The sword-and-sandals film is a staple of Hollywood though its popularity comes and goes, but recently there’s been something of a resurgence. Not a real successful resurgence, mind you, judging by how poorly Clash of the Titans, The Immortals, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and so forth were received, but every year there seems to be a new one.
Sadly, another longstanding staple of Hollywood is whitewashing – a practice you’d imagine wouldn’t still be a thing in 2016, but totally is. Now, if the film has a fantasy setting the filmmakers will usually get a pass, but when the film is trying to align itself with some historical period, opting to cast white actors in roles that are clearly not white is downright egregious.
Which is exactly what Gods of Egypt chose to do: cast zero Egyptians or barely any actors who could plausibly pass as Egyptian. And try as I might to not let this affect my overall opinion of the movie – after all, the backlash to Gods of Egypt‘s blatant whitewashing is old news, and the studio and director have since issued apologies – but watching such an explicitly white cast pretend to be Ancient Egyptians did nothing but constantly remind me how ill-suited they were.
There isn’t anything about Gods of Egypt‘s story that is inherently Egyptian. At its core, the story is the tale of a king deposed by his brother and later challenged by his nephew and it could have been told using literally anything as its framework. Gods of Egypt didn’t need to be set in Egypt – not even a fictional Egypt where nine foot tall gods walk among and reign over humanity. This is simply a fetishization of Ancient Egypt – where the filmmakers recognize that Ancient Egypt is super cool but don’t care about doing justice by its portrayal.
Gods of Egypt obviously loses marks for willfully choosing to populate Ancient Egypt with a bunch of white people, but is it an otherwise enjoyable movie? No. Not at all. Along with the struggle for Egypt’s throne between Set (Gerard Butler) and Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), there’s a young man, Bek (Brendon Thwaites) and the woman he loves, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), who he’s desperately trying to rescue from the underworld. Bek seeks out Horus to help him rescue Zaya, which Horus agrees to do if Bek can help him steal back his eyes (the source of his godly powers) from Set.
So it’s a buddy adventure starring a god and mortal as they run from one action sequence to another, all set in some stunning (if at times poorly rendered) locations, from the desert, to the heavens, and eventually the underworld. Too bad Coster-Waldau and Thwaites have zero chemistry, though admittedly the script doesn’t give them a whole lot to work with. In fact, every character in this movie is woefully two-dimensional (and I’m not just talking about the awful post-converted 3D). Coster-Waldau is basically playing a less witty Jaime Lannister who sometimes transforms into a giant metal bird man and Thwaites is no more than a little puppy, nipping at the heels of the gods and whining for his lost love.
Geoffrey Rush shows up as the sun god, Ra, delivering a passable camp performance that was enough to earn him his pay. Chadwick Boseman also appears for maybe 10 minutes as the quirky god of wisdom, Thoth, filling Gods of Egypt‘s token quota as the only black man in the movie. Elodie Yung manages to make the the goddess of love, Hathor, a fun and feisty character, which at least has me intrigued for her to appear as Elektra in season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil. As the villainous Set, Butler gives every scene his all, spitting fury with that Scottish brogue, but in the end it’s all for naught, Gods of Egypt has no idea why it’s characters do anything and therefor neither do we.
What’s almost a bigger shame than the film’s terrible casting decisions or unoriginal story, is that the visual concepts in Gods of Egypt show a lot of promise. Though, perhaps the visual effects aren’t quite at the level one would expect from its $140 million budget. Were this a video game, Gods of Egypt would be praised for its character and level design. The gods all look very cool, from their costumes to the metallic animal forms they transform into, and the digital renderings of Ra’s ship in the sky and Anubis’ underworld are are quite innovative. There are giant beetles pulling chariots and huge snakes being ridden and gold plastered on everything. The gods even bleed gold! But again, who cares when the story and its characters meander from one incoherent plot point to another.
Maybe, when you inevitable flip by this movie airing on TNT some Saturday afternoon, you’ll watch it with the sound off and appreciate some of its creative design, because that’s really all Gods of Egypt has to offer.