Egyptologists, beware! Fantastical mythology enthusiasts, rejoice! Okay, maybe it's not that simple, but Alex Proyas' gloriously gonzo gift Gods of Egypt is quite hilariously both the least historically accurate Ancient Egypt-set movie ever made and the most fun one in ages. How many ages is tough to say, because while it's a flawed, silly, wackadoodle of a pic, Gods of Egypt is also so sweetly and endearingly unique. Narratively, it's standard hodgepodge, sure, but in terms of imaginative world-building, there's nothing quite like it.
The movie takes place in an alternate reality where mythological Egypt is the whole world and that world is a flat disc floating through space and protected from the devouring jaws of a colossal alien monster by Geoffrey Rush’s open-air spaceship-dwelling god Ra, who battles the monster every night with his flame-blasting staff amidst controlling the world’s sun by pulling it on a long chain around the edges of the disc. Just mull that long sentence over for a minute. It’s already absolutely nuts when explained in words, but in images, it takes on a whole new level of eye-popping surreality.
Some of the digital effects shots in Gods of Egypt are poorer than your average Hollywood blockbuster and audiences will collectively chuckle at the apparent cheapness of the green-screen backgrounds in moments like an escape-by-chariot sequence that wouldn’t have looked any less believable with archaic rear screen projection technology, but the images still ooze imagination. After all, effects work relies on great and interesting designs to be effective, so some overly shiny and cheesy CGI isn’t going to ruin the visual experience when it’s as wildly sumptuous in the design details as the work is here.
Proyas’ vision of a fantastical Egypt has a carnival-like quality to it, bursting with colour and activity. The Nile runs sinuously through a gorgeous sun-soaked collection of pyramids and bustling city streets and lavish buildings. Adding to the visual flavour is the wacky concept that humanoid gods walk among the regular Egyptian citizens, each of the powerful beings easily identified by their extreme height. Standing several feet taller than the pesky humans, these gods can transform into glossy armoured creatures that resemble actual Egyptian mythological imagery and, in a particularly memorable effect, they bleed gold.
With all of these ideas and images in the mix, Proyas needs only a serviceable story to play in this sprawling environment and serviceable is what he gets. The plot here is hardly worth attending to, basically borrowing from countless Hero’s Journey arcs to wrap a Thief of Bagdad riff around Egyptian iconography. Our hero is Bek (Brenton Thwaites), an amiable loser who’s first poor and then a slave.
It’s probably a rough life, but little time is wasted on the lowliness of Bek’s existence. He pushes a couple stones for evil King Set (a comically vile Gerard Butler), then quickly slips away to romance girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton), who works for a snivelling suck-up of an architect (Proyas favourite Rufus Sewell). But when that aforementioned badly green-screened chariot escape goes awry (in the story as well as the effects department), Bek finds himself on a journey to save a possibly doomed Zaya.
Bek’s mission teams him with disgraced god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has quite the bone to pick with his uncool uncle Set. Together, the two guys endure several trials that wisely lean on the visuals to gain any lasting impact at all. Their adventure becomes an episodic one that’s quite piecemeal in terms of plotted events, but the real point here is to allow Proyas and cinematographer Peter Menzies, Jr. to soak up the wonders of this strange world.
There are towering waterfalls, frightening henchwomen riding on the backs of gargantuan serpents, an enchanted pyramid with ever-rotating stones, and even a grim glimpse of the underworld. The story always feels secondary to the sheer gleeful display of these incredible locales, which might as well be for the best in what often feels like an ambitious throwback to Ray Harryhausen’s triumphant run of Sinbad adventure movies. The visuals were paramount there and the same situation certainly applies to Proyas’ movie.
The acting just has to slot into the allotted spaces without too much resistance. Thwaites and Coster-Waldau aren’t the most compelling pair of protagonists imaginable, but they fit the cheesy charm of the pic well enough to not detract from the experience. Butler, of course, was built for B-movies and he has fun chewing the scenery with his Scottish brogue that should be completely out of place in an Ancient Egypt movie, but brazenly feels at home in this one.
Eaton’s Zaya is more than fetching enough to provide Bek with believable motivation, so that helps give the narrative thrust some purpose. Gods of Egypt mainly works in spite of the characters instead of because of them, though. It’s best viewed as a lavish tour through an old world that never existed, a travelogue of mythic mountains of imagination.
Unfortunately, Proyas insists on following through with every element of the plot, which eventually builds up a bulky amount of conflict in need of resolution. The third act becomes less about visual invention and more about wrapping up a simple story in tediously drawn-out fashion. The ending relies almost entirely on convenience to find a happy conclusion we were previously told was impossible, which further highlights how little we should care about the predicaments of the characters.
It’s not a great ending and Gods of Egypt isn’t a great movie, but a weak finale could not wipe the grin from my face that formed early and became nearly permanent when Ra started yanking the sun’s chain around the flat Earth. Proyas has made good movies (Dark City) and bad ones (Knowing), but this is something else entirely. It’s a window to a world built beautifully on boundless imagination and an entertainingly literal interpretation of Egyptian mythology. Who cares if the world is populated with idiots living lives of clichéd conflict? Give me visual freedom over slickly greased plot mechanics any day. The story’s clearly been told; it’s just never been seen quite like this before.