Friday, March 11, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Gods Of Egypt

Gods Of Egypt was written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, and directed by Alex Proyas.

Sazama and Sharpless are apparently writing partners, and penned Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter. That's a pretty grim resume.

Alex Proyas is a very uneven director who helmed The Crow (good), Dark City (decent), I, Robot (meh) and Knowing (yikes!).

Gods Of Egypt has generated a ton of controversy in the past month, due to charges of "whitewashing" the cast. Critics are positively livid that the film takes place in ancient Egypt, but the main cast, consisting of Gerard Butler (Scottish), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Danish) and Brenton Thwaites (Australian)— are all white.

It's a fair point I suppose, but what these critics don't seem to realize is this film is in no way an historical drama. It takes place in a fantasy world with little or no connection to our own. It's a comic book movie about a flat Earth populated with ten foot tall gods who transform into flying robots, an old man who tows the sun across the sky in a spaceship (!) and a giant space worm that threatens to devour the world every night.

Apparently everyone can swallow all that with no problem, but they can't accept the fact that every single member of the cast isn't brown.

If only people were as passionate about diversity in areas that actually matter, like the government and lawmaking.

Of course it would be nice if there were a few Egyptian faces in the cast, but that's something that's never going to happen. Movie studios don't make films to entertain us or feed our imaginations. They're in the business for one reason, and one reason only— to make money. Right or wrong, studio executives firmly believe that films live or die based on their star power. The bigger the star, the more butts he or she will put in the theater seats.

There are very few Egyptian actors working in Hollywood. In fact the only one I can think of is Omar Sharif, and he died in 2015. Like it or not, there's no way in hell this movie was ever going to star a cast of authentic, but unknown, actors of color. 

Note that I'm not saying Hollywood is right. I'm just stating the cold, hard facts of the business.

One last note about the casting, before we can hopefully stop talking about it forever director Alex Proyas was born in Egypt. I have to assume he had some say in the casting of the film, so it must not have bothered him. If he was OK with it, then isn't that enough? Do non-Egyptians have the moral obligation to be outraged in his place? I admit I'm not smart enough to know the answers here.

Proyas did have something to say to critics of the film and its casting, saying: 
“This time of course they have bigger axes to grind – they can rip into my movie while trying to make their mainly pale asses look so politically correct by screaming “white-wash!!!” like the deranged idiots they all are. Now that anyone can post their opinion about anything from a movie to a pair of shoes to a hamburger, what value do they have— nothing.”
Wow. Don't hold back, Alex, tell us how you really feel.

A day or two after that little rant, he issued a hastily-worded apology:
"The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse. I sincerely apologize to those who are offended by the decisions we made.”
I get the distinct impression that was a perfunctory apology though, most likely written after he was threatened by Lionsgate Studios lawyers.

Honestly I don't get all the hate for this film. Is it a masterpiece? Of course not. But it's a mindless little popcorn movie that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it. In that sense it's a total success.

Personally I thought it was a fun and exciting adventure film that's reminiscent of the Clash Of The Titans films, but better (I realize that's damning it with faint praise). It's full of outlandish creatures and amazing set pieces, and even though it's not a comic book movie, it definitely feels like one. In fact, as my movie-going pal said, it looked and felt like something Jack Kirby would have written and drawn. It was very much in the mold of his more cosmic creations, such as the New Gods.

I think if everyone would just dial down their outrage for a few moments, quit worrying about who's in the film and actually watch it, they'd probably like it. I don't see that happening though...


The Plot:
The movie takes place in a fantasy version of ancient Egypt, where the world is flat, the sun's towed across the sky by a spaceship and the gods are real and walk among humanity. These gods are all ten feet tall, have liquid gold for blood and can transform into armored beast forms. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me!

The god-king Osiris decides to step down and leave the throne to his son Horus (played by Nicholaj Coster-Waldau). The morning of his coronation, Horus wakes from a drunken orgy. He chats with Hathor, Goddess Of Love and his current gal pal. Hathor is also the former "Mistress Of The West," whose job it was to welcome the dead into the underworld. Horus fought off forty two demons to save her and bring her to the land of the living. He gave her a decorative bracelet to protect her from being dragged back into the underworld. She's safe as long as she wears the bracelet, but if she ever takes it off... back she goes.

The citizens of Egypt are all abuzz over the coronation. A young peasant boy named Bek steals a dress for his girlfriend Zaya to wear to the event (how romantic!). Bek has no use for the gods, but Zaya fervently worships them. They make their way through the crowd and get front row seats for the ceremony.

Just as Osiris is about to crown Horus, his unstable older son Set (played by Gerard Butler) appears. Set claims he's the rightful heir to the crown (which is probably true) and kills Osiris in front of the entire populace (which is kind of harsh). He pulls out Osiris' heart, which looks like a shining jewel, and takes it (OK, that was going too far). Set then announces he's changing the rules of existence (?). Under Osiris, anyone who died was able to freely enter the afterlife. Set decrees that the dead must now buy their way into the afterlife with riches, like a heavenly cover charge. Those that can't pay are banished to the demon-filled underworld.

Horus and Set then morph into armored form and battle one another. The crowd panics, and in the confusion Bek is separated from Zaya. Set manages to defeat Horus and pin him to the ground. Just as he's about to kill him, Horus' girlfriend Hathor begs for Set to spare his life. Set agrees, but digs out Horrus' eyes, which are the source of his powers. He then banishes him from the kingdom.

Set then marries Hathor, and commands an army of slaves to build a giant (and I do mean giant) obelisk to honor his grandfather Ra. Zaya is one of these slaves, and works for Urshu, who I guess is the architect and construction foreman. Bek regularly sneaks into Urshu's office to visit Zaya. She still has faith in Horus, and believes he's the only one who can defeat Set and restore order to the kingdom. She bats her eyes and convinces Bek to steal Horus' eyes from Set's treasure vault and return them to him. Amazingly he agrees to this insane plan.

Zaya gives Bek a copy of the plans to Set's vault. Bek sneaks in and passes through a series of intricate Indiana Jones-type traps, and manages to steal one of Horus' glowing, jewel-like eyes. He returns to Zaya, but Urshu's discovered their plan and orders Bek captured. He and Zaya flee the city. They almost make it, but Zaya's hit with an arrow and dies. Bummer.

A shaken Bek travels to Horus' prison and makes him a deal. He'll give him his eye if he brings Zaya back from the dead. Horus agrees, but says they'll have to hurry, because Zaya is currently walking the Path Of The Dead, and they have to save her before she reaches the last of the nine gates or something. Horus doesn't tell Bek that he can't actually resurrect the dead. Bek returns Horus' eye and he places it back into his empty socket. Although he can now see, he still can't transform into battle beast mode with just one eye.

The two travel to the top of a mountain, and Horus appeals to his grandpa Ra, who teleports them up to his spaceship orbiting Earth. Yep, a goddamned Egyptian-themed spaceship. Horus asks Ra to restore his powers so he can defeat Set. Ra refuses, saying Horus has to prove himself worthy of being king. Why are gods always so concerned with worthiness? He also won't do anything to stop Set, as he's way too busy. Every day Ra has to tow the Sun across the sky behind his ship, and every night he has to battle Apophis, the gigantic creature that threatens to devour Earth. Horus does manage to take some of Ra's Water Of Life to pour into the desert, which will weaken Set's powers. He and Bek return to Earth.

Meanwhile Hathor tries to locate Horus. Set catches her, and realizes she's still in love with Horus. He's about to kill her when she removes her protective bracelet and is pulled into the underworld by demons. So she'd rather go to hell— literally— than be with Set.

Horus and Bek battle a couple of Set's assassins, who ride on the back of gigantic, fire breathing snakes. Hathor reappears on Earth (by putting her bracelet back on), and saves the two of them at the last second. Hathor says Set's shrine is protected by a giant, riddle-asking Sphinx. The three travel to the Library Of Thoth for help and ask him to come with to answer the riddle and gain entry to Set's shrine.

They arrive at the shrine, and the Sphinx asks them its riddle. Thoth answers it correctly, and they enter Set's power source. Just as Horus is about to pour the Water Of Life onto the power source, Set appears and knocks the flask away. He steals Thoth's brain, which like all the godly organs, looks like a shining jewel. Set tells Bek that Horus lied to him, and can't bring back Zaya. Bek is furious.

Cut to the afterlife, where Zaya's in line to be judged. Things don't look so good for her, as she has nothing to offer. On Earth, Hathor summons Anubis, Lord Of The Underworld. She gives her bracelet to Bek, and orders Anubis to take him to the underworld so he can give it to Zaya so she can buy her way into the afterlife. Anubis agrees, and Hathor is pulled back into the underworld.

Set powers up by taking the various godly organs he stole, such as Horus' eye, Thoth's brain and Nephthys' wings, and adding them to his armor. He flies up to Ra's spaceship and seeks his approval as king. Ra says Set's not cut out as king, but will instead take his place on the ship to fight the giant night worm. Set, who's heart was, er, set on ruling Earth, loses his mind at this. He steals Ra's staff (hey, the Staff or Ra!) throws him off the spaceship, and lets the space worm begin consuming the Earth.

In the underworld, Bek catches up with Zaya and gives her the bracelet. Unfortunately the giant space worm begins consuming the underworld as well. Anubis holds it back as best he can, and sends Bek back to Earth for help. Bek returns to Horus, who apologizes for lying to him. They decide to join forces and take down Set.

Horus and Set battle atop the giant obelish. Bek steals Horus' other eye from Set's armor, getting wounded in the process, and tosses it to him as he falls from the top of the monument. Horus freezes for a moment, unable to decide whether to retrieve his eye or save Bek. In the end he dives after Bek and saves him. This act of selflessness restores his full powers, and he destroys the obelisk and kills Set. He then finds Ra and returns his staff to him. Ra blasts the space worm and it returns to the sky.

Horus' other eye is found and returned, and he rushes to Bek's side. Unfortunately Bek dies from his injury. Horus places him and Zaya into a tomb. Ra appears and says he owes Horus a debt. He tells his grandpa that what he wants can't be given. Ra understands, and brings Bek and Zaya back to life.

Horus is then crowned king, and Ra restores Thoth and Nephthys as well. Bek gives Hathor's bracelet to Horus. He decides to go to the underworld and rescue her again, leaving Egypt in Bek's hands (yikes!).

• For a film that's ostensibly about Egyptian mythology, it doesn't concern itself much with accuracy to the sourceThey got a few things right, like the part about Ra towing the sun across the sky and battling the night beast. The dead entering the Hall Of Two Truths and having to weigh their offering against a feather was pulled straight from the mythology as well (except there it was called the Hall Of Maat).

That's about it though. The rest of the story came directly from the minds of the screenwriters. They even changed the relationships between several of the various gods! I'm not sure why they were compelled to rewrite the mythology when it was already laid out for them. Maybe they didn't think it was cinematic enough?

• Gerard Butler apparently just said "Screw it" and made absolutely no attempt to hide his Scots brogue in the film. He's pretty much playing a Scottish Egyptian god here.

Also, every time he appeared onscreen, I half expected him to paraphrase his famous line and shout, "THIS. IS. EGYPT!"

• Set crowns himself king and decrees that from now on the dead will have to buy their way into the afterlife with riches.

I;m having trouble understanding why Set does this. First of all, why does he care if the dead enter the afterlife or not? And why make them pay to get in? Does he get a cut of the dead's offerings? Or did he add a heavenly admission fee just to be a dick?

• My favorite part of the film were the scenes of Ra towing the sun across the flat Earth. I've always liked that particular part of Egyptian mythology, so it was awesome to see it onscreen. 

• At one point Set rides in a flying chariot, pulled by giant winged scarabs. That's so amazingly insane I couldn't help but like it.

• The various gods' "battle beast" forms reminded me very much of the Silverhawks cartoon.

• As I mentioned before, the gods in the film are all ten feet tall, and tower over the humans. It was an... interesting special effect, sort of the reverse of the Hobbit scenes in The Lord Of The Rings films. Unfortunately it worked better in some scenes than others.

• Set commissions an enormous obelisk to be built to honor his grandpa Ra. The tower is massive, and is described as being 2,200 cubits tall. For those of you not familiar with cubits, that works out to about 3,330 feet tall. 

That means Set built a tower about 600 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is currently the tallest building in the world (at 2,722 feet). In ancient Egypt. Without cement, steel or modern construction techniques. Impressive!

On the other hand, this is a fantasy version of ancient Egypt, so who knows what materials they may have!

• I liked all of the various creature designs except for one— the  Sphinx. Everyone knows what the Sphinx looks like, but this one had a completely different and dopey looking design. Why would they change such a well known historical character? And why make it look worse instead of better?

• Bruce Spence plays one of skeletal judges of the Hall Of Two Truths. Spence is best known as the Gyrocopter pilot in The Road Warrior. Despite being covered in heavy prosthetics, I recognized his voice and face (especially his large mouth!) immediately.

Gods Of Egypt is a fun and completely insane adventure that's like a comic book version of ancient mythology. If you can get off your high horse long enough to actually watch the film instead of judging its casting, you'll probably have a good time. Believe it or not, I give it a B.

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