Gods of Egypt has been the source of significant controversy and negative press in the months leading up to its release. The Second Civil Rights movement, spearheaded by groups such as #BlackLivesMatter and the recent wave of student protests across American universities from Yale to Mizzou, was still in its inception as the film was greenlit and in pre-production. Casting choices which would have been hailed as inspired two or three years ago (e.g. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Horus – essentially Jamie Lannister in Egyptian mythology) have suddenly been subjected to surprising amounts of scrutiny, with accusations of whitewashing and ethnic erasure. Nor did an uninspired trailer brimming with more computer generated effects than all the Star Wars prequels combined inspire many potential moviegoers to rush to the film’s defense. I’ve had a great reverence for Egyptian mythology since reading Bulfinch for the first time in the third grade, and have sufficient familiarity with its ancient history that I’ve given guided tours to friends of the Egyptian wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art on several occasions – yet even I was dubious regarding the quality of the movie going in, expecting at best a poor man’s Clash of the Titans.
What I got instead when actually watching the film was a rich man’s Thor – and given the opening scenes Gods of Egypt was almost certainly pitched as Marvel’s Thor with a different pantheon. Both begin with a millennia old god-king (Bryan Brown’s Osiris) bequeathing his crown to an unambitious heir skilled in combat but more passionate for libations and bacchanals. And right as the unready prince is about to be coroneted, a jealous relative sees to its disruption. But at this point the two diverge, with Gods of Egypt taking the remained of its cues from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Campbell’s monomyth. The evil uncle (Gerard Butler’s Set) drives his ineffectual nephew from the kingdom, has relations with the latter’s love (Élodie Yung, very appropriately as the goddess beauty, Hathor), and subjugates the people, all in a bid to destroy the world and remake it, thereby attaining immortal life in this plane – Claudius by way of Sauron.
But like Lord of the Rings, the epic tale of gods and kings and the fate of existence is infused with added pathos and relatability by an altogether human element. Horus receives the call to adventure by the film’s deuterotagonist, a mortal named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) who’s seeking not to save the world, but his murdered paramour Zaya (Courtney Eaton), who despite her piety and because of her poverty is doomed to damnation in the final judgement – as per Set’s decree. She is the ultimate damsel in distress, a veritable Eurydice at the hands of a more satanic Hades. This sets Horus and Bek – as unlikely a duo as in any buddy cop flick – on a thrilling romp through Egyptian cosmology, from the beauteous banks of the then fertile Nile to underworld of Anubis to the solar skiff of Ra (Geoffrey Rush).
In depicting such a comprehensive cosmology – a fantasy world unrelated to our own in time (unlike ancient Egypt) or space (unlike Marvel’s Asgard) – Gods of Egypt simultaneously demonstrates a deep reverence for the source material and an astonishing ambition akin only to Avatar in its wholesale rendition of another world, though sans the same special effects budget. Still, even if the computer generated shots lack true verisimilitude, all are spectacular and none superfluous, bringing the script to life on a level not possible even a few years back. There’s a reason that films like Thor and Green Lantern left Asgard and Oa after all too brief acts to spend most of their runtime on Earth. Yet Gods of Egypt only ever escalates, moving from one surreal set piece to the next, bigger and better than before.
This escalation is evident also in the perfectly paced plot and character arcs. Whereas Thor abruptly matured after a weekend on Midgard with a mortal maiden, Horus’ journey is less jarring and more meticulous. Initially exploiting Bek only to further his vendetta against Set, their adventures slowly impart a begrudging respect, unarticulated admiration, and finally genuine friendship with the mortal. By the film’s finale, Horus’ desire to cultivate in the rest of humanity the same virtues he’d come to value in Bek and which he’d come to embody himself feels entirely organic.
Likewise with Bek, who begins by articulating an all-American self-reliance, an irreverence which contrasts with Zaya’s religiosity. The theodicy which follows seeks to justify and reconcile his humanism with her hope in providence. Bek walked alongside the gods and kept apace, shaping the world as much through his own actions as they through theirs. And yet the film takes pains to establish that Ra, the white-garbed creator that’s the closest to the conception of a monotheistic deity in popular perception, as having a purposed path for the good of every one of his creatures, from the ambitious Set to seemingly insignificant mortals, but also affording said subjects the free-will to follow or forsake their fates. He may not be the all-powerful God of Abrahamic religions, but the Judeo-Christian notion of an all-loving and compassionate heavenly father permeates the character. In following Ra’s will for his life, Horus earns the faith that Bek had previously been right to deny him.
That such theodicy is more attuned to Western theological traditions than to the actual religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptian peoples speaks to the element most overlooked by the naysayers criticizing the film for what they consider inaccurate casting. Gods of Egypt is not trying to be perfectly faithful to the source materiel – it is a total translation, an American adaptation for American audiences, appealing to American aesthetic preferences and demonstrating American values. Even the Egyptian setting itself exists solely to enable the presence of super-powered beings against a fantasy backdrop, given that both superhero and fantasy films are currently in vogue in Hollywood. That the main characters look and sound like Americans, both in their manner of speech and the content thereof, is not a failure of a film attempting to depict the realities of Egypt circa 3,000 BC – such was never the goal of the film. Were this a Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, with the actors speaking a recreation of the Egyptian language, then actors of actual or passable near-Eastern descent would be called for. But the disk-shaped world of Gods of Egypt, while lifted from the mythology, has less connection in actuality to our Egypt than does Middle-earth in Lord of the Rings. Per director Alex Proyas’ statement to Forbes:
As I have already mentioned the world of Gods of Egypt never really existed. It is inspired by Egyptian mythology, but it makes no attempt at historical accuracy because that would be pointless — none of the events in the movie ever really happened. It is about as reality-based as Star Wars — which is not real at all… Maybe one day if I get to make further chapters I will reveal the context of the when and where of the story. But one thing is for sure — it is not set in Ancient Egypt at all.”
More significantly than the ethnicity of the cast with respect to American aesthetic preferences is the shape of the narrative. Gods of Egypt takes from numerous disparate myths and symbols – from the death of Osiris to the eye of Horus to the riddle of the Sphinx (which I got right before Thoth!) – and weaves them into a single overarching epic of good versus evil on a cosmic scale utterly unknown in the ancient and even medieval world till Milton’s Paradise Lost. One of the most interesting inclusions is undoubtedly Ra’s contention with the Apophis, the Egyptian variation of one of the most common myths in antiquity – the sky-father versus the chaos dragon (for the Babylonians it was Marduk’s defeat of Tiamut as regaled in the Enûma Eliš, for the Greeks it was Zeus’ bout with Typhoon, and the Hebrew scriptures even hint at their tale of Yahweh wrestling Leviathan). I can only pray to Aten a sequel will be made and Proyas continues this methodology of appropriating, enhancing, and synthesizing these short stories into high-stakes, high-octane operas (just as he did with I, Robot before this).
Given the near empty theater on preview night I don’t suppose Gods of Egypt realistically has much chance of a sequel, or making its budget back domestically even. Which is truly a shame, because after wading through all of the negative messaging from the media and my own hesitations from the trailers, Gods of Egypt is an incredibly fun film with few flaws, if any. It may not be Oscar worthy, but it’s definitely worth your time and money. And if you do see it (which again, you definitely should), you might just run into me seeing it for a second, third, or fourth viewing even!