director-for-hire like he was on “I, Robot.” The problem becomes then, is the film too big in scale for the personal story Proyas (who helped develop the story with Sazama and Sharpless) really wanted to tell, or was the central premise too over-the-top to lend itself to a serious piece of storytelling at all? The performances by the main actors (in particular Rush, who is a long way from his Oscar-winning work in “Shine” for his hammy role as the sun god Ra) seem knowing that this should not be taken too seriously, but as a result, any emotional center that might have made this feel more like Proyas’s earlier work is gone in favor of big ACTING choices that is the stuff of Razzie-winning legend. Among the god characters in the film (which includes Chadwick Boseman’s Thoth, the God of Wisdom), only Yung’s Hathor, the God of Love, seems to add any real dramatic weight to the film that might have been if it had been a one-off film rather than a franchise-in-waiting.
Having said all that, if you can count on Proyas for nothing else as a filmmaker, it is a rich visual palette, and while I hoped for more out of his first 3D feature film, the director delivers some truly spectacular images. Rush’s Ra may be an over-the-top mess that would make Sir Laurence Olivier’s Zeus in the classic “Clash of the Titans” seem Shakespearian in comparison, but the “ship” he inhabits above the Earth is another original idea from the director of “Dark City” that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Throughout the film, Proyas seems to earn the praise the late Roger Ebert gave him in his Great Movies review of “Dark City” when he said that Proyas was a generous filmmaker in how much he gave the audience within the frame. A pyramid where Set’s power comes from may have moments that recall a rehash of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but it’s so detailed and creative in it’s own right that we can forgive the homage. The climax of the film, meanwhile, works on plenty of levels of action in the same way the climaxes to “The Crow” and “Dark City” did, and a moment where Horus recalls a garden his father tended is given the same imaginative strength as the memories Eric Draven or John Murdoch recall in either of those films. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. and production designer Owen Paterson are invaluable allies to Proyas as he creates this vision of Egypt that is grounded in historical record, but never really existed, because let’s face it, gods that could take magnificent shape as metallic creatures never roamed the Earth. If it felt like it was intended to simply be a silly action adventure film, it might be easier to overlook the film’s inherent silliness and lack of emotional weight, but one gets the feeling the needs to create a blockbuster accessible to all caused something more compelling to get away from Proyas, something that would have been more representative of the talent he has been in the past. Hopefully, we’ll see that Alex Proyas return in his next film.