When the first trailer for Gods of Egypt emerged last year, it seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect: It advertised how bad the movie was going to be. Subsequent previews did nothing to alter that initial impression. Now that the movie has arrived, the only question is just how awful it really is.
And the answer is … bad. So very, very bad. Worse, perhaps, than the trailers even suggested. It is bad in practically every way it could be bad, from concept to execution, from imagery to acting. It is a movie with essentially no redeeming qualities — the epitome of everything wrong with big-budget moviemaking today.
Indeed, it is bad enough that it not only tarnishes the reputation of its once-great director, Alex Proyas, it makes you wonder if his reputation was ever deserved at all.
The plot of Gods of Egypt is an incoherent mess
The movie opens with an exposition dump — never a good sign — which explains that the story is set in ancient Egypt. Except it’s not really ancient Egypt, but a fantastical Egypt-inspired place from "before history," where powerful gods live among mortals and rule over them. The particulars are vague, but the primary differences between the gods and the mortals are that the gods live for a very long time; they can transform into magical, computer-generated beasts; and they are much taller than the average human. Essentially, they are crosses between superheroes and Transformers, but without as much franchise potential.
The two gods that Gods of Egypt is most concerned with are Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the god of light, and Set (Gerard Butler), the god of darkness. When the movie begins, Horus is about to be crowned king by his father, but Set storms into the ceremony, kills Horus’s dad, and, after a loud-but-boring CGI brawl, rips out Horus’s magical eyes, blinding him and stealing the throne for himself.
Why Set does this is never quite clear (perhaps that’s just what gods of darkness do?), as Gods of Egypt's relationships and backstories generally aren't well-established. In any case, Horus is banished and Set takes the throne, changing the rules of the afterlife to require mortals to offer payment for entry — the move is an apparent bid for Set to become the god of eternal toll taking.
Eventually, the story partners Horus with Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a young mortal who's bereft over the death of his lover Zaya (Courtney Eaton) at the hands of her boss Urshu (Rufus Sewell). The mortal-human duo traipses around fantasy Egypt, fighting giant CGI creatures (a pair of big snakes, a sandy incarnation of the Sphinx) and visiting other gods and goddesses, including Hathor the goddess of love (Elodie Yung), Thoth the god of knowledge (Chadwick Boseman), and Ra (Geoffrey Rush), the sun god who pulls the sun across the sky in a space chariot that looks like an unused spaceship design from Jupiter Ascending.
But I'm probably making the movie sound much more coherent than it really is. Gods of Egypt's haphazardly constructed episodic story never really takes shape; it’s just an excuse to move from one fantastical encounter to another, with brief exchanges of expository gibberish to link them. Indeed, its story barely qualifies as a story at all. It plays more like a bunch of ideas for scenes that were sketched on index cards, then shuffled and played in that order. The plot, such that it is, is not only unfollowable — it is not meant to be followed.
But the awfulness of the film's plot pales in comparison with the awfulness of everything else
The movie's real problems, however, are not with its nonsense plot. After all, modern blockbusters have shown that it's possible to make a perfectly serviceable film that doesn’t really make sense. Indeed, Gods of Egypt's biggest flaws are, well, everything else. The film is a reverse masterpiece — a marvel of poor craftsmanship at every level.
The performances range from boring to cringeworthy. Coster-Waldau’s essentially heroic Horus lacks the balance of arrogance and self-pity that makes his performance as Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones work so well. Sewell can be a fine antagonist (see his work on Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle), but his menace in Gods of Egypt is so one-note it comes across as ridiculous. As the villainous Set, Butler struts and growls and bellows, like an angry bear suffering digestive trouble, but he lacks the ironic self-awareness and camp sensibility that might have made such an over-the-top performance more pleasurable.
And then there is Thwaites, as the young mortal who sets Horus free in an effort to save his love. His youthful pining suggests he has perhaps been told about emotions but may not have ever experienced any himself. Indeed, his main "skill" is that he is handsome. With his wide eyes and beautifully shined mane of curly golden hair, the former TV actor looks as if he just stepped off the set of a shampoo commercial, and he is nearly as dramatically compelling.
The actors can hardly be blamed, however, for the terrible dialogue they are forced to deliver. The screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless alternates between painfully forced attempts at humor and leaden thematic declarations.
"Your journey has just begun," Horus’s father tells his son as he dies. And just what journey is that? Wait until the end of the movie and you’ll find out, when Horus helpfully declares, "My journey is not to seek revenge at all costs — it is to protect my people." Nearly every one of the film's conversations works like this, as if the writers gave up on embedding subtext into the script and decided to render it entirely as text.
Visually, Gods of Egypt is just as obvious and messy as its script and story. The effects manage to look both expensive and awful, like lavishly produced video game cut scenes. And the movie never quite figures out how to make the giant gods look larger than life. Instead, the effects tend to make the humans look tiny, like Hobbits standing next to regular people.
Meanwhile, the movie’s fantasy ancient Egypt is a gaudy, obnoxious computer-generated spectacle, gleaming and golden — like a digital version of a Donald Trump luxury palace. That is, when you can get a decent look at it. Proyas directs the action scenes with a kind of spastic anxiety: The camera zooms and whirls and tilts, as if operated by a drunkard on a Gravitron. It's as if Proyas is terrified of picking a shot and holding it for any length of time. Instead of making every shot matter, he ensures that none of them do.
Gods of Egypt is a huge step back for director Alex Proyas
It’s all enough to make you wonder: What the hell happened to Alex Proyas? Proyas, after all, was the visionary director of two of the most memorable and influential little genre films of the 1990s: The Crow, a gorgeously grim and gothic comic book revenge story, and Dark City, a sublime sci-fi noir that Roger Ebert described as "a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey."
In other words, Proyas was a genuine visionary. Where did he go wrong? To some extent, I suspect, you can trace the problem back to I, Robot, his kinda-sorta-adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s book of robot short stories. The long-gestating project about a detective investigating a logically puzzling murder involving robots should have played to Proyas’s strengths. Instead, he essentially ignored a widely praised script by science fiction scribe Harlan Ellison and turned the film into a fairly conventional Will Smith action movie, complete with bloated action sequences and far too much badly rendered CGI. I, Robot was, to be sure, better than Gods of Egypt, but it was nonetheless a deep disappointment from someone with such a promising track record.
Proyas’s 2009 follow-up, the creepy and underrated Nic Cage sci-fi thriller Knowing, wasn’t a classic, and was widely panned, but it was in many ways a return to form — and to a more modest budget. Proyas just doesn’t seem to work well in big-budget environments, which appear to completely overwhelm his talents.
That’s certainly what seems to have happened with Gods of Egypt, which doesn’t look like a particularly Proyas-y disaster — a result, somehow, of his particular directorial tics and interests — but instead like the generic product of a slew of bad trends in blockbuster filmmaking.There’s the whitewashed casting (the studio formally apologized in November), the underdeveloped concept and incoherent story, the overreliance on shoddy computer-generated effects, the muddled action scenes, and the studio frenzy to create a film franchise rather than start with a single good film.
It’s probably an overstatement to say that Gods of Egypt represents everything wrong with Hollywood right now, but it definitely represents a lot of it. No wonder, then, that even the trailers designed to sell the movie seemed like admissions that it would be terrible; there was nothing good to advertise.