Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Gods of Egypt": Serial Structure Cannot Save It

Now In Theaters
After the financial success of the remake of Clash of the Titans and its sequel, it only seems natural that another studio would step up and try to cash in on some CGI mythological action.  Lionsgate has now taken its shot with Gods of Egypt, and the results aren’t exactly the cream of the crop.  This is going to be a film that will be ripped apart by popular criticism, not the least of all for Lionsgate’s choice to cast primarily Caucasian actors to play the roles of Egyptian characters.  That criticism is valid and should definitely be a part of the popular discourse, but I think it worthwhile to point out some things that the film does well, even if it isn’t worth the price of admission.

Set in a mythological version of Egypt, Bek is a mortal young man who spends his days as a petty thief.  As he and his lover, Zaya, attend a ceremony at the palace of the gods, benevolent King Osiris is murdered by his brother Set and Prince Horus is left blinded and cast into exile.  Set takes over the land, subjecting mortals to slave labor and ruling that admittance to the afterlife is dependent on personal wealth.  After Bek steals one of Horus’s eyes, Zaya is killed in the escape and Bek goes to Horus for help.  In return for bringing Zaya back to life, Bek will assist Horus in retrieving his remaining eye and his rightful place as king.  Basically, this is Hamlet meets Perseus, with Horus and Bek filling out the character arcs of those characters respectively.

The film at first feels very disjointed, with minimal effort given to establishing characters and letting the world speak for itself without much by way of exposition.  It remains coherent, but any piece of dialogue feels as if it is a contrivance to bring us to the next CGI action setpiece.  What turned the film around for me was when I realized that this was a conscious choice, that the filmmakers had explicitly crafted the film in this way so as to be a walking tour of Egyptian mythos in a variety of locales.  It’s reminiscent of old adventure serials in that way, right down to the redundant expository dialogue in later portions of the film that seem crafted to remind us of character motivations after a period of time away.  In other words, this film has built in commercial breaks and would work perfectly as a bit of cable programming.

But what’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way about this construction is that it doesn’t lend itself well to continuous viewing from start to finish.  I found myself waiting for the film to just get on with it during the second act, as each action setpiece became more and more tedious as I waited for the climax to finally come.  The setpieces themselves are serviceable and entertaining in the moment, but they are pretty forgettable for the most part and definitely aren’t worth the price of admission, even in its touted 3D format.  And while the screenplay does do its job in telling a compelling if pulpy story, don’t expect the performances to similarly engage you.

Were it not for the film’s explicit whitewashing, it would likely be quickly forgotten or even potentially ignored upon release.  It definitely isn’t worth seeing in theaters and isn’t even worth the cost of a rental.  However, if you see this pop up on Netflix or on cable in a couple years, there are worse ways to kill two hours, especially if you only want to pay partial attention or need to watch in spurts.  Its adventure serial inspiration is novel enough if you know to look for it, but beyond that, Gods of Egypt best serves as an egregious example of Hollywood casting inequality.

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