The chances that I’ll ever understand Hollywood filmmakers’ appetite for films based on ancient mythology is low, and even lower that I’ll find a way to explain the shittiness of what their admiration begets. I just watched Gods of Egypt, which released in 2016, on Netflix. From the first scene, it felt like one of those movies that a bunch of actors participate in (I can’t say if they perform) to have some screen time and, of course, some pay. It’s a jolly conspiracy, a well-planned party with oodles of CGI to make it pleasing on the eyes and the faint hope that you, the viewer, will be distracted from all the vacuity on display.
I’m a sucker for bad cinema because I’ve learnt so much about what makes good cinema good by noticing what it is that gets in the way. However, with Gods of Egypt, I’m not sure where to begin. It’s an abject production that is entirely predictable, entirely devoid of drama or suspense, entirely devoid of a plot worth taking seriously. Not all Egyptian, Green, Roman, Norwegian, Celtic and other legends can be described by the “gods battle, mortal is clever, revenge is sweet” paradigm, so it’s baffling that Hollywood reuses it as much as it does. Why? What does it want to put on display?
It surely is neither historical fidelity nor entertainment, and audiences aren’t wowed by much these days unless you pull off an Avatar. There is a glut of Americanisms, including (but not limited to) the habit of wining one’s sorrows away, a certain notion of beauty defined by distinct clothing choices, the sole major black character being killed off midway, sprinklings of American modes of appreciation (such as in the use of embraces, claps, certain words, etc.), and so forth. And in all the respect that they have shown for the shades of Egyptian lore, which is none, what they have chosen to retain is the most (white) American Americanism of all: a self-apotheosising saviour complex, delivered by Geoffrey Rush as the Sun god Ra himself.
There seems to be no awareness among scriptwriters angling at mythologies of the profound, moving nuances at play in many of these tales – of, for example, the kind that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are pulling off for TV based on Neil Gaiman’s book.
There is no ingenuity. In a scene from the film, a series of traps laid before a prized artifact are “meant to lure Horus’s allies to their deaths” – but they are breachable. In another – many others, in fact – a series of barriers erected by the best builders in the world (presumably) are surmounted by a lot of jumping. In yet another, an important character who was strong as well as wily at the beginning relies on just strength towards the end because, as he became supposedly smarter by appropriating the brain of the god of wisdom, he gave himself a breakable suit of armour. Clearly, someone’s holding a really big idiot ball here. It’s even flashing blue-red lights and playing ‘Teenage wasteland’.
Finaly, Gods of Egypt makes no attempt even to deliver the base promise that some bad films make – that there will be a trefoil knot of a twist, or a moment of epiphany, or a well-executed scene or two – after which you might just be persuaded to consign your experience to the realm of lomography or art brut. I even liked Clash of the Titans (2010) even though it displayed none of these things; it just took itself so seriously.
But no, this is the sort of film that happens when Donald Trump thinks he’s Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is a mistake, an unabashed waste of time that all but drools its caucasian privilege over your face. Seriously, the only black people in the film – apart from the one major guy that dies – are either beating drums or are being saved. Which makes it all the more maddening. Remember Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth (2000)? It was so bad – but it is still remembered because at the heart of its badness was an honest, if misguided, attempt by its makers to experiment, to exercise their agency as artists. A common complaint about the film is that Christian overused Dutch angles. I would have wept in relief if the Gods of Egypt had done anything like that. Anything at all.