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Gods of Egypt

D: Alex Proyas / 127m

Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Gerard Butler, Elodie Yung, Rufus Sewell, Chadwick Boseman, Courtney Eaton, Geoffrey Rush, Bryan Brown, Emma Booth

Gods of Egypt starts by reinventing Egyptian history. Overly sincere narration informs us that Osiris (Brown) ruled over the populous and bountiful Nile area, while his brother Set (Butler) was given dominion over the barren, desert areas at the far edges of Osiris’ kingdom. Time passes, until Osiris decides to abdicate his throne in favour of his son, Horus (Coster-Waldau). At the crowning ceremony, Set arrives and promptly kills Osiris, blinds Horus by taking out his eyes, and usurps the kingdom. He also sets about killing all the other gods and collecting their individual powers.

A year passes. Set has enslaved the people of Egypt and has put them to building monuments in his name, including one that reaches high into the sky, a tower so great that Ra (Rush), Set’s father, will be able to see it in his heavenly orbit. A slave girl, Zaya (Eaton), convinces her beloved, a thief called Bek (Thwaites), that only Horus can save everyone, but he will need his eyes back. Horus’ eyes are kept in Set’s vaults, and Zaya’s position in the home of master builder Urshu (Sewell) means that she has access to the vaults’ plans and can ensure that Bek avoids any booby traps in his search for the eyes. He retrieves one, but is unable to find the other. In their subsequent escape from Urshu’s home, Zaya is struck by an arrow and dies. Bek continues on to the home of Horus where he bargains for Zaya’s return from the land of the dead in exchange for Horus’ other eye. The god agrees to help him find it.

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Naturally, Set becomes aware of what Horus is doing. He sends assassins, and even himself, to halt their journey to the Egyptian capital and the procurement of Horus’ other eye. But luck is on Bek and Horus’ side, and aided along the way by Hathor (Yung), the goddess of love, and Thoth (Boseman), the god of wisdom, they reach the capital and Horus does battle with Set. With Set having unleashed the world-devouring creature Apep, Horus and Bek must find Horus’ eye, and a way to defeat Set and save Egypt from complete annihilation.

Students of Egyptian history will be shaking their heads in dismay at such a (brief) description of the events that occur in Gods of Egypt. But if they were to actually sit down and watch the movie, that head shaking would quickly turn into uncontrolled apoplexy. As revisionist fantasies go, Gods of Egypt is tawdry stuff, and heavily reliant on spectacle provided by CGI and poor script decisions. The gods can transform into armoured, winged variations of themselves in order to do battle with one another, but this is nothing to the way in which the characters speak an awful mix of cod-literal pseudo-intellectual exposition, and apparently heartfelt twaddle. With deathless lines of dialogue such as “I don’t want to die, I want to live! I want to live down on earth, amongst the lands I have conquered!” (spoken by Set), it’s no wonder that the script, by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – who also co-wrote Dracula Untold (2014) and The Last Witch Hunter (2015), and whose next project is Power Rangers (2017) – contains enough wince-inducing moments to stun a sphinx.

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Ostensibly an adventure story, the movie packs in the usual amount of over-the-top action setpieces that seem de rigeuer in modern fantasy movies, and in doing so, sacrifices credibility at every turn, and on certain occasions, any coherence it’s built up along the way (which isn’t much). Characters behave erratically, leaving the audience to wonder if Sazama and Sharpless assembled their final script from the scattered pages of previous drafts, and the journey Bek and Horus embark on seems to take in every possible physical environment – from desert to swamp to mountain – available to the screenwriters’ imagination. The movie is a big, sprawling epic, eager to please with each new bout of CGI-rendered spectacle, and yet it’s spectacularly hollow, a crowd-pleasing exercise that lacks subtlety, depth and narrative stability (which begs the question, just which kind of audience is it looking for?).

The cast are lost amid all the surface glamour and overbearing special effects. Coster-Waldau is particularly adrift, varying the level of his performance from scene to scene and never quite managing to find a through line for Horus that doesn’t smack of constantly changing improvisation. He also has trouble giving weight to his dialogue, making Horus sound plaintive and reticent rather than angry and defiant. Thwaites is stuck with the awkward task of motivating Horus and his fellow gods to take up against Set, and providing most of the movie’s humour. That he only succeeds intermittently shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as again the script doesn’t support him in either endeavour, and often leaves him hanging high and dry. And then there’s Butler, chewing the scenery with all the energy of an actor working out a contractual obligation and not caring how bad he is.

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The rest of the cast struggle manfully to maintain a semblance of interest in their characters with only Yung and Boseman injecting any passion into their roles. They’re not helped by the absence of Proyas in the director’s chair. Anyone who’s seen The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998), and I, Robot (2004), will be wondering what’s happened to the idiosyncratic and daring director whose visual ingenuity and flair marked him out as a talent to watch out for. Here, Proyas’ talent is squandered in a maelstrom of pixels and perfunctory plotting that does his reputation no favours, and makes his previous movie, the nonsensical Knowing (2009), look like a masterpiece in comparison. Proyas isn’t connected with another project as yet, but let’s hope he finds one that’s worthy of his talent and commitment.

Rating: 4/10 – overcooked and belligerent in its approach, Gods of Egypt looks good but remains resolutely superficial from beginning to end; an adventure movie that goes through the motions and proves hard to engage with, it trades plausibility for spectacle at every turn, and is entirely forgettable.