Here’s the moment Gods of Egypt made me its slave: Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), grandson of the sun god Ra (Geoffrey Rush), is about to be crowned king of Egypt by his popular father Osiris (Bryan Brown), who has given the region 1,000 years of peace. In his last hours as a spoiled prince, Horus is being massaged by three mortal attendants, all half his size — the gods are 12 feet tall — when his girlfriend Hathor (Elodie Yung), the goddess of love, saunters in wearing a blinged-out push-up bra and the two buff hotties start making out in a Jacuzzi.
I’d been rolling my eyes at the crop tops, 3-D white rose petals, and clangingly modern slang. Then I realized the joke was on stick-in-the-mud me. Screw museums. Director Alex Proyas (Dark City, The Crow) is giving us the ancient Egypt we never knew we wanted to see: one reimagined as a fantastical bloodbath in Las Vegas.
In this vision of Egypt, the gods are superstars, the mortals their pathetic fans, and the netherworld is the coolest club in town. When Osiris shouts, “All are welcome in the afterlife!” the civilians cheer like he’s dropped the velvet rope to VIP. However, an invite to the eternal party isn’t that simple. Anubis (Goran D. Kleut), the dog-faced deity of death, is the bouncer, and after violent desert god Set (Gerard Butler) murders Osiris, blinds Horus, and claims the throne, he raises the entrance fee. Good deeds are no longer enough. Now, only the rich can buy their way into heaven.
Cue Gods of Egypt’s grand CGI spectacular. Proyas, who was born in Alexandria and moved away when he was 3, has clung to his boyhood obsession with his birthplace. To him, the Egyptian gods aren’t dusty statues, they’re badass action heroes who kick butt and crack jokes. He’s been given $140 million to play with his toys, and he’s put every penny on the screen. There are swooping, pixelated vistas of the Nile and jaw-dropping shots of Ra in his flying space-boat dragging the sun around a flat, coin-shaped Earth while pausing to fight a smoke worm with 10,000 teeth — the Egyptian god of chaos, Apep. And when the gods fight, which they do often, they don’t just box. They seize magic staffs that glow like light sabers, transform into metal-plated falcons, and duel in the sky. Gold — not blood — courses through their veins. When wounded, they become even more glorious, smeared in their own iridescent gore.
Gods of Egypt has been called out for racial whitewashing, particularly when it announced it hired Scottish Gerard Butler to play the villainous Set. Before I saw the film, I agreed. Pretending the Middle East was solely populated by white faces is a problem, especially in quasi-historical epics like last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which cast Christian Bale as Egyptian-born Moses and slathered him in self-tanner. That movie took itself seriously as the truth — or at least, true-ish — and expected audiences to trust it, too.
But Gods of Egypt is mythological mayhem. Forget about accuracy — Butler doesn’t hide his decidedly ahistorical accent. Hell, his co-star Brenton Thwaites, playing a clever mortal, even chose to bleach his brown hair blonde (or really, an unnatural shade of pumpkin that belongs on no man, 5,000 years old or not). By the time Butler bellows, “I’m doing Egypt a favorrrrr!” in the same brogue he’d use to order his fifth pint in Glasgow, it’s clear Proyas reacted to the criticism by cranking everything up to surreal. (Honestly, if people really want precision, Osiris’s skin should be green.) Besides, Butler’s so committed to Set’s swagger, and so clued in to the movie’s straight-faced bombast, it becomes impossible to imagine another actor in the part. No one else would agree to slum it with such zest.
In the midst of this madness, Proyas has launched a new star: French-Cambodian actress Elodie Yung, whose imperious, bedazzled, and beautiful goddess of love Hathor is a walking hieroglyph for “babe.” She knows it. When her ex Horus, made blind and bitter by her new boyfriend Set, accuses her of betrayal, she preens, “Why would I waste this on someone who can’t see?” Yung is the latest great vamp in a line that stretches back to Theda Bara and Mae West; next to Eva Green, she’s the only living one we have. Instead of playing a passive object of desire — which her character kind of has to be in a world where women are handed off like rewards — she keeps control of her sexual confidence, teasing nerd god Thoth (Chadwick Boseman) of being an ass man and seducing killer snakes just by batting her eyelashes. She’s an honest tramp. The first time Horus, now one-eyed, sees her in Set-purchased spangles, he growls that she’s wearing skimpy clothes to please his enemy. Hathor huffs, “I dress for myself.” I wouldn’t buy that from any other girl in a metal bustier. I believe her.
It’s tempting to dismiss Gods of Egypt as the most perfectly bad film I’ve ever seen. But that’s not fair. It’s perfectly itself — a bizarre, yet cohesive, construction. You might not like Proyas’s melody, but you can’t say he hits a wrong note. I found myself dazzled not just by the pyrotechnics, but by the feeling of watching a blockbuster that feels free from focus-group interference, as though the studio shrugged, “We’re probably losing money on this — may as well crank it up all the way.” For a small film, that’s an accomplishment. For a $140 million trashterpiece, it’s a god-given miracle.