Monday, 14 March 2016

Gods Of Egypt (2016) - Movie Review

This marks a first time occasion here at Mahan’s Media, which is surprising considering how often I will go on the offensive when discussing certain topics. No, for the first time yet, I have a personal reason for why I’m looking at a particular film. I would like to draw my readers’ attention to a certain Facebook post made by the director, Alex Proyas; specifically, this one. Now, even though I have echoed similar sentiments as this in the past, that doesn’t really change how much butthurt is oozing from every character of that rant. I mean, wow; I haven’t seen a director react this badly to negative press in a while now and it is no less funny whenever it happens. So, yeah, since this film didn’t really give me many great expectations going just by the trailer, chances are I could end up being one of the many that Proyas chose to throw under the bus for not understanding his vision. Then again, the current critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes for the film might be one of the most pretentious statements made in the history of the website, so I’m more than willing to buy into his argument. Nevertheless, in my continuing voyage to further separate potentially pigheaded creators from their work, time to get into today’s movie already.

The plot: In Ancient Egypt, the gods walked the Earth as man did and ruled alongside them. However, when Osiris (Bryan Brown) is killed by his brother Set (Gerard Butler) at the coronation of his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Set not only assumes the throne for himself but also alters the rules for who gets to go to paradise after they die. A year later, common thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites) teams up with a now exiled and blinded Horus to not only return the throne to its rightful owner, but also to rescue Bek’s lover Zaya (Courtney Eaton) from an afterlife of eternal torment.

Before I start talking about the cast, I might as well get the boring stuff out of the way first. oh no all the main egyptian gods are cast as white people oh no I care so much #GodsSoWhite. Yeah, I can’t muster up any fucks to give about accusations of whitewashing for the cast of this film. Maybe once we all collectively decide to stop depicting Jesus as white, there’s a possibility of me giving a shit here. Otherwise, the fact that a handful of the main actors are white while pretty much everyone else in the film aren’t is a moot point from here on out.

Besides, I’m too pleased to see actors give actually good performances to be picky about such things anyway. Thwaites has never been an actor that has largely impressed, despite his presence in decent fare like Oculus and Ruben Guthrie, but his portrayal of the riff-raff street rat (yeah, comparisons to Aladdin with his character are a little too easy to make) works well here as he pulls off all of the snarkiness without being too grating. Butler may not even be trying to hide his accent here, for reasons that will forever elude me, but the man knows how to deliver as a war-hardened soldier, along with the few sprinklings of maternal neglect that he’s also given. Coster-Waldau may be a bit on the bland side, but he definitely makes for a good double act with Thwaites, bridging the divide between god and man in the film’s world. Chadwick Boseman is very funny as the epitome of all things divinely arrogant that is Thoth, Geoffrey Rush brings a lot of regal dignity and poise to his role as Ra and Elodie Yung as Hathor makes for a very welcome change to the standard stock female lead, being genuinely strong and resourceful.

The visuals are… mostly acceptable. It’s rare that a film is able to imbue the setting with this amount of grandeur and immensity, even considering how the entire world in-universe consists solely of Egypt, and the action set pieces can get really impressive at times. A particular highlight would be Bek making through the traps set up to protect the eye of Horus. Not only that, I’m always glad to see some good old-fashioned perspective trickery to show the size difference between gods and humans. However, the CGI isn’t always on its A-game, particularly during the fight scenes involving the Egyptians gods fighting each other in full animal-headed form. There’s also a very obvious nature to a lot of green-screening done for the backdrops in several scenes, like they were trying to find a midway point between standard production and an all-digital backlot. However, whatever faults there are in the visual design only end up enhancing the film’s overall aesthetic. Why? Because this might be one of the most cynical depictions of the divine that I’ve seen in a long time, and I mean that in a good way. The film treats its setting and story, from the literally flat Earth to the hubristic nature of the gods themselves, with a very mocking eye, as shown through how a hefty amount of Bek’s dialogue consists solely of making fun of how vain/simplistic/not-as-mighty-as-they-think the gods ultimately are. Hell, Horus’ entire character arc involves him learning his place among the humans, considering how so many gods live on Earth here.

However, even though this film definitely isn’t buying into most elements of the ideals extolled by the gods and their depiction of the afterlife, credit where it’s due in that this film definitely understands an awful lot about ancient Egyptian theology. For starters, it acknowledges how the Egyptians put so much of an emphasis on their own afterlife and how one is judged before their final place is decided… and it is here where the film actually kind of enters the realm of brilliance, despite some of its narrative flaws. Now, in traditional Egyptian theology, one’s ultimate fate is decided in the Hall of Two Truths where their heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, goddess of truth. If their heart weighs more than the feather, because of the weight of their sins and their burden, they were devoured by the beast Ammit. If their heart remains light as that feather, they are given their eternal reward in Aaru, what can be approximated as the Egyptian heaven.

However, when he assumes the throne, Set changes it so that one’s wealth is measured against the feather instead of their heart. Tell me, how many modern-day religious branches could this idea of buying your way into paradise apply to? Every televangelist under the Sun, for starters. Having a God essentially rewrite the rules of reality makes sense, since that is what divine beings are supposedly capable of doing, and Set placing definite importance on monetary gain plays into mortal greed and confirms that he will have people who will follow him beyond threat of death. This approach to what they are still admitting is fiction, one that can easily be applied to today’s theological mindset as well as highlighting parts of the absurdity of the ancient Egyptians’ own belief concerning wealth, is the kind of fantasy writing that I seriously wish more films today would even attempt to utilise. Bear in mind that this is from the same writers as Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter; I guess they finally found a story that they were capable of telling.

And speaking of said story, I still maintain that it has a number of structural problems. Some parts of Set’s overall plan seem to just whiz past the audience’s collective heads and the ending is a bit of a cop-out regarding the fate of certain characters. However, in spite of that, this is still a story worthy of being associated with the gods of old. Honestly, the closest comparison I can think of for this kind of spectacle would be the God of War series: A tale of betrayal, revenge and redemption framed against how no one is safe from their own pride. Characters are given clear and, at times, nuanced motivations for their actions, be it saving a loved one, reclaiming one’s honour or even trying to defy the inevitability of death. These are all themes that the ancient fables were built on, and yet this doesn’t feel like it’s just being derivative. Arguments can be made for the stylistic choices re: imitating Zack Snyder and/or Frank Miller, but the story itself has enough immediacy and development to warrant being told.

All in all, this was a surprisingly enjoyable film. It may have structural issues and the special effects are wonky in places, but under the surface is a script that is very learned about the Egyptian religion that the story is surrounded by and shows equal parts respect and criticism for the ways of old. After sitting through more than enough wannabe fantasy epics that are neither epic nor filled-in enough to really count as true fantasy, this is far better than the majority of critics or possibly even the filmmakers would give it credit for.

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