Any review of Gods of Egypt should begin by noting two unrelated facts about the film. The first, as has been widely discussed, is that it dramatizes the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris but features a starring cast of mostly white actors, a move that doomed it to criticism and mockery months before its release, and rightly so. The second is that in the film, directed by the agreeably bonkers Alex Proyas, the god Set (Gerard Butler) rides a chariot pulled by giant green flying beetles, making the case that the movie is more than aware of its own absurdity.
It’s hard to fathom which Hollywood executive decided that mining Egyptian mythology would produce a box-office bonanza, but the film’s $140 million budget seems a clear indicator of faith that it would. As could only be expected, Proyas—the director of spectacles like The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot—has harnessed that cash for a mad CGI circus. While the film is far too long (127 minutes) and far too silly to actually qualify as good, viewers willing to accept the story’s inherent stupidity might find some fun in the mayhem. After all, where else could you see Geoffrey Rush, playing the almighty Ra, grow to 50 feet and drag the sun to the other side of a flat earth while shooting solar beams at an advancing chaos serpent bent on consuming him? That alone may not be worth the price of admission, but Gods of Egypt seeks to justify itself by aiming for that kind of theatricality every five minutes.
The plot is fairly simple: The aging god-king of Egypt, Osiris (Bryan Brown), decides to pass the throne to his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), but is usurped by his brother Set (Butler), the god of darkness, who immediately begins to sow chaos in the kingdom. A weakened Horus joins forces with a mere mortal named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) to reclaim Egypt, with help from the goddess of love Hathor (Elodie Yung), the god of wisdom Thoth (Chadwick Boseman), and grandpa Ra up in the sky, riding his solar chariot and trying to ignore the squabbling of his godly offspring.
The film conceives of the Egyptian gods as uber-celebrities who stand 10 feet tall but mingle among the humans who worship them. CGI trickery helps Coster-Waldau look considerably bigger than Thwaites every time they share the screen (which is a lot). It never looks natural, but it’s frequently hilarious, especially in a scene where Thoth grabs Bek’s face with a hand big enough to envelop his whole head. The gods are not only tall and beautiful—they also bleed molten gold, and can transform at will into what can only be described as … animal robots. To do battle, Horus sprouts metal wings and turns into a giant robo-falcon, like some ancient Transformer.
The presence of mortals is probably necessary to the overall plot, but it’s a major drag in a film dominated by super-sized, inhuman characters. Bek is boyishly handsome and charming, but any time the Gods of Egypt concerned itself with his pitiful human desires, I yawned. Coster-Waldau, so rakish and dark as Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, is stuck in blander territory as Horus, who has to learn to be a little less cocky so that he can save the day. Butler and Rush seem more properly attuned to the film’s crackpot tone, overacting in a way that complements the story’s narrative and visual excesses.
Butler is playing an Egyptian god who takes the form of a giant canine, but he sticks pretty firmly to his natural Scottish accent, perhaps realizing that the film is too far gone to worry about minor details like that. Rush should feel lost beneath the layers of old-man makeup and fiery graphics Proyas cakes him in, but he really sells the grand daily grind of Ra’s celestial busywork. At one point, Set shoots into the sky to visit him, and the film cuts to Ra gingerly working the gears of his solar boat—that sun isn’t going to set itself, after all.
After making sojourns to the desert, an oasis, the land of the dead, and the chamber of a sphinx, Gods of Egypt finally ends in a cacophony of action that’s still practically impossible to comprehend. Like all of Proyas’s blockbuster efforts (including I, Robot and the Nicolas Cage drama Knowing), Gods of Egypt gets lost in its own budget, constantly shooting to outdo its visual grandeur but forgetting to lend it any depth. But there’s a mad ambition at work that’s harder to fault, Scottish Egyptians notwithstanding.