Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Good from Gods of Egypt

I was originally going to sit down and write a piece about all of the bad things Gods of Egypt did as well as some of the positives from the film.  I'll be honest, this movie has gotten railed against so much that me taking some shots at it is completely unneeded.  It has only 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and pretty much got laughed out of theatres.  I would just be beating a dead CGI horse that bled gold if I were to pile on.  I'd rather actually talk about some of the things that this joke of a movie did right, things that really don't happen often in movies.

Before I get to that, I do need to gloss over how I believe it failed.  The budget was absolutely idiotic for the type of movie it was.  Sure it relied heavily on special effects, but there is no way it should have been produced for $140 million.  Yes, there was some success in sword and sandal movies in the remake of Clash of the Titans, but the sequel dipped a lot and other recognizable products in Conan and The Legend of Hercules both fell to the earth like a lead zeppelin.  Now, the budget really isn't something that can be critically criticized, but there are some other issues.  While I will be talking somewhat positively about the computer effects, there were some horrible choices made in its use by director Alex Proyas, such as choosing to circle around people while they were fighting, which turned out jerky and flawed.  As well, there were green screen moments that were ultimately horrible.  And finally, acting.  Brenton Thwaites just did not deliver anything in this movie other than a blank look of a child that he wore during every single scene.  As the main character, there was a complete lack of charisma.  Also, this thing is totally white-washed.  Haven't we reached a point where this doesn't need to happen anymore?

Those would be the serious issues around this film.  Honestly, it should have never been green-lit.  Anyone should have been able to look at the movie and realize that it was a little too nuts for main stream audiences.  But, it happened, and it was just another reminder to studio executives that wild and imaginative sweeping epics and operas are seriously difficult movies to make money on.  Recent examples of other failures of hopeful epics are Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and A Wrinkle in Time.  Audiences have a hard time digesting crazy and 'out there' ideas.  Lionsgate, who is desperately searching for a franchise now that it no longer has Hunger Games is trying anything, and a lot of times they have been failing.

But, even through the piles of misguided trash that came with Gods of Egypt there is something remarkable.  It is not recommendable, but it never once bored me.  I had watched it a few weeks ago, and then watched it again this morning before writing this piece.  Neither time did I ever look at the clock or the run time to see how close I was to the end.  That's usually not something that happens with a film that only gets two out of four stars.

What Gods of Egypt had going for it is that it was never once ashamed of what it was.  So many movies try to do things ultra seriously, such as The Legend of Hercules, and forget that genres like fantasy and sword and sandals are all about fun.  I remember as a child watching Sinbad movies.  Even at six or seven years of age I was picking things out that didn't make sense and plot holes.  They weren't award winning movies, but they never intended to be.  They embraced everything that was wild adventure, and when a film does that it is so much easier to not judge it on what is realistic.  There is something so right about a director and movie that establish right off that the only thing they are interested in is unending fun.  These types of movies don't always work out, but they are almost never boring.

Gods of Egypt is quite the definition of madcap.  You have characters set against marginally passable digitized environments transforming into Scorpion King level creatures.  They fight, they bleed gold, and mortals are idiots.  The main character is a thief whose level of skill is established as being able to take a dress off of a rack to all of a sudden being some sort of expert tomb raider.  This sort of character progression is something straight out of Dungeons and Dragons.  Does any of it make any real sense?  Is this actually some sort of entertaining story?  Do either of those two questions matter when something is allowing itself to be as off the wall as this?

Director Alex Proyas displays an ability to ensure that the battles of giant, transforming ancient deities move along at a quick pace.  Part of why the movie is never boring is that it is insane.  The other part is the vision of Proyas that keeps scenes moving along and never staying too long in situations that lack energy or excitement.  This is the same skill that amazing action directors such as James Cameron and John McTiernan wield when constructing their films.  Proper pacing is something that has nothing to do with budget, so no film, from blockbuster to independent to experimental college film, can get away with messing this up.  That being said, it seems to be one of the most difficult skills out there in cinema, and it is something that isn't really recognized.  So, I would like to salute Proyas for showing that even in a film that fails on so many levels, it can still breeze by without feeling long.

Another aspect that Gods of Egypt nails is the acting.  Yes, I said Thwaites was a bore.  I don't remember him being dreadful in The Giver, but here he pulled a Sam Worthington.  Luckily for the audience, there were others who showed up to give it their all.  Acting can be one of the most important things in a movie.  It allows us to become lost in the greater story and live vicariously through an on screen agent.

In a movie like this, I feel that there are two wonderful ways for actors to treat their roles.  The first is to play it absolutely straight.  Sure the material is nothing worth taking seriously, but a talent that gets into a mindset that what they are a part of is crucial to the future of cinema can play well with the insanity that happens around them.  With The Asylum's breakout movie Sharknado, Ian Ziering did this.  He played the movie completely straight, refusing to show anything in his performance that indicated he didn't need to give it his all.  The performance was a wink that left audiences wondering if the movie was trying to be awful, or if it was failing at being good.  That kind of performance is what Kurt Russell brought to Big Trouble in Little China.  He played the role of an action hero bad-ass even though he was completely useless in the battles.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, while not that remarkable in Small Crimes, plays the air god Horace with this sort of straight edge delivery.  I'm sure he knew that this movie wasn't completely serious.  Hell, everyone on set would have known that.  But, the main thing is that he played it as though this was The Gladiator and it aided to the feel of the film.

The other effective way to people to deliver their roles in movies like this is to really ham it up.  I already referenced Big Trouble in Little China, so why not go back there for a second to recognize the work of the incredible James Hong.  Most people will recognize him as the host in the Chinese restaurant from Sienfeld, but this is a man who has had a long career and has had hundreds of jobs.  In Big Trouble in Little China John Carpenter gets Hong to give us an almost cartoony performance to install a deadly, yet ever comical, villain in Lo Pan.  One of the greatest recent deliveries in this manner is Eddie Redmayne's performance in Jupiter Ascending.  It honestly feels like he is the only person involved in the movie that knows what sort of film it should be.  Regardless of how mundane, derivative, and lacklustre the movie is, Balem Abrasax is full of life and energy, a job that makes me smile and reminded the audience that there should have been a lot more fun injected into that film.

Over the top performances are the perfect seasoning to schlocky films.  A number of months ago on the podcast that I co-host, The Movie Breakdown, we looked at the film Drive Angry.  It was another film that knew what it was, that it was nothing but insanity and fun.  Pushing that along was a master class performance from William Fitchner as The Accountant.  It's odd, but yes, there was someone who overacted more than Nicolas Cage in a Cage movie.  I'm not denying that Cage didn't bring it in Drive Angry, it's just that I personally think that Fitchner's job was even more nuts.

In Gods of Egypt we do not have crazy performances to the level of the people already mentioned, but there are some good, scenery chewing jobs in there.  Gerard Butler, who played Leonidas in 300, lets loose his swagger and charisma here as god Set.  He isn't worried about letting a bit of his Scottish accent illogically bleed into the voice of an Egyptian.  It's inconsistent, but it is also hella fun.  The remarkably talented Chadwick Boseman gets in on the act.  He plays Thoth, a god who is obsessed with knowledge.  It is a wonderfully campy performance, and sort of like Redmayne's.  Neither are in their respective films long, but both seem to make it known that they are going to make their screen time count.

Acting is key in these films, the ones that are far from the Zach Snyder mentality of needing to be brooding, grey, and serious.  Would Batman: The Movie worked as well as it did without the committed performance of Adam West and others?  I think it would have been a colossal mess without appropriate acting.  Without solid acting, a movie like Gods of Egypt can end up being a miss.  One of the reasons why this movie only gets two stars from me is because of the problematic performance of its lead.  Similarly, the remake of Conan was well on its way to being a three star recommendation because of it's absurd fun, but the lacking performance of Jason Momoa kept it at only two stars.  If he brought the same energy that he did in Justice League to Conan it would have been an outstanding adventure flick.

Finally, we have the double edged sword that is computer graphics.  This is a tough one.  Alex Proyas did good and bad things with computer generated images.  There was an over reliance on it, which I would argue is fine in a movie like this.  However, even though its fine to have some campy effects (such as people turning into crazy flying creatures), some times poor effects can harm the flow of the film.  I had mentioned the problems that came from the fight scenes at the beginning of the movie and how it caused jerky sequences.  Simply put, there were times when the reliance on computers for setting the scene took me out of the experience.

However, and it's a big 'however,' the special effects, and the lack of quality thereof, elevated the movie.  Would it have been as good if we had Michael Bay level transforming happening in this movie?  Absolutely not.  The effects needed to be this base level to amplify the type of movie this is.  I do think that making a few more sets would have been a smart idea for the movie, but it can't be taken away from the film when giant snake worms are cruising through the desert, breathing fire in a way that felt like the film was made fifteen years ago.  We get things like four time Oscar nominated actor Geoffrey Rush firing bolts of energy through the cosmos at a giant Los Angeles smog looking creature, all the while riding some sort of sail boat above a flat earth.

The unrefined nature of the special effects may not have actually been a purposeful tool deployed in this movie.  Heck, while I'm thinking that it didn't mean to be serious and is all about having fun, Proyas could have been trying to make a modern Ben Hur.  Because we did get third rate special effects it adds to the feeling of wanting to go full steam into the land of complete energy and fun.

There really aren't too many movies like this being made, and there's good reason for that.  They don't make money.  The idea of an updated Big Trouble in Little China is incredibly misguided.  People in the mainstream level don't get these sorts of movies.  Just look at what Last Action Hero did to Schwarzenegger's career.  People just don't follow.  Because of that, movies are made for the masses, they are serious with end of world consequences and big special effects.  They don't embrace madness (I suppose George Miller's Fury Road is excluded from that statement).  A movie that comes along that says to the world that it doesn't care about being serious and is just trying to embody a sense of madcap fun is a breath of fresh air.  Yes, I still don't recommend Gods of Egypt, but I applaud the spirit of it.  It failed at many levels and is a bit of a joke, but it is going to be memorable and a reminder that maybe movies don't always have to be super serious.

2 comments:

  1. I applaud you for seeking the good out of a bad movie. I think, it is important to see movies that fail, because often there is an ambition or chances taken that are often not seen from the blockbusters and "successful" movies. I am sad that the focus on big massive box office returns has made movies like 'Gods of Egypt' and similar original risky movies such a rare thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Movies that don't get the recommendation can still impress me with what they attempt. With Gods of Egypt, the lack of shame for what they were doing went a long way and isn't something that happens often.

      Delete