The Wikipedia page for Gods of Egypt says “Lionsgate anticipated [it] to be the first film in a new franchise after it finished releasing The Hunger Games films.”

Uh, yeah. About that.

There won’t be another Gods of Egypt. Josh Trank will direct another Fantastic Four movie before you see 2 Gods 2 Egypt. To some degree, that’s to the movie’s credit; this thing is way too weird and singular to ever be enough of a hit to justify a sequel. And to some degree, it’s not. Gods of Egypt’s been hounded for months by controversy around director Alex Proyas’ questionable (i.e. extremely white) casting choices. And while the film’s fantastical setting, full of impossible architecture and giant gods, is rewardingly unusual, its story is deeply and painfully conventional, as if someone tried to turn an experimental short an art student made after watching Stargate while smoking weed into a traditional Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a bizarre, goofy mess — and occasionally a beautiful one.

First, let’s deal with the charges of whitewashing, which arose almost immediately upon the release of the movie’s marketing materials, which showed an ancient Egypt populated almost entirely by Caucasians. Lionsgate and Proyas swiftly apologized (“We failed to live up to our own standards of sensitivity and diversity ... we have, can and will continue to do better.”) but Proyas also said on Facebook that his movie “a work of the imagination” and not history. “Therefore,” he added, “under the rules of creative license and artistic freedom of expression, I cast the actors I considered right for the roles. It is also of course everyone’s right to disagree with me. That’s art.”

Proyas has a point. Gods of Egypt has about as much to do with the reality of life in ancient Egypt as Conan the Barbarian had to do with the reality of life in the Dark Ages. Tonally and spiritually, it’s a lot closer to Lord of the Rings than Cleopatra; it’s a fantasy film with sword fights and CGI monsters, where flesh and blood gods (or flesh and gold gods; they bleed gold for some reason) walk among men and transform at whim into winged robots. Proyas should have creative license to tell his story the way he wants. If his mostly white cast had been really outstanding, the finished product might have won at least a few over to his side of the argument.

Here’s the problem: They’re not outstanding, and that creative license works both ways; since Gods of Egypt isn’t really about Egyptians, Proyas could have theoretically cast charismatic actors of any race to play his heroes and villains; Egyptians and Indians and Brazilians and who knows who else. Instead, the cast is mostly Australian, in part because Gods of Egypt was shot there in order to take advantage of a tax credit that could only be maintained if the movie hit what Proyas called a “quota” of Australian participants. That cast mostly falls into two categories: blandly attractive or egregiously hammy.

That leaves us with pretty boy Brenton Thwaites as Bek, a fearless thief in love with a girl named Zaya (Courtney Eaton). They live happily in the film’s idyllic version of Egypt, which is ruled over by the benevolent Osiris (Bryan Brown). But when Osiris attempts to pass the throne on to his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), his brother Set (Gerard Butler, nailing an unholy combination of beefcake and hamsteak) interrupts the ceremony, slays Osiris, blinds Horus, seizes his crown and his all-powerful eyes, and enslaves the world. It’s up to Bek to steal back Horus’ eye and return it to the fallen god so he can avenge his father’s death and restore order to the universe with the occasional help from other gods like the vain Thoth (future Black Panther Chadwick Boseman, in a bafflingly misjudged performance and terrible accent).

As a director, Proyas (Dark CityThe Crow) always puts a unique spin on familiar genres, and even his weakest movies generate a few unforgettable images. Gods of Egypt is no exception. A couple of sequences are staggeringly lovely and bursting with visual creativity. The idea of a flat earth and a god hauling the sun through the cosmos on the back of a space boat sounds pretty silly (and it is pretty silly, particularly when Geoffrey Rush shows up as a bald, robed, Avatar-braided Ra prone to bursting into CGI fire and screaming “ENOUGH BEAST!” at giant space worms) but it also looks incredible. An enormous amount of imagination went into the design of Gods of Egypt, even if Proyas’ budget can’t always keep pace with his ideas (a few action scenes look awfully phony, particularly in 3D).

That’s why it’s such a drag that so little creativity went into the plot (or the casting, for that matter, although there is a certain irony in Rush, who’s so white he’s almost translucent, giving the most entertaining performance). Once Bek and Osiris team up, Gods of Egypt becomes a sort of buddy road movie, with the cranky god and the cynical mortal reluctantly partnering to defeat Set and save Zaya, who now works for a pompous pyramid builder (Rufus Sewell). The heroes’ banter, by screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, feels forced, and their adventures are mindlessly repetitive: Arrive at some gorgeous CGI setting, fight a couple of CGI bad guys, crack jokes at each other that never land, and then run through said gorgeous CGI setting as it collapses all around them.

The phrase “cinematic universe” gets tossed around constantly these days, but mostly about movies that look the same and explore very small parts of any universe, cinematic or otherwise. Gods of Egypt has a truly inspired world than spans multiple planes of existence; it just wastes that world on an uninspired narrative and characters. It’s difficult to settle on a rating here; little of the story works, and all the biggest laughs are unintentional. A few moments made me cringe, but others wowed me with their expansive vision. Gods of Egypt isn’t “good” by any traditional measure, but in a lot of ways it’s the most interesting Hollywood movie of the winter, and it exposes a lot of the unwritten rules of big budget filmmaking; who gets to be in these sorts of computer-generated spectacles and what they have to be about — most importantly, laying the groundwork for sequels that sometimes never happen.


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