The Flying Was Inside Him All Along!: Gods of Egypt and the Egyptian Pantheon on Film

“This makes Thor AND Thor: The Dark World look like Citizen Kane.” — me, at the hour and a half mark

“Rufus Sewell is right, that necklace does look super cheap.” — also me

Okay, so I’m writing this up on Labor Day in the US, so I’m admittedly feeling a little lazy vis á vis a serious scholarly entry. But I don’t want to skip the week entirely, so I thought we’d have a little fun (?) and talk about something that happened to me recently. Which is that I finally sat down and watched the 2016 movie Gods of Egypt.

[Buckle up, Virginia…]

This is something I’ve been putting off since I saw the first trailer for it in theaters (wish I could remember what ahead of— probably assume it was a Marvel movie), and I, arguably the target audience, physically recoiled from what I saw. My husband asked if I wanted to see it, given my interests, and I said NO very emphatically. I recognized at the time that part of this was that by then (2015-ish), I had (secretly— I hadn’t shared it with even my husband yet) a largely complete manuscript for what would become The God’s Wife, which meant I had very specific ideas of my own about the appearances and personalities of many of the Egyptian gods, Set in particular. That said, I would never expect to see “my” Set in someone else’s art, indeed I would hope to be creative enough myself to be assured that I couldn’t, short of a movie deal for my books. But it was particularly jarring to me, and apparently even Egyptology neophytes, to have Scottish-born Gerard Butler swagger onto the screen and declare that he was Set, the Egyptian god of chaos.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking that I’m going to sit here and moan about about all of the changes the screenplay and director Alex Proyas made to the Osiris myth cycle and the Contendings of Horus and Set to make this… cinematic experience… But that’s not really going to be my focus. Much like the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010) that was made around the same time, I fully understand that these are not documentaries about ancient mythology. We’ve talked about this here many times, and my novels bear out, that there have always been many tellings of these stories, and the idea of a “canonical” version is largely a misnomer. As I comb through the notes I took while watching, I will only be pointing out differences between the mythology and the movie when I thought the result was humorous or made things more convoluted, etc. Not solely to be the pedant my eleventh-grade English teacher thought I was.

[“THAT YOU ARE!!” screams everyone in my life.]

And it is an extremely important topic, but I’m also not going to specifically focus on the very real whitewashing problem this movie has, outside of more throwaway references to the cast like I did about Gerard Butler being Scottish above. This is not because I don’t think I need to, but rather, I would prefer to talk about something that important in a separate entry where we can look at it more seriously. And not mixed in with what I suspect is going to devolve into a very silly entry— because this is a supremely goofy movie.

It will also permit us to do exactly what Alex Proyas was begging people to do at the height of the real (and deserved) backlash the movie received even five years ago for its very white leads: which is to judge this movie based on the “creative license and artistic freedom of expression” to depict a fantasy movie that claims it was never meant to be historically accurate. His argument is that this movie never had a chance to be judged on its merits because “they [the critics] can rip into my movie while trying to make their mainly pale asses look so politically correct by screaming ‘white-wash!!!’” So, that’s my goal: to talk about whether this is a good movie on its merits, and try not to get too lost in the weeds with adaptive accuracy or its problematic casting.

And as a final disclaimer: I can be almost unbearably snooty when it comes to literature, but this auteur stance is almost entirely confined to the world of print. I am very populist when it comes to movies. I am largely Jane Q. Public at the cineplex, as in I generally like to watch movies to relax and not think very hard, so those involved with Gods of Egypt can be assured that despite my misgivings, I was not expecting an art house film. To illustrate my egalitarian movie palate, I usually tell people that I genuinely like the deeply reviled 2003 adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I do not have any formal film background, so when I talk about whether or not a movie is “good”, I’m largely measuring it against the exact kind of metrics Alex Proyas is looking for: was the movie engaging in any way and did I have a good time watching it? To return to LXG, I recognize it is not a faithful adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic or its Victorian literary source novels; the movie’s plot is largely nonsensical, and the dialogue gets ridiculous. But I find the overall effect engaging enough and I have a good time watching it, so I still consider it a “good” movie, even if it isn’t a good movie.

[Zaya and Bek]

And that’s the real rub with Gods of Egypt, folks. This is not a good movie, no matter how loose your metrics are. I’m not even sure I could sit through it again to hate-watch it, or in a so-bad-it’s-good way— certainly not without a drinking game involved to limit my sobriety as a compensation. But let’s have some fun and talk about why this is, to try to prove I’m not just being mean about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s “8-foot-tall god who turns into a falcon” movie. I’ll included some comments I made as I watched, and I suppose it goes without saying, but spoilers ahead for this five year old film.

The basic plot of the movie is indeed a loose version of the Contendings of Horus and Set. We get a few minutes of voice-over exposition from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau explaining that the Egyptian gods still live among humans at this unspecified-yet-ancient time and reminding us of things like the gods can turn into animals, etc. When we join the action, the ruler of Egypt, the god Osiris, is throwing a coronation party to pass the throne to his son, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The other gods all show up and everything is peachy until Set (Gerard Butler) arrives — invited, but unexpected — and challenges Osiris to a contest of arms for the throne instead. Osiris refuses to fight his brother, so Set just stabs him to death. Enraged, Horus challenges Set and they fight in beast mode until Set overpowers Horus, blinds him, and claims the throne. The gods are divided and Horus goes into exile.

In addition to the gods, we have two human characters, Bek and Zaya, who operate as the audience stand-ins. Bek is a young man with no occupation, trying to make a life for Zaya in the Aladdin mode of charming street rat. Set’s rule brings about dark times to the previously peaceful Egypt, forcing Bek to work as a slave constructing an enormous tower Set wishes to build and Zaya to work in the household of the lead human architect of said tower, the unscrupulous Urshu (Rufus Sewell). Bek wants to rescue Zaya from her creepy employer/potential rapist, but Zaya refuses to run away while the rest of Egypt is still in misery under Set. She conceives of a plan for Bek to use his very particular set of skills to retrieve Horus’ eyes so the god can lead the resistance against Set’s rule. Bek succeeds in getting one of the eyes, but Zaya is killed when they are fleeing Urshu, who has discovered what they have done. The grief-stricken Bek finds Horus, who agrees to help Bek bring back Zaya from the Duat in exchange for his help getting the second eye and defeating Set. Fantasy-adventure hijinks ensue. 

[Alexander England as Mnevis and Rufus Sewell as Urshu]

A large part of the problem is that 2016-ish might represent the nadir of that cinematic timeframe when we thought we had really nailed CGI and we really hadn’t gotten there quite yet. Like the aforementioned Clash of the TitansGods of Egypt is one of those wall-to-wall CGI extravaganzas, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not something I generally complain about in big-budget blockbusters, but I think there are vast swaths of this movie that just look like garbage. It’s a lot of actors standing in front of a lot of green screens and none of it looks organic in any way. The climatic showdown between Horus and Set is genuinely difficult to follow as the gods in their CGI beast modes tumble about in front of an equally digital background composed of mostly harsh reds and blacks. Even sweeping, faraway shots of beautiful, typical-looking Egyptian temples and cities come off flat, looking more like older video game cutscenes than a film.

Now, the promotional posters made it look like those beast modes would look like this, which is admittedly kind of cool:

But in the movie, they mostly looked like this:

[Here is a wide shot of the movie’s topography. Or it’s from one of the Assassin’s Creed games. Who can say?]
[Here’s part of the finale, the demon Apep/Apophis as a classic ‘00s blockbuster CGI Giant Cloud Monster. This movie gets bonus points for having a finale Giant Cloud Monster and a Giant Sky Beam. You can’t see either of them.]

And as with most things CGI, everything that looks bad in the stills is a hundred times worse when people or things are moving around. Another casualty of this is the decision that the gods and humans would not be the same size. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was only partly right when he described his role as 8-foot-tall god who turns into a falcon. In fact, the gods in this movie are shown as 9 feet tall in human form and 12 feet tall in beast mode, with the human characters as is. Alex Proyas says they achieved this effect through forced perspective, as was done in the Lord of the Rings movies, and through motion control photography. But unlike in Lord of the Rings, the difference in heights between the humans and gods is jarring every time it comes up and I never got used to it. 

[This is what it looked like. Trust me, it’s way worse when Horus starts swinging Bek around. It’s like the slightly awkward CGI of Hulk swinging Loki around at the end of The Avengers, but goes on way longer and there’s a whole dialogue scene happening at the same time.]

I understand that this was probably a nod to how humans and the gods are sometimes depicted as different sizes in Egyptian art, but the technology was just not up to the challenge. Motion capture CGI was used for this more than practical forced perspective, and the results are not as good. I think Lord of the Rings was helped by the people whose sizes were being adjusted, the hobbits, have their own dimensions to aid the illusion. The actors wore prosthetic feet and clothing cut to make them look shorter, and wide shots utilized actual little people in their place. Here, the gods look exactly like humans, except bigger, and the result is goofy-looking.

[Here is an Egyptian painting of a larger Horus showering a smaller supplicant woman with flowers. I like it because it looks positively alarming how fast those flowers are incoming…]

Aside from the various fiascos caused by the rampaging CGI, most of the movie is just bland. Our two male leads, Horus and Bek, engage in the basic Hero’s Journey: Horus to defeat Set and become a good king himself, and Bek to rescue Zaya and become a better person worthy of her love. The two of them together have a buddy cop quest movie, with all of the clichés that entails: Horus is the gruff, older guy whose lost faith in the system, and Bek is the young hotshot who gets him to care about the job (Egypt) again.

[Some of this is represented by Horus supposedly being “unable” to go into beast mode for most of the movie. Which is supposed to show growth, but mostly comes off as they spent too much of the budget on these giant CGI snakes and had to pull back. Granted, the snakes look better than most of the rest of the movie, so there is that…]

Even more than the racial background of the cast, I think what (rightly) infuriated people at the time was that the whitewashed cast was also so milquetoast in the bargain. Most of the actors are so uninteresting that their melanin content starts to become the least of their issues.

[This is Osiris. What is up with his Surfer Dad landing strip? My comment at the time was “Osiris suuuuuuucks. No wonder Set stepped in.”]
[This is Isis Most Excellent. When Set murders Osiris, we are told in retrospect by Horus that she, the most powerful goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, “kills herself out of grief.” My take: “Isis killed herself so this movie could happen.”]

I’m not saying all of their problems would have been fixed if Brad Pitt had been cast as Horus (the movie Troy sort of disproves that), but it might have helped. I understand the script wasn’t Hamlet, but I found nearly everyone in this movie to be mildly to severely miscast regardless of their level of talent and the result is just nonsense. Chemistry between actors is virtually nonexistent. Arguably the only person who both seems like a good fit for their part and managed to give an interesting performance was the wonderful, late Chadwick Boseman as Thoth.

[Funny how he’s also the only black actor with a major speaking role… My take: “Chadwick Boseman is working it. He’s trying to spin out a performance using a fraction of Nature’s resources and FOOLS for assistants.”]

Geoffrey Rush play Ra, and is clearly trying to do something interesting with his performance, but as the sun god’s biggest character beat is that he’s very detached from any of the conflicts of earth, there’s not a lot of places for him to go with what he is given. I feel a strong character actor with some chaotic neutral energy like Ben Kingsley could have brought some more to this part and possibly made something of it.

[This is a terrible picture of it, but Ra’s solar barque was one of the few set pieces I didn’t completely hate. It was an interesting take and it made sense that it kind of looked like a spaceship because it was, you know, in space.]

A third of the way into the movie, I had started to call Set “Bro-Set”, because Gerard Butler brought a lot of mean dude-bro energy to this role, but not a lot else for a part that was supposedly leaning into Set as a Big Bad kind of god. It probably wouldn’t have been as glaring if he hadn’t had so many scenes with Rufus Sewell, who is much more adept at projecting the kind of underhanded menace that would have suited the character better. I get that Sewell was hired for Urshu because it’s exactly the kind of part he’s often typecast into, but it’s not a great look to have him in a weaker secondary villain role when all Butler does is stomp around and occasionally stab someone.

[He wears this look a lot]
[And this one. However, I respect Gerard Butler for clearly having a stipulation in his contract that he would be in shape for this movie, but, not like 300 shape. I hate working out, too.]

Incidentally, part of the reason that half the cast is so uninteresting is that the script decides to take Egyptian mythology at face value and portray all of the gods as absorbed in their own affairs and generally not super-concerned with how the humans are doing. This is arguably the truest the movie is to its source material, but the result is you have most of the cast acting bored and aloof, which is not interesting to watch. That’s another reason Rush’s Ra doesn’t work— because everyone’s like that. Same thing with Butler’s Set: sure he’s a dick, but so is Horus, so it’s not really compelling to root for either of them. Horus’ arc supposedly shows him learning to be more compassionate, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays the god so gruffly and woodenly, his change of heart isn’t particularly convincing.

[Pictured: an entitled jerk, but this is the one we’re rooting for.]

Coster-Waldau is a decent actor, but I don’t know what he was trying to do with this performance. Before Set takes over, Horus is portrayed as arrogant and smarmy… you know, just like Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones, the other role he was playing at the time. I feel like he realized that Horus’ arc was potentially exactly the same as Jamie’s and he panicked, trying to figure out how to make them different somehow. So he really leaned into that “old cop who’s sick of this shit” vibe, complete with growl. Which is fine, except he’s wearing an eyepatch most of the movie and that combined with his grumbly attitude makes him a dead ringer for famous video game protagonist Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series.

[Tell me I’m wrong]
[SNAAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!!]

Élodie Yung, who plays Hathor, is the only other actor of color (she is French-Cambodian) with a serious speaking role. Like Courtney Eaton, who plays Zaya, she isn’t given a lot to do, but she’s the only goddess with any real personality. There is a point where her role as the Lady of the West in the Duat is alluded to, albeit with her talking ominously about “a darkness inside of her”, and for a brief minute, I thought the movie was about to do something cool with her Sekhmet half. But nothing comes of this, other than as an excuse to have her dragged into the Duat at one point and out of the movie. 

[Seriously, she never returns. The ending has Horus flying off to find her, clearly intimating that everyone thought they were going to get a sequel that will never happen. Good luck, Hathor!]

Mostly, her job is to be Horus’ (barely believable) love interest, which is accurate from a mythological standpoint, and once Set is in place, his queen (though she’s working a con).

[When I saw this part, I asked Set if he wrote a movie script where he got to make out with Hathor. He denies everything…]

Hathor agrees to be with Set to get him to spare Horus’ life, which works. But of course Horus acts like this isn’t obvious and gets all petulant because his girlfriend, you know, the goddess of sex, used sex to cut a deal with a god who not only wants to kill Horus, but most of the other gods as well. When they end up back together later in the movie, Coster-Waldau and Yung engage in some argument-banter I labeled as “excruciating” in the moment.

[90% of the other gods are useless. When Set fights Horus at the coronation ceremony, huge pillars are literally falling on people and the gods act like they can’t do anything about it. Like, I get being afraid to stand up to Set personally, but like, he was busy doing other stuff at that moment and probably wouldn’t have cared.]

Some reviewers wanted to get on costume design’s case for her barely-there wardrobe, but as an Egyptian goddess, particularly the goddess of love and sex, I actually found Hathor’s dresses to be one of the more believable things happening in this movie. At least until they made sure she somehow got completely wet in a movie that primarily takes place in the desert…

[My take: “Oh, no! We got our scantily-clad goddess all wet…!”]

Hathor’s dresses are about as risqué as they can get in a PG-13 rated movie, which means that other parts of the Contendings that might have made things more interesting had to be tossed out as well. As I said earlier, I honestly didn’t spend a lot of time critically comparing the plot to the mythology, but I think my neighbors down the street heard the hoot of uncontrolled laughter that escaped me during the (very sad, very serious) scene where Horus explains to Bek how Set tore the body of Osiris into fourteen pieces and hid them (accurate), and the only piece they couldn’t find was his… heart.

[Yes… Osiris’ “heart”, pictured here on his Tinder page.]

This kind of thing also struck at the movie’s end, when Horus finally pins Set, his spear poised above the prone god of chaos. Cue me shouting at my tv, “I hope they stay true to the Contendings and Horus cuts off Set’s testicles!”, only to have Horus just stab Set to death.

[And me shouting, “BOO! NO CASTRATION!”]

In spite of all of this, I’d like to wrap things up with a couple of things I did like about this movie, to prove I’m not completely heartless. Although the things I liked/tolerated were admittedly few and far between. As I said, I liked the design for the solar barque for at least being different from anything else in the movie. I also liked the beast mode design for Anubis, in part because, again, at least it was different from any of the other gods, and partly because we never see him in human form, so the size thing is less weird when he interacts with humans.

[Anubis]
[Ugh, so much of this movie is in this crap red lighting…]

I liked the scene were Set goes to parley with Nephthys, who, as in the mythology, is his wife and, also in character, opposes his rule and leads what resistance there is while Horus drinks and sulks himself into a stupor. The actor playing her, Emma Booth, is also far too white for her part, but she does a decent job in her only real scene to pull some pathos out of Gerard Butler’s performance, making it one of the few where I felt like he was hitting his marks. I also liked the choice to make the goddesses who work for Set the Semitic goddesses Astarte and Anat. I thought it was clever to use foreign deities later absorbed into the Egyptian pantheon here, as it has often been postulated that Set himself might have been a foreign god from the south deep in Egypt’s prehistoric past. I liked less that they were mainly used as character-less minor bosses to be blown up by the heroes.

[Emma Booth as Nephthys]
[Yaya Deng as Astarte and Abbey Lee as Anat]

And…that’s about it… Overall, I think this was a movie that was trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible and ended up pleasing no one. It’s bombastic, there’s too much impersonal CGI, and it tried too hard to jam in some heart (as in “soul”, not Osiris’ “heart”) at the last second. There’s a part of the story that centers around Zaya having faith in the gods, while Bek thinks they’re largely rubbish. Part of Bek’s journey is to learn to believe in the goodness of the gods, but there is minimal evidence to support why he should. A couple of the gods end up helping him out, but it isn’t a particularly compelling argument. Ironically, I’m pretty sure that, as competent as Chadwick Boseman’s performance is, I’m not convinced Thoth learned anything from helping Bek. There’s also a whole subplot about humans needing a lot of treasure to bribe their way into the Field of Reeds, and Horus eventually learning from his journey that “what’s inside counts more”, and decreeing from henceforth what would be weighed in the afterlife was a person’s deeds. That’s spiffy and mythologically accurate, but the movie does nothing to imply that Horus has any control over how the Duat works — it’s not like he went down there and punched the judges of the dead into submission or something — so this is kind of a feel-good campaign promise.

I know this was really long (and I didn’t even get to really talk about the stupid tower Set is building to impress Ra— because of course the villain has to have daddy issues — or how Gerard Butler has trouble settling on an accent…), but I hope this shows that this movie failed more for not being enjoyable, rather than because it was treated unfairly by the press. I like big, dumb popcorn movies, and I’m sure there are people who like even this movie in that way. But for me, there are just too many better popcorn flicks to spend your time on rather than slogging through two hours of this. As a friend of mine pointed out, if you watch Aladdin and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie in quick succession, you’ll get many of the same plot beats in two better films. So, I recommend spending your evening doing that instead, and just reading a good book about ancient Egypt. I haven’t read it yet, but Françoise Dunand and Christiane Zivie-Coche’s Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE was recommended to me recently and sounds like a much better exploration of the Egyptian god-human relationship than anything discussed in Gods of Egypt. Happy viewing and reading!

2 Comments

  1. When I learned that Scottish actor Gerard Butler was going to be in a movie about ancient Egyptian gods, the very first thing that popped into my mind was that scene from “Blackadder” season 1 where an acting troupe is putting on a performance of “The Death of the Pharaoh” in the royal castle. However, the play’s title gets changed to “The Death of the Scotsman” by the conniving Prince Edmund…but it still takes place in ancient Egypt. To this, the unaware Queen Gertrude asks “What is a Scotsman doing in Egypt?” Edmund’s older brother Prince Harry responds “I’m not sure, but apparently they’ve had very good reviews”.

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