Given diversity in Hollywood is currently a hot topic of debate, the so-called #OscarsSoWhite Academy Awards rolling out its red carpet on Monday, the timing of director Alex Proyas’ epic turkey Gods of Egypt could hardly be worse.
Months before anyone had even seen it, the movie had a bad record. Both Proyas and the studio, Lionsgate, issued statements apologising for casting so many Caucasians in a film based in, well, Africa.
The situation is reminiscent of the controversy that greeted the release of Ridley Scott’s (considerably better) 2014 biblical blockbuster Exodus: Gods and Kings, which starred Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as a frocked-up skinhead Pharaoh.
While Proyas’ mea culpa began a little waffly and duckspeak-sounding (“The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables…”), Sir Ridley’s cut right to the bone.
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” the grizzled veteran growled.
At least he was straight-shooting – acknowledging the kind of movers and shakers involved in big-time film financing want star power, not moral rectitude – though it’s hard to say which response was better.
Let’s make this much clear before we go on: in the case of Gods of Egypt, it gets worse. Not only does the film indulge in a right royal round of whitewashing, it also gives star Gerard Butler a brownface.
I don’t want to make too much of this, given it’s possible Butler simply nodded off in a solarium day after day. A perfectly normal person with skin and sleep issues.
But it’s there, and prominent enough to deserve a credit acknowledging what kind complexion-darkener constituted the producers’ brand of choice.
Butler plays Set, the so-called God of Darkness. The actor lives up to the moniker by committing a range of wicked deeds, one of which is starring in his most purely unwatchable film since director Zack Snyder’s sun-scorched 2007 cinematic interpretation of mud wrestling: 300.
In a moment that feels like a bargain basement rip-off of Game of Thrones, Set chucks a wobbly and pokes out the eyes of another powerful god, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is in fact one of the stars of GoT).
The pair biff on before transforming into huge dragon-like flying beasts to continue the fight. It’s one of several moments where viewers might wonder why they didn’t just do that to begin with.
The story involves a mere mortal, Brek (Brenton Thwaites) who embarks on a What Dreams May Come-esque mission to save his busty girlfriend from the horrors of afterlife. He cuts a deal with Horus and they team up: one thirsty for vengeance, the other for some nooky.
What does this mean for the audience? A lot of green screen-lit walking and waffle, a shiny collection of chest and ab-exhibiting outfits, special effects that somehow manage to look both expensive and shonky and a nondescript storyline that drifts between set pieces powered by industrial strength fans and computer-generated sand.
Proyas is a talented director (The Crow is a fright night classic and Dark City a nightmarish near-masterpiece) but he’s lost the plot in more ways than one. It’s as if Gods of Egypt was directed by nobody. There’s even a tacked-on wishy-washy voiceover that feels like a last ditch attempt to give it some coherency.
With a production budget of US$140 million, the film was shot at Fox Studios in Sydney, which means a number of Australian faces are strewn through it. Robyn Nevin appears, gobbled up by the cold hand of fate (and some air-brushed SFX). I’m pretty sure I saw a computer-mutilated Bruce Spence as a huge sandy pillar-like watchman thing, his face (and performance) literally dissolving before our eyes.
Geoffrey Rush sits alone by himself in outer space, periodically transforming into a fireball for some reason. Bryan Brown has a small role in the first act as Set’s brother Osiris, who feebly tries to calm his sibling’s rage with a good old fashioned hug.
“I love you brother, with all my heart,” he says. Set promptly responds by stabbing him in the gut and sending him to kingdom come. The same kind of fate ought to befall anyone who commits the sin of recruiting one of Australian cinema’s greatest tough guys for such a wimpy role.
Still, it’s hardly the most problematic decision from the casting department. And, comparatively, the least of the film’s problems.