24 Lies a Second: Set Piece Defence

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Set Piece Defence

Over twenty years ago, I decided, mainly on a bit of a whim, to go and see a preview screening of the original The Crow (I had a sort of part-time unpaid gig as a film reviewer for a free newspaper). It was the dog days of early summer and I really had very little else to do that night. As we emerged into the chilly Yorkshire night, the usherette asked me what I’d thought of the film. ‘Much better than I expected,’ I replied truthfully.

Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, has not gone on to have most prolific of careers, but he has made films that most people have heard of – primarily Dark City, which is generally considered to anticipate The Matrix, and I, Robot, which is generally considered to be a silly Will Smith film with zero feeling for the source material it adapts. Now he is back with Gods of Egypt, another film which a lot of people have been talking about, although admittedly not perhaps for the reasons the director might have hoped.

ods of Egypt is set in Egypt and features gods. I feel I must clarify this by saying this is an Egypt and probably not the Egypt you may be thinking of. We know it is an Egypt because the landscape is covered with an absurd number of pyramids, but also that it is not the real Egypt because, well, it has gods wandering around in it. These gods are supposedly the ones of ancient Egyptian religion, but most of the time they just resemble digitally-enlarged actors and actresses whom you might possibly recognise from other films or off the telly, when they’ve not transformed into twelve-foot-tall CGI robots, anyway.

As things get underway, boss god Osiris (Bryan Brown) is retiring and giving the throne of Egypt to his slightly feckless but basically decent son Horus (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau). This is somewhat to the chagrin of Osiris’ brother Set (GERARD! BUTLER!), who expresses his unhappiness by brutally murdering him and seizing power himself, though not before he forcibly removes Horus’ eyes (as these are gods this is not necessarily as permanent as it would be for you or I).

The story skips forward a bit and we find Egypt in a sorry state, not least because Set has put a paywall around the afterlife (a notion I’m sure many real-world companies are racking their brains about even as I type). Beautiful slave Zaya (Courtney Eaton, a young actress who combines an air of unquestionable innocence and virtue with a mesmerising embonpoint) persuades her roguish boyfriend Bek (Brenton Thwaites) to break into Set’s treasure vault, nick Horus’ eyes back, and persuade the defeated young god to reclaim the throne from Set. But Horus is doubtful of his ability to challenge his evil uncle unassisted, and Set has his own plans to rise to a position of even greater power…

Gods of Egypt has made headlines partly because it looks likely to be something of a flop, taking only $143 million in its US release (about four months ago, which is in itself something of a rarity these days) compared to a budget of $140. (Due to some sort of dark sorcerous accountancy, the studio seems to have very limited exposure to the film’s underperformance.) Why the film should have done quite so badly has been a topic of some discussion, and there are suggestions it’s because of the other reason for those headlines – the vexed issue of how the film has been cast.

The argument usually goes something like this:

This is a film called Gods of Egypt, set in Egypt, and about Egyptian people (and gods). casting people who are notably non-Egyptian in the major roles is thus another egregious example of Hollywood whitewashing.

Yes, well, but this is a major studio production hoping to attract a large international audience, so we need to cast established film stars. The only Egyptian film star most people can name is Omar Sharif, and he was unavailable for this film, mainly because he died last year.

Even if this argument was acceptable, which it isn’t, you’re not even making sense on your own terms – just who are these ‘established film stars’ you say you’ve put in your film? Brenton Thwaites? Who he? Courtney Eaton? Who she?

She’s the sweet-looking young girl with the breathtaking –

I know who she is. Well, actually, the point is that I don’t know who she is, you could just as easily have cast an actress of the right ethnicity, not someone who’s… what is she, anyway?

English-Chinese-Maori, apparently. Well, look, Gerard Butler’s in this film, he’s a big star.

Well, maybe. But that’s one guy out of five or six…

Where were all you guys when Ken Branagh made Thor, anyway? I didn’t hear anyone complaining when Idris Elba and Tadonobu Asano got cast as gods from Norse mythology. Not one peep about ‘ethnically appropriate casting’ then…

Ahem. Let’s just go back to the regular part of the review, shall we?

Fair enough.

At moments like this, I do recall the words of – I believe – Alexander Walker, who always responded to this sort of complaint by declaring ‘There were no Arabs in Casablanca!’ – which I interpret as meaning that you can take pieces of entertainment a bit too seriously if you’re not careful. If there’s a film this year meant to not be taken seriously, it’s Gods of Egypt, though this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments.

All right, when you get down to it this is just another CGI-slathered extravaganza of mechanical plotting and overblown set pieces, but I’ve never felt that there isn’t a place for that kind of film on our screens, particularly if it’s done well. Perhaps Gods of Egypt doesn’t do it particularly well in terms of actual storytelling, but that doesn’t mean there are not things here worth at least a few moments of your time.

Putting all the running around and zapping things with CGI to one side, this is a film which has the cojones to suggest Gerard Butler as the Egyptian god of darkness. Not since Sean Connery in Highlander has anyone of putatively Egyptian origin been quite so thoroughly Scottish. Butler grapples heroically with his own accent, with honestly rather strange results, but in a strange way this just adds to the film’s peculiar… well, charm’s too strong a word for it, perhaps inoffensiveness will do. (Butler himself is much more likeable a presence here than he’s been for a long time.)

Coupled to this is the fact that the film is prepared to push the CGI envelope in some quite bonkers directions. At one point Butler pulls on a frankly astonishing hat, clambers aboard a space-chariot pulled by giant dung beetles, and flies off into battle, and that’s not something you see every day even if all you ever watch are special-effects blockbusters. There’s actually something rather impressive about the way in which the film treats the wilder ideas of Egyptian mythology as being literally true. A couple of scenes take place on the sky-barge of the chief god Ra, said barge dragging the sun across the sky on the end of a length of chain, with Ra himself forced to do nightly battle with the gargantuan doomsday-serpent Apophis, and I couldn’t help watching it all and going ‘Hmm, this is refreshingly different.’ (That fact that Geoffrey Rush plays Ra rather in the long-suffering manner of a man contending with a difficult-to-swat fly on barbeque day only adds to the fun.)

This is not a great movie. It is not quite even, I would say, the proverbial Good Bad Movie. But it always looks interesting and it is never completely dull, even at its least-effective moments (Egyptian mythology and the tropes of formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting crunch into each other with results that are so lame you almost wonder if the movie is sending itself up – and I must confess to disquiet at a conclusion which appears to suggest that mercy is a weakness and mercilessness somehow a virtue). And at least the fact the whole thing is on some level rooted in actual Egyptian myth gives the thing a kind of coherent underpinning notably absent from some other recent films of this genre. In short, it’s better than Warcraft.

Then again, there aren’t millions of rabid ancient Egypt fans in China, which is why Gods of Egypt is being viewed as an ethically suspect flop and Warcraft: The Beginning may in fact be looking good for a sequel, gods help us. Rather as with John Carter, perhaps, the negative press around Gods of Egypt may well have hurt its box office to a significant degree, but that press isn’t particularly concerned with whether this is a genuinely terrible movie or not. Gods of Egypt is fairly bad. But it is a fun and above all a very imaginative kind of bad, and personally I find I can forgive that a lot.

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