Cinema Second Chances: Gods of Egypt

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I am not a professional film critic.

I’m just a guy who likes thinking too much about movies and film, and then putting those thoughts into writing for all the internet to see. In this particular context, that means that I am unable to see every single movie when they come out. Usually the reason is money, but sometimes it could also be lack of time, lack of availability in my area or a lack of interest on my part. Cinematic Second Chances is a place for me catch-up on those movies I missed.

When I thought back on what movies I wanted to see and write about, I was genuinely surprised to learn that Gods of Egypt came out this year. I remember Gods of Egypt looking like the high fantasy equivalent of Transformers, which was the kind of movie that seemed more appropriate for 2010 or that era where studios were making big budget action versions of fairy tales and myths. Maybe it was because it came out in February that made it feel like the movie came out years ago because February, as well know, is one of those “dumping ground” months for movie releases. But maybe it was for the best. If it had been released alongside its summer blockbuster contemporaries, it would have been both overshadowed by the action movie epics that are superhero movies as well as probably contributed to the malaise that surrounded most of the 2016 summer.

On its own, however, viewed as its own entity in a space separated from most other comparisons, I can confidently say that Gods of Egypt would have been one of those cult classic schlock favorites, had it been released in an era where everything isn’t forgotten about in a month. It has all the elements of “dumb fun” movie wrapped up in a design aesthetic that I couldn’t help but love.

As I watched Gods of Egypt, as I watched director Alex Proyas confidently sell a high fantasy Egyptian world and as I watched the actors ham up their characters with delight, I began to realize that the movie exemplified some of my personal favorite characteristics of a movie. I love a movie that “knows what it is” and I love a movie with a “fully realised” world. Neither of these qualities can automatically make a movie good in my eyes, nor can they make up for severe shortcomings in other aspects of the movie; but they can absolutely make me feel better disposed toward a movie, and skilled creators and actors know how to use those strengths correctly.

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Not every movie can be a piece of cinematic art, and I’m fine with that. On the same token, not every movie can sufficiently accomplish what it set out to do, and that’s when I begin to have misgivings or disdain for a movie. Sometimes a director or writer sets out to make a movie that “means something” or tries to achieve a certain tone or feeling, but they just can’t do it. For whatever reason, be it a lack of skill, resources or self-awareness, the scope of the movie exceeds its own capacity to achieve it. This is a space where movies begin to feel like they’re “trying too hard” or plain incompetent. Where M. Night Shyamalan tried to make The Happening into a tense environmental thriller, he ended up making a scene where Marky Mark argues with a plant and some woman thinks a lion attack is the work of terrorists because he could not make the onscreen action match the tone he wanted. Where the Star Wars prequels tried creating a grand narrative epic about the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, it ended up creating a whiny, unlikable character and wasted its science fantasy setting because Star Wars just wasn’t the place for that kind of “intricate” character narrative.

But then are movies like Gods of Egypt or, one of my personal favorite movies, Pacific Rim. These are movies that know what they are from top to bottom and, while they may or may not attempt to elevate their own material, they know that their first job is to simply be the best of what they are. Pacific Rim was a big, dumb giant-robot movie and it chose to be good at that first, but also managed to sweeten the deal with some actually good characters and story. Gods of Egypt knew that it was a big dumb Egyptian-themed high fantasy movie and it chose to fulfill the duty of being a weird and fun adventure first before it tried anything else. While it may not have actually gotten to the “anything else” part, it still made good on its promise to be a visually exciting and creative action movie. It purposefully kept its story simple and its characters broad, so as to maintain its fun and light-hearted tone and to also make the rather complicated Egyptian mythology easy to understand. But it also knew that being simple and broad exclude “interesting,” and the characters still manage to be likable and sympathetic. It helps that the actors knew what kind of movie they were making and obviously took great fun in hamming-up their roles and playing-up the theatrics, appropriate for a mythic-scaled setting and story.

One of the great things about these kinds of movies that can deftly lean into their silliness, with both heart and spirit, is that they also often create wonderfully-realized settings. This is the second part of why I liked movies like Gods of Egypt. When a movie has a completely immersive setting, no matter how silly and weird it might be, I almost instantly love the movie more.

In Gods of Egypt,  Egyptian mythology is literal and real. The world is a flat disk (comprised only of Egypt and the river Nile), with the world of the living on one side and the world of the dead on the other, and we actually see this physical layout in the movie. Ra, God of the Sun, really DOES tow the actual physical sun across the sky and really does defend the world from the ancient demon serpent Apep, and again we see this actually happen. Then there’s the fact the gods are physical beings, just bigger and they bleed gold, and they interact with the people and offer passage to the Afterlife. I love that kind of fully-realized world. Not to mention that there’s the added flourish of the gods being able to assume ancient power armor form to do battle, which is just my kind of cool.

Other movies, like Zootopia, that accomplish this task allow me to lose myself in the setting and in the world, which naturally leads to better involvement in the story, no matter what it might be. Yes, power armor gods in Gods of Egypt and tiny rodent doors in Zootopia might be inherently silly and might not actually work even in the world, but having the filmmakers consider those kinds of details feels like the right kind of effort to me. It puts me on the same wavelength as the movie, and it feeds my curiosity to see an entirely new world or setting with its own rules.

So between the movie knowing exactly what it is, and needed to be, and a lovingly-realized (if silly) setting, I found myself really liking Gods of Egypt. I could understand why it did poorly in the theaters between its release date and its fairly lofty concept, but as a movie that I saw on my own time at home, it proved worthy of my time and money. I would take more movies like this, that seek to be entertaining with a weird concept first, than movies that fail to live up to their own overshot aspirations.

TOTPlus, golden power armor falcons fighting obsidian power armor jackals is just plain cool.

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