All that glitters is not gold in the chintzy mythological adventure Gods of Egypt, but most of it is — a CGI jewel-box festooned with golden sands and towering spires, golden spears and diamond-spackled bracelets, and metallic wings that shimmer in the sun. Even the gods themselves, once shivved in battle, bleed out in resplendent puddles of liquid gold. Every penny of the $140 million budget certainly appears to be on screen, but the experience is like being trapped in the lobby of an expensive but terrible hotel for two hours, ensconced in nouveau riche "class," or witnessing an epic extrapolation of Elizabeth Taylor's costumes in Cleopatra. To put it in marketplace terms: The more gold there is, the less value it has.
The Cleopatra comparisons might stick to Gods of Egypt, which has already been marked as a costly fiasco for Lionsgate just as the earlier film nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. But Alex Proyas' sword-and-sandal epic is primarily a casualty of 21st century digital effects. Those effects allow filmmakers the freedom to do anything, but with the perilous side effect of defying physics, making it anyone's guess whether a punch or a fall is fatal or easily brushed off. Proyas, a science-fiction specialist best-known for The Crow and Dark City, seizes the opportunity to build a mythological Egypt where gods and mortals co-exist, but the rules that govern this world are confusing and arbitrary. The effects fail, in large part, because the story itself gives them no gravity.
In Proyas' sprawling empire, gods have lived peacefully among mankind for 1,000 years, but in a humanoid form that's significantly larger and transmutable. When the film opens, the kingdom is set to be handed over to Horus (Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the god of air, but his nefarious brother Set (Gerard Butler), the god of darkness, has swept in from the desert to take the throne. After blinding Horus and exiling him to some faraway dune, Set enslaves the people and forbids their passage into the afterlife unless they accumulate impossible wealth. That leaves a mortal thief, Bek (Brenton Thwaites), to take heroic action by stealing back Horus' magical eyes and teaming up with him to get the kingdom back.
That's the nutshell version of the plot. It gets much more convoluted: Bek's love interest (Courtney Eaton) has been slain by an arrow, but the dead have to take a long purgatorial walk to the eternal gates, so he might have time to convince Horus to call in a few celestial favors to bring her back to life. Then there's some business involving Horus and Set's grandfather (Geoffrey Rush), the god of the sun, who rides through the heavens on a celestial sleigh atop waters of transformative power. There are fire-breathing flying serpents and giant steampunk contraptions and a series of mechanized traps that recall Raiders of the Lost Ark by way of the Prince of Persia platform game. The more that gets added on, the more convoluted and nonsensical the film becomes.
The closest Gods of Egypt gets to a credible relationship is the mismatched buddy-banter between Horus and Bek — if, as to credibility, you're willing to overlook the fact that the actors bringing these two men of Egypt to life are Danish and Australian, respectively, part of a larger pattern in the cast for which Proyas apologized in November, long before the film's release. But Proyas' investment in world-building takes precedent over all other considerations anyway. In that respect, the film resembles George Lucas' airless Star Wars prequels, which play around in an dazzling sandbox of visual effects, but seem incapable of communicating in language other than zeroes and ones. Many of the images in Gods of Egypt would make for a fetching prog-rock album cover, but Proyas has populated his digital paradise with banal characters, cherry-picked mythology, and a score just a few notes off from Lawrence of Arabia. Out of the old comes nothing new.