Original version of this post here.
Getting this right out of the way, Gods of Egypt is not an especially good movie (thought not entirely without merits) nor a movie which did particularly well at the box office (losing about $100 million) nor a movie which was subsequently been vindicated as a cult classic (though it does seem to have achieved a modicum of popularity on Netflix).
The short version: the movie has no Egyptian actors, the major characters are overwhelmingly white and talking with British accents, the non-white characters are all in minor or not even particularly good roles, and since the god characters are depicted as gigantic, most of the non-white characters are literally small enough for the white characters to step on.
I think (hope?) that it’s just trying to represent an actual element of Ancient Egyptian art (that the gods and important, powerful humans are bigger than everyone else), but the general clumsiness and racial aspect of it makes it pretty uncomfortable all around.
It’s not great. And even without the unfortunate racial implications of this decision, it’s a weird stylistic choice that just doesn’t look good on screen.
Now, there are a couple things to be noted about this controversy.
One, modern notions of race can’t really be applied to Ancient Egyptians — and, in fact, we’re still not entirely clear on what the Ancient Egyptians actually looked like. Perhaps complicated by the fact that one the most famous Egyptians was Greek.
For what it’s worth, Ancient Egyptian art depicts the people of Ancient Egypt looking like this:
Men tend to have reddish skin representing that they get tanned working outside. Women have paler, yellowish skin, representing that they stay pale by staying indoors. It’s all very stylised and abstract, but it’s probably a safe bet that real Ancient Egyptians didn’t look Danish, Scottish, or Australian…
Two, Gods of Egypt is explicitly set in a pre-historical, ahistorical mythological past, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world — though, of course, Gods of Egypt is not really an intelligent enough film to really do anything with that premise.
Hollywood gonna Hollywood, I guess.
Of course, the movie’s case was not helped by the fact that the people involved with the movie reacted to the controversy in the worst, most petulant way possible. Thereby providing a pretty keen demonstration that all publicity is not, in fact, good publicity. Despite the controversy, the movie flopped hard.
Now, buried beneath all that controversy, there is a pretty good Bad Movie somewhere here.
While inspired by one of the most famous stories in Egyptian mythology and getting at least enough of the broad strokes right to be recognisable, the plot is pretty standard “evil god wants to take over the world” stuff. Worth noting perhaps, that in Egyptian mythology, Set is not, in fact, evil.
This is a welcome change of pace from the typical Pop Culture Depiction of Anubis as either the primary god of the underworld (which is Osiris) or as an evil god, which is likely a conflation with Set — but, again, Set isn’t really evil, just a jerk (which a lot of ostensibly benevolent gods across most mythologies admittedly are) and in charge of unpleasant but inescapable aspects of life: foreigners, storms, the desert, and discord in general. So, basically, not nice, but also not a cartoonish supervillain.
As poorly as it’s executed, the Egyptian mythology setting is at least novel enough to make the whole exercise less generic and fairly stylish, if nothing else.
At least in theory…
Honestly, the adaptation of the Egyptian mythology is broad strokes enough that they probably could have avoided a lot of the casting controversy by making a generic Fantasy, vaguely Ancient History-influenced epic movie set on a Fantasy world other than Earth.
At worst, if the movie was called something like “Gods of Fantasy World #2276-A” and the characters’ names were changed so they weren’t explicitly Egyptian gods, the negative reaction would have been “Wait. This feels awfully derivative of the Horus myth.”, rather than the full-blown whitewashing controversy, leading to the aforementioned petulance from the actors and producers which made nobody look good.
So, basically, Gods of Egypt didn’t really do itself any favours right from the get-go.
The CGI isn’t great, but the art direction is. Basically, it’s the cinematic version of the Xenoblade Problem. Enough so that part of me thinks the movie just should have been animated, rather than live action. And, hey, that way, at least the characters could have been made to look at least remotely Egyptian.
The setting is Ancient Egypt embiggened to an epic, larger-than-life, gold-plated scale. The god characters have super-powered armoured, transforming superhero-esque forms (what I like to refer to as the Magic Melting Fighting Robots) that reflect the Ancient Egyptian iconoraphy: Horus turns into a shiny gold falcon, Set turns into an evil and impressive… whatever it is that Set is (possibly a fish).
Now, the Magic Melting Fighting Robots do look a lot better on-screen than on that poster. For one thing, they don’t melt in the actual movie. That’s an artistic choice for the poster that I just don’t understand.
Gods of Egypt doesn’t really have any unforgivably bad flaws, except maybe the casting. The story’s a mess — there are enough separate plot points that it probably worked better as a goofy, self-aware adventure TV series like Hercules or Xena.
Even as a movie, a little more goofy self-awareness would have gone a long way.
None of the actors are delivering very good performances, though Gerard Butler as Set is probably the best part of the movie. He has the right amount of bombastic swagger to excel as an evil god, though he is pretty hard to buy as an Egyptian god. Even without the whole casting controversy, the movie is going for “Fantasy, therefore everyone’s British” approach, which is super distracting.
On the other hand, the depiction of Ra‘s defence of the solar barque against Apep is really cool and suitably conveys the high-stakes, fate-of-the-world-in-the-balance aspect of the fight between Ra and Apep. And there are some pretty decent action and fight scenes between the overall monotony and mediocrity.
Basically, Gods of Egypt has two speeds: Generic and Forgettable, and Actually Kinda Cool.
Casting controversy aside, Gods of Egypt‘s biggest problem is that it’s not dumb enough. A movie about gods fighting to determine the fate of the world shouldn’t be this boring. A movie with such a larger-than-life premise and characters shouldn’t be wasting time telling a down-to-earth, emotional, introspective character-driven story.
For one thing, the god characters don’t benefit from being humanised, and we have no reason to care about the human characters, so they can’t carry the movie on their own.
It should have leaned in fully to the spectacle and ridiculousness. It should have bright lights and big noises and, hey, there are enough cool creatures and monsters in Egyptian in mythology that there could have been plenty of things for Horus to fight.
A bad movie with cool action scenes is better than a movie that’s mediocre in all regards.
Gods of Egypt should have just been two hours of Set badassfully trying to take over the world while Horus badassfully punches his way through Set’s minions before the inevitable climactic
magic melting robot fight showdown.
There are flashes that Gods of Egypt could have been awesome when it’s in Actually Kinda Cool mode. And it’s actually kind of impressive (granted, in the worst possible way) that they thought up these action scenes and decided not to run with them.
Gods of Egypt isn’t terrible, just disappointing. Approached with the right mindset and maybe a couple friends, there might just be enough to salvage a mostly-entertaining couple hours.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman.
Adapted from a post written 2021.
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