So I forced my unfortunate husband to go to Gods of Egypt (2016, dir. Alex Proyas), because it was a way to get out of grading freshman exams for a while. After all the hoopla about it being an egregious example of whitewashing ancient history, I figured I had a duty to my readers to weigh in on it.
Let’s get that issue out of the way right at the start. It’s an appallingly bad example of whitewashing. Even allowing for some uncertainty about the ethnic composition of ancient Egypt, the film is awfully white. Of the main actors, one (Chadwick Boseman) is black, one (Elodie Yung) is half-Asian, and one (Gerard Butler) is wearing swarthy-face make-up. Everyone else is whiter than my untanned ass. There are lots of blacks and Middle Easterners in non-speaking roles, but literally just two with speaking parts (and one of them mostly just hisses, if memory serves). It’s so bad, it’s downright embarrassing, especially for Butler, who looks like he spent the morning exploring an alternative career as a chimney-sweep before deciding that being in this film was the better option pay-wise.
But, if you can see past that problem with the film (and I realize that’s a big but), what you see is a film with a whole host of other problems that make the racial issues feel like an afterthought. The acting is lousy, the plot is fairly predictable, the script is shudderingly bad, and the special effects are bloated and excessive. But, hey, they thought to cast a black man in a supporting role! So that’s something.
Normally, at this point, I’d give you a Spoiler Alert. But that implies that this movie could actually be spoiled by finding out what happens in it. You already know what happens in it, which is that it sucks a lot.
Basically, Osiris and Isis have ruled the Nile for a thousand years. They’re gods, which means they’re 9 feet tall while the human Egyptians are normal-sized. Osiris has decided it’s time to step down and let his son, Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), be king, so long as he agrees to let people call him Horus. And, because Osiris is a nice guy, he’s going to let all the Egyptians into the Afterlife for free. But his evil brother Set (Gerard Butler) interrupts the coronation ceremony to show off his new skin-bronzer and in the process manages to kill Osiris, beat the crap out of Jaime and rip out his eyes, and steal the crown of Egypt. And, because he’s a dick, he’s going to force people to buy their way into the Afterlife with treasure. Ain’t capitalism grand?
Fortunately for everyone except the audience, there’s a plucky mortal hero, Bek (Brandon Thwaites), who’s a cheekily-disrespectful roguish thief, who only becomes intolerably annoying when the film hits the two-minute mark. He sets off to rescue his love, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), who’s been killed by Set’s evil architect. He steals one of Jaime’s eyes from Set’s treasure vault, tracks down Jaime and offers him a bargain: Bek will help Jaime recover his other eye (without which he can’t be really super-powerful) and Jaime will bring Zaya back from the dead (which turns out to be just a lie, but that’s the way the Lannisters do things, right?). So Jaime and Bek set out on a series of adventures to recover the missing eye.
Along the way, they pay a visit to Jaime’s grandfather Ra (Geoffrey Rush) in his ship that drags the sun across the sky, where Ra fights the serpent Apophis every night. (Actually, this scene accidentally manages to be ok.) Then there are various fights with orcs and a couple of understudies for Lady Sylvia Marsh from Lair of the White Worm and some really boring scenes between Set and some goddesses in which nothing gets killed but we find out what the next movie in the franchise is going to be about.
Finally they get to meet up with Chadwick Boseman, who has cleverly hidden the first H in his name so that everyone else has to call him ‘Toth’ but he knows that his name is actually Thoth and so he gets to quietly feel smug about everyone else mispronouncing his name. And T(h)oth gets the Riddle of the Sphinx wrong the first two times but totally aces it on the third try but then…oh, fuck it. You don’t give a damn about a full plot synopsis and I can’t be bothered to figure out what the hell is actually going on in this movie that makes about as much sense as some of the freshman exams I’m currently grading.
Let’s just say that all of this turns out to be an excuse for Set to flog his daddy issues with Ra, who never loved him enough as a kid and couldn’t be bothered to watch his son’s baseball games because he was busy fighting the serpent that wants to devour the world. Set wants to be immortal, but to do that he needs to destroy the Afterlife so he can live forever in Egypt. So Set tries to kill Ra and steals his magic spear that’s necessary to kill the cosmic snake because he’s got Freud issues going on. Without Ra to stop him, Apophis goes crazy and starts eating the Nile because somehow that will destroy the Afterlife. And Jaime winds up having to fight Mecha-Set but opts to save Bek rather than recover his lost eye and then he wishes Zaya back to life because really this whole damn film is just a Very Special Episode of Blossom about the importance of gods and mortals respecting each other.
Fortunately the sequel gets killed off about halfway through the film.
So, Does This Film Have Anything to Do with Ancient Egypt?
I’m glad you asked that. No.
I mean, yes, it’s called Gods of Egypt and it’s set along the Nile, and it’s got some buildings that look sort of ancient Egyptian if you squint the right way, and the main characters mostly have the same name as various Egyptian gods. But as Proyas himself has said, “…the world of Gods of Egypt never really existed. It is inspired by Egyptian mythology, but it makes no attempt at historical accuracy because that would be pointless — none of the events in the movie ever really happened. It is about as reality-based as Star Wars — which is not real at all …Maybe one day if I get to make further chapters I will reveal the context of the when and where of the story. But one thing is for sure — it is not set in Ancient Egypt at all.”
So, really, the film could just as easily be called Gods of South Dakota, which from the ethnicity of the cast would probably be just about right.
The film basically picks bits at random from Egyptian mythology, without actually bothering to understand how any of it fits together or what it might mean, sort of like a freshman history student writing a mid-term.
The Afterlife features as a key plot point in the movie, but the film has only a minimal understanding of Egyptian notions of what happens after death. The Egyptian Underworld was called Duat, and it was pictured as being much like Egypt, only better. The problem was that getting to Duat was difficult, and a lot of things could go wrong. The deceased person’s body has to survive; without it, the dead person’s soul would be annihilated. The person’s name had to be preserved as well. There were complex rituals to embalm the corpse (hello, mummies!) and “open its mouth” so that the dead soul could speak the proper ritual formulas as it journeys through Duat, so it can get past various monsters and obstacles. The dead person’s heart was weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the Goddess of Truth, to ensure that the deceased had lived a proper life; if the feather was heavier than the heart, the heart and its soul were devoured. The deceased had to be able to make the 42 Negative Confessions, truthfully denying a long list of moral failures and crimes. Burial practices involved an array of spells, charms, and texts, designed to make sure the dead person knew what to say and when to say it, and that various difficulties could be overcome. And the body of a wealthy person was provided with expensive grave goods to ensure that he or she would live comfortably in Duat.
Gods of Egypt, however, jettisons all that in exchange for a far dumber idea. There’s no burial or mummification required. In the Hall of the Two Truths, the dead just walk up to a scale containing the feather of Ma’at, dump their wealth into the other side of the scale as a bribe to the judges, and hope the bribe is big enough. Otherwise, they’re apparently sent to Hell, through a door that alternately flips between good stuff and bad stuff.
How dumb do you have to be to make a movie about the Egyptian afterlife that doesn’t even involve mummies? That’s like making a movie about a college professor grading exams that doesn’t involve tears, shouts of frustration, and abject misery.
And Osiris is the God of Duat, but in this film he just disappears after Set offs him. And Isis commits suicide. Wise choice. She doesn’t have to be in the rest of the film.
The biggest problem in the film is Set. He’s correctly associated with the Egyptian desert, which is probably why they gave Butler swarthy-face, to suggest all the time he spent out in the desert. If they’d wanted to be more appropriate, they should have made him red-faced, since the desert is red in Egyptian thought, while the soil of the Nile Valley is black.
Set’s function in Egyptian mythology is hard to explain. He’s a disorderly god, possibly contrasting the sterile, inhospitable nature of the desert to the fertile, orderly Nile Valley of Horus. He’s Ra’s protector when Ra journeys into Duat every night to fight Apophis. He’s the brother of Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys, but he’s also Osiris’ rival. He eventually murders Osiris and struggles with Horus. But ultimately he’s defeated and reconciled to Horus, as a symbol that the Pharaoh (the living embodiment of Horus) is master over everything that challenges Egypt. He’s most definitely not a god of evil, since he’s worshipped regularly in Egypt, alongside all the other gods. It’s only very late in Egyptian culture, when the country is conquered by outsiders, that he is reduced to simple villainy.
But Gods of Egypt just throws all that out and makes Set a sort of cosmic Donald Trump, gleefully breaking all the rules, terrorizing the Egyptians, respecting nothing but his own power, and building monuments to his own bloated ego and villainy because he’s got daddy issues.
In Egyptian mythology, Set and Horus have sex, because Set is trying to prove his dominance. But Horus catches Set’s semen in his hand and throws it in the Nile. Then he jacks off onto a piece of lettuce and tricks Set into eating it. Then they go to the gods of Egypt to settle the dispute. Set calls to his semen as proof that he dominated Horus, but the semen answers from the river, disproving his claim. Horus then calls to his semen, which answers from inside Set, thus proving that Horus had dominated Set. For some unfathomable reason, the film completely ignores this very important element of Set’s story.
That story would have made for an awesome movie. It would have made for a way better movie than Gods of Egypt, which just sucks. It’s almost worse than grading exams.
Want to Know More?
Stop that. This film sucks.
But if you want to know more about the actual gods of Egypt, take a look at a book like The Complete Gods and Goddess of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson. Or try Emily Teeter’s Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt.