Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: Gods of Egypt

I can’t sleep on planes, okay?

Doesn’t matter how long the flight is, or how much I want to do it, I just can’t manage to sleep on planes. The problem cropped up again for me this summer, as I was flying back and forth from my home here in the sunny United States to the International Medieval Congress in the not-so-sunny United Kingdom.

I point this out not to seek pity, but to seek forgiveness. Because when it was 4am over the middle of an ocean and I hadn’t slept and I’d watched all the in-flight movies that were any good… well, I broke down and watched Gods of Egypt.

To be honest, a part of me really wanted to like this movie. Revealing the ways that the annual Nile Flood , as a representation of the death and resurrection cycle, served as an intersection point for Egyptian civilization and belief—showing how complete and coherent a system it was—is always a favorite teaching moment for me in my mythology courses. And even in my fiction I am deeply engaged with this material. Fans of my historical fantasy series The Shards of Heaven know how Cleopatra and the Ptolemaic dynasty endeavored to splice the realities of their rule with the trappings of the traditional Egyptian pantheon.

The movie pales in comparison to the myth. (Get it?)

The movie pales in comparison to the myth. (Get it?)

What I’m saying is I like Egyptian mythology.

So when I pressed play on my in-flight entertainment system I was even willing to hold my nose through the disgraceful whitewashing that I’d heard about the movie, if it could manage to offer a useful glimpse at anything resembling a fascinating ancient system of belief.

Hell, I would’ve gone for just being entertained, in that moment.

Alas, the movie gave me none of that. Gods of Egypt is a disaster from top to bottom, from the middle to the side. It was such a bad movie that it never even reached the heights of being a good bad movie—the kind of bad film you can enjoy by pouring a drink and laughing at its badness. Instead, this was a cringe-fest. The only reason I finished it was that I had nothing else to watch aside from the other people on the plane.

And most folks find that a little sketchy.

Fortunately, now that I’ve watched it, you won’t have to. I took the bullet arrow for y’all. I know it’s hardly “medieval,” but if you’d like to know what was so bad about this movie, let me count the ways.

The Whitewashing

The Egyptian sky-god. For reals.

The Egyptian sky-god. For reals.

I said I thought I might be able to ignore this issue, but it turned out to be so much worse than I could have imagined.

Remember, Gods of Egypt is a film supposedly about the gods of Egypt. The leading cast members brought together by Director Alex Proyas to make this vision a reality?

  • Gerard Butler plays Set, god of the desert. He was born in Paisley, Scotland.
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Horus, god of the sky. He’s Danish.
  • Rachael Blake plays Isis, goddess of health and marriage. She’s Australian.
  • Bryan Brown plays Osiris, god of change and regeneration. He’s another Australian.
  • Elodie Yung plays Hathor, goddess of love and joy. She’s French-Cambodian.
  • Geoffrey Rush plays Ra, god of the sun. He’s Australian, too.
  • Even the two mortal heroes, Brenton Thwaites as Bek and Courtney Eatin as Zaya, are Australian.

Indeed, nobody of note in this film is Egyptian or anything even close to it. In the midst of this totally whitewashed cast the filmmakers then decided to add a single African-American in Chadwick Boseman, who plays Thoth, god of wisdom. I rather enjoyed his performance, yet this seemingly token attempt to show casting diversity really only serves to underscore how secondary Egypt and the Egyptians and indeed anything not of-the-West is to this movie about the gods of Egypt.

In fact, the only people who looked to be authentically Egyptian in this film were the subservient masses of mortals who exist on the screen only to worship their Great White Gods. Watching it was mightily uncomfortable.

Mythology in a Blender

GodsEgypt-horus

So sure, Set is a Scotsman. But what of the portrayal of the gods? (Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?)

Pretty horrific. The plot here is loosely based on the core Egyptian myth of Set’s murder of his brother, Osiris, but … well, that sentence is actually about as connected the two plots are.

The real story of Set and Osiris was a representation of the life-giving cycle of the Nile. It goes something like this:

Set, the god of the desert (and thus drought), murders his brother Osiris (here representing the soil-restoring waters of the river) and dismembers him. Osiris’ loyal wife, Isis, seeks to avenge her dead husband by collecting his dispersed parts. She then recruits Thoth, the god of all wisdom, who teaches her the incantations to resurrect him from the dead. She does so, reviving him long enough for them to conceive a child, Horus, who ultimately avenges his father by defeating Set. The drought is banished, the flood of the Nile returns to restore the fertile cropland that is the heart of Egyptian civilization, and the living world is restored under the new reign of Horus as king, with his father Osiris now ruling the afterlife. This myth was symbolically repeated with the annual cycle of the Nile, and it was politically ever-present in the Pharaonic dynasties of Egypt as the current Pharaoh ruled as Horus (or, in Cleopatra’s case, Isis), while the dead Pharaoh ruled in the afterlife as Osiris.

Various versions of the myth exist, with additional twists or details—one of my favorites involves Horus stealing Set’s testicles—but this is a fair outline of the basic form of the Osiris myth.

In this movie? Aussie Osiris is preparing to give his power to the people (in order to promote equality or America or some such, I guess), but then Scottish Set arrives and murders him. Danish Horus, who has been introduced as a kind of playboy among the gods here (in order to show some attractive, mostly naked people, I guess), then challenges Set to a CGI brawl that smashes lots of overly ginormous CGI stuff as the gods shift in and out of their CGI animalistic representations like holy Transformers. Horus loses, has his eyes plucked out, and Set takes over Egypt. Scottish Set’s only opposition is then a human beefcake named Who Cares, who is in love with Of Course She’s Hot. They set off to steal back the eyes of Horus so he can fight Osiris again … because that worked so well the first time.

Ahem.

So in the original myth—which goes back at least 4,000 years—Isis is a central hero, tirelessly searching high and low to restore her husband to life and thus save Egypt.

Here in this 21st-century movie … Aussie Isis gets a cut-scene showing how she tries to lead a resistance against Scottish Set but totally fails because he’s more muscled than she is. The heroes of this CGI Egypt are Danish Horus and Aussie Who Cares.

Yes, Gods of Egypt is whitewashing and manwashing at the same time. Be proud, Hollywood.

The Acting

The Egyptian sun-god, in the dark. For reals.

The Egyptian sun-god, in the dark. For reals.

Even Geoffrey Rush wasn’t very good. And if the acting in your movie is of a level where even the typically delightful Geoffrey Rush doesn’t look good … believe me, the odds of you having better performances from the rest of the cast are dismal.

Not that they can be blamed too much. This was, I imagine, an all-green screen movie—which seems to always lead to lifeless performances—and the writing (by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless), well …

The Thing I Have to Call a “Plot”

GodsEgypt-monster

Oh gods, this plot was a mess. It was like a twelve-year-old’s D&D campaign on spiked Mountain Dew, lurching from the search for one object or another to fighting one boss battle after another, with no rhyme or reason or basic sense of direction. “Now let’s go to Another Place to find Another Thing … and Lo! Another Beast that has no reason for existing except that in This Moment we need a Threat With Teeth and you’ll need to roll a 20 to get by those Illogically Complex Traps of Terror!”

And then, at the end, oh yeah, it turns out that this One Guy could’ve used The Thing to fix all of the Bad Stuff before but he didn’t really want to do it (I guess?) but now that the Bad Stuff has become Even Worse Stuff and uncounted thousands have died in horrible anguish he’ll just go ahead and fix it all … presumably because the film’s budget just wouldn’t allow for the CGI Dudes to invent any more Big Monsters of Chaos and Doom.

What I’m saying, in more theoretical terms, is that this bad-from-the-beginning movie ended with the worst kind of Deus ex Machina in a film full of them.

I Just Can’t

Bad Writing

So I pretty much loathed this movie, and I hate to say that. I like many of these actors. Some of the CGI looked cool once you set aside the inanity of it all. And I’m sure that a lot of well-meaning people had to put in a lot of really hard work to complete a project of this scale.

But yikes, was it bad. And while you might love to keep hearing about the myriad ways it absolutely failed for me, that would honestly require me to keep thinking about it.

And I just can’t.

Verdict: 1/10 Eyes of Horus.

gates-hellMichael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. The Gates of Hell, the follow-up to The Shards of Heaven, his historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, comes out this fall from Tor Books.

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