Thursday, June 23, 2016

When they say, "The sun sucks," you just go, "Yeah, fuck the sun"


I realize I have no actual right to be disappointed—I was warned, repeatedly, by everyone—but here we are, and disappointed I am.

Directed by Alex Proyas
Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless
With Brenton Thwaites (Bek), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus), Elodie Yung (Hathor), Chadwick Boseman (Thoth), Rachel Blake (Isis), Bryan Brown (Osiris), Geoffrey Rush (Ra), Emma Booth (Nephthys), Courtney Eaton (Zaya), Rufus Sewell (Urshu), Yaya Deng (Astarte), Abbey Lee (Anat), and Gerard Butler (Set)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Gods of Egypt, you stupid thing: there is a good, maybe even a halfway-great fantasy action programmer hiding within your overindulgent two hour and seven minute runtime.  It simply had to have been carved out of you, much like your villain, the evil god Set, carves up his opponents and rearranges them for his own greater glory.  The point is, there is no reason at all for a movie with Gods of Egypt's otherwise pleasantly insane tone to be this long—and certainly not when a cool ninety minutes would have suited it fine.

And it's not at all hard to identify what needed to be cut.  Above all, you have those first twenty minutes, which do positively nothing but set up backstory, and burn through about twenty million dollars' worth of CGI—yet which could have been related in two lines of dialogue, for free.  But there's plenty left, still worthy of the ax: for example, every time the script has the characters talk to one another about their feelings or about this movie's half-baked themes, since none of that works out very well at all.  I've only failed to forget all of it already because it's seriously damned aggravating to sit down to a work of transparently dumbassed fantasy fiction like this, set in a transparently dumbassed fantasy version of ancient Egypt, only to find that its writers want to just stop the plot every few minutes in order to make some good-hearted but asinine comment about the modern economy.  (No, I'm not kidding, and a movie that hangs this much metaphorical import on the unexamined desire of a freaking god to accrue masses of gold, and to sort humanity into two groups of roughly one and ninety-nine percent, respectively, is emphatically not the movie that you would either expect or desire if you foolishly went into Gods of Egypt hoping to be entertained.)

I did foolishly go into Gods hoping to be entertained, of course; and fitfully, I even was entertained.  There are scattered moments here and there, that could have been easily tied together in the theoretical ninety-minute cut I just described, and with no loss of coherence or sensibility at all.  This would be very easy, in fact, given that the 127-minute cut doesn't have either.  To the plot, then, such as it is:

In the time before time, there were gods, and they created the two kingdoms of Egypt, where they lived amongst their "lesser creations," namely humankind.  The fertile valleys of Lower Egypt were ruled by Osiris, a beneficent monarch; the desert wastes of Upper Egypt were ruled by Set, a cruel tyrant whose heart nursed an undying hatred for both his brother, who had been favored with the good kingdom, and for his father, who gave Osiris Lower Egypt, and also arranged it so that Set was sterile, and could not give his wife children.

Okay: so already we're dealing with a picture where much of the plot is motivated by the villain's inability to cope with barrenness, and the villain is a man.  You know, say what you will about the then-controversial decision to cast a bunch of lily-white people in the roles of a brownish race—this movie might be some warped kind of "progressive" after all.

Anyway, let's move along, and meet our young street rat, Bek, who must steal both his turntables and his microphones if he so much as wishes to issue out even one interesting beat.  But he's still mostly happy, since he's shacked up with the love of his life, a pair of breasts named Zaya—although maybe that's unfair, given that it implies that other people in this movie have personalities.  Indeed, "large, heavily-showcased breasts" are somewhat more personality than her boyfriend ever gets, at least outside of his blithe disdain for the gods. (Remember Immortals?  Remember how much you loved it?  What do you mean, "no"?)

Well, long story short(er), it's what you'd imagine a prequel to Stargate would be like, except with less brutality, until Set murders Osiris and seizes all Egypt for himself, turning it into a Ten Commandments-themed dystopia.  Naturally, Osiris' son, the hawk god Horus, stands against him; but Set blinds him in the struggle, and Horus must flee.

For years, Horus sulks in his run-down temple, until the day that Bek, now a slave along with his lady-love, steals one of Horus' eyes back from Set's storehouse.  Zaya suffers a fatal arrow to the boob in the process, and  Bek hightails it to Horus, with whom he seeks to make a bargain.  Reluctantly, Horus agrees to bring back Zaya in exchange for his other eye, which he needs in order to something something whatever.

Thus finally our quest begins, roughly thirty-five minutes into a film that has done nothing so far to move its plot along, and (wouldn't you know) it's almost another fucking hour before our whole party has been assembled, which includes Horus' former flame, Set's current concubine, and goddess of love Hathor—not presently rendered as a cow (although that might've been fun)—as well as the reclusive god of wisdom, Thoth.  In the meantime, there's a side trip to the cosmic barge of Ra himself, and I think the point of this movie, if it has any, is that the gods don't care about humans, and the God of the gods also doesn't care about them; but that's disingenuous, since the main point of this journey into outer space is to watch Geoffrey Rush wax apopleptic about the GIANT DOOMSDAY SPACE WORM.

It's ideas like this one that make me wail for what could have been—and it's not alone, either.  In the very same scene, we have its more subtle companion, a view of "Earth" that simultaneously calls back to director Alex Proyas' single good movie, Dark City, and also makes it plain that this world is as flat as you always imagined other such fantasy worlds to be.  For example, in Lord of the Rings.

And that is the abiding problem with Gods of Egypt: it cannot ever really decide what the hell it wants to be, a legitimately grand exercise in high fantasy like LotR, or a preposterously goofy exercise in maddened hyper-camp like Flash Gordon.  Individual scenes flip back and forth between these two utterly incompatible modes; and whenever Gods is trying to be the first, it fails completely, not only because it's a little hard to take any of this seriously, but because all it ever manages in these scenes is to tediously grind through the minutia of its silly universe and its no-note characters.  I'm not even prepared to admit that Peter Jackson himself did it all that well—the Rings trilogy is the exact kind of twelve-hour endurance test that I'm very glad I sat through once, and have felt oppressed whenever I've had to watch any part of it ever again—but with Proyas' inability to secure any kind of genuinely epic tone for more than two or three consecutive shots, and with the schizophrenic screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless constantly heaping ever more confusion upon the giant heap of confusion we've already got, Gods doesn't even get close to that level of mythic adventure.

When it comes to its other mode, I think I've already made it clear that Egypt has something like the goods.  Sometimes, it's simply the visual representation of Gods' batshit internal mythology: one thing I never, ever got tired of, despite this movie's immense desire to waste everybody's fucking time, was the central conceit of the gods themselves as ten-foot tall CGI composites.  It shouldn't work, and, honestly, it does not work; but it tickles me nonetheless.

And, sometimes, it all depends on whether a given actor is in a scene or not.  For example, Gerard Butler's Set is completely awful—his role is to bellow in Scottish at top volume forever—but he's bad in a rather enjoyable way.  Meanwhile, Geoffrey Rush and especially Chadwick Boseman actually know what kind of movie they're in, or at least would strongly prefer to be in.  And so Rush plays his top god as comically beyond good and evil, concerned solely with his nightly contests with Apophis the Worm (and, also, with insulting his relatives); whereas Boseman goes into the furthest possible excesses of camp—literal camp, since he elects to play Thoth as a cross betwen Steve Urkel and RuPaul, with every single part of his body, but especially his hands, devoted to the most offensively precise mincing seen on our screens in decades.  Now, whether these two actors are giving good performances or bad performances is really quite academic; whatever else they're doing, at least they're doing something.

Now, as for the actors doing nothing, I am assured that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the man who is essentially our co-lead, is actually a good actor; I am still waiting on any confirmation of this from the movies he shows up in.  We spend a lot of time with him, unfortunately, as well as Brenton Thwaites—who just can't catch a break after doing so well in Oculus—and neither one seem interested in doing anything but reciting their Phantom Menace-level dialogue in inflectionless British accents.  It's with these two mediocrities that Gods saddles us with its heartfelt heroes' journeys, and if there are two things this movie needed even less, I can't remotely imagine what they are.

Only when they're in the midst of action is their interplay tolerable, so, as luck would have it, about a solid hour and a half deep into Gods, we at last get a sustained, well-paced adventure going—it arrives right around the time that a pair of evil goddesses start chasing the duo from the back of their giant snakes.  Gods finally winds up developing a fair momentum, way too late for it to turn the movie into anything good, but maybe soon enough to save it; but, of course, that's why Gods concludes with its wet fart of a climax, revealing that everything that wasn't possible actually was, and this whole fucking movie has been completely pointless.  Obviously, we always knew that; but it's simply indecent, the way Proyas rubs our faces in it.

It is a bad movie, then; and not good-bad, either.  And yet I would be pretty remiss if I didn't mention the two things Gods does right in pretty much every frame, and the man and woman responsible for them.  And so we have the Wachowskis' old production designer, Owen Paterson, who gets to go crazy with ancient Egypt, hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money, and possibly a lungfull of meth.  As a result of his efforts, Gods is surprisingly effortless to watch, despite being routinely terrible, for there are endless CGI sets to be gawked at, all of them shiny and chrome, albeit heavily-inflected with video game logic and ribboned with shrieking nonsense.  But the very shiniest things must be the gods themselves, for they are not just big hulking giants, but glorious liquid metal shapeshifters, a delirious hybrid of Luigi Cozzi's Hercules and some instantly-cancelled Saturday morning cartoon.  I could have adored these hideous things, if only Proyas had given me the chance.  (Likewise, you have all of Gods' lovely monsters, clearly inspired by Harryhausen—hell, this whole movie is "clearly inspired by Harryhausen."  And, well, it gets that more or less right, insofar as Harryhausen's fantasies also had a tendency to be pointless and dull, livened up mainly by his unimpeachable effects wizardry.)  But anyway, when there are actual humans in Gods, they find themselves attired in a whole host of metallic raiments and beady dresses by Liz Keogh, whose costume design is eye-searingly pulpy—and eye-rollingly exploitative of the female form—but I really do mean that in the best way, too.

If only we could just collect the good scenes—Ra on his boat, the battle with the snakes, Thoth vs. the Sphinx—well, I'd have to enjoy this movie on sheer principle.  It is brazen, trashy spectacle, intended to appeal to the inner moron in everybody.  But when Proyas decided it needed to be more, he killed his own movie, and didn't even seem to notice.  What an awful waste it is.

Score:  4/10

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