The ancient Greeks preached moderation in all things, and while GODS OF EGYPT is set in that ancient land, not the Peloponnese, I was put in mind of that advice. This is a film of craven excess in all things except what would have helped most: a good script. For two hours or so, we are pelted with a hellzapoppin approach to special effects such that any initial exhilaration with same is quickly replaced by a moribund sense of exhaustion. By the time Gerard Butler takes flight in a chariot powered by winged scarabs, the only appropriate response is glassy-eyed indifference.
Butler is Set, the volatile bad boy of the Egyptian pantheon, who barges out of his desert realm to seize power from his milquetoast brother, Osiris (Bryan Brown), and to put the kaybosh on said brother’s plans to pass the crown of Egypt to his son, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). With an impressive CGI army, he does just that, killing Osiris, plucking out Horus’ eyes, and enslaving the mortal population of Egypt. It’s not just pure cussedness, though, it’s also a Daddy Issue. Daddy would be Ra (Geoffrey Rush), the sun god who spends his time in outer space performing his daily tasks of bringing light to the world and of killing Apophis (oddly, the Greek rendering of the Egyptian name, Apep), the space worm intent on swallowing the earth whole with its fanged and smoky whirlpool of a maw.
In other words, he’s a busy god, much too preoccupied to spend his time dealing with the day-to-day concerns of running a planet. Fortunately there’s Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a clever and high-spirited thief with a good heart and a reason to help Horus sort out his problems. Bek’s one true love, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), has been enslaved by Set’s master builder (Rufus Sewell), which provides Bek with the opportunity to study the plans to the divine treasury. It’s not just idle curiosity. At Zaya’s urging, he will steal Horus’ eyes from the treasury, topple Set, and free both Zaya and Egypt as a whole.
Yes, it’s a lot of plot, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about why the gods live alongside men on the banks of the Nile, or the complicated romantic relationships of the divinities, mostly revolving around Hathor (Elodie Yung), the goddess of love. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just an excuse for one putatively spectacular effects orgy after another, some that work much better than others. Bek being borne aloft by a winged Horus looks palpably fake, alas, and is further undercut by a script that occasionally musters some genuine cleverness of dialogue, but not often enough to save us the way Horus must save Egypt. The conceit of the gods being so much bigger than the mortals remains viably interesting, and is done seamlessly. The fiendishly complicated obstacle courses Bek must negotiate in order to pilfer Horus’ eyes or another McGuffin benefits from Bek’s being so credibly agile and audacious.
Yet for all of Butler, Thwaites, and Coster-Waldau’s best efforts to breathe life into dreary dialogue underwritten characters, it’s Chadwick Boseman who steals the film as Toth, the god of Wisdom. He nails the crushing burden on Thoth’s impeccable sense of noblesse oblige at being forced to live among lesser intellects, and his imperturbable sense of being right that allows him to argue with the Sphinx about the answer to a riddle, is the most fun in the whole film. Think Mr. Spock crossed with Sheldon Cooper. That he also looks so good in gold sequins doesn’t hurt.
Egyptian mythology takes a drubbing in GODS OF EGYPT, and so do we amid daring underwater rescues, several trips to the afterlife, swampy treks, desert hikes, armored suits that look like space suits, Geoffrey Rush bursting into flames while chewing the scenery, and a plot that refuses to get to the point. Any point.