To watch the trailer for Gods of Egypt is to be that person in a horror movie standing by as their travel companions wander off to investigate those strange noises all alone. Even those two minutes of footage seem palpably abashed; the film knows it's required to show off its CGI architecture and dutifully present two bellicose brothers, but nobody—onscreen or off—takes any joy in it.
Why should they? Its failings are obvious. The director and studio, grudgingly buoyed to the shore of common sense on the tide of public opinion, have publicly apologized for it. Gods of Egypt comes into the world rightfully chastised, pre-bombed, its soulless vapidity awkwardly on display, like curtains pulled back on a trashed model home.
A tragedy for almost any Hollywood film about Egyptian mythology: it probably doesn't include the semen.
There are a lot of smaller tragedies attached to making Egyptian mythology a studio prospect, of course. There's cultural upsell involved. The Greek pantheon, while it's been flattened and twisted and occasionally rendered almost unrecognizable (remember when Tarsem Singh's Immortals ascribed a no-interference Prime Directive to the Greek gods and then had to take that seriously for two whole hours?), is also human enough for us to easily recognize. The Greek pantheon often looks too campy for its own good when translating all that grandeur to the screen, but the politics scan; the petty jealousies and love affairs and secret desire to poke into the lives of mortals and the heroes that spring up in their wake—these are stories we know how to tell.
Egyptian mythology (once you try to scrape away the patchwork of racist scholarship that marked early attempts to map what was depicted onto what was already familiar) exists in a more fluid form than Greek mythology. Nuance and duality are everywhere. This is tricky on a micro level for a screenwriter, given that gods had significant differences in reputation depending on the century or region you're looking at and that by that token a single goddess could serve as wife, mother, and daughter of the same god. It's even trickier on a macro level; studios on the hunt for a franchise aren't going to countenance a patient character study of gods who are malleable embodiments of cultural concepts with strong but uncertain ties to one another. They want a goddamn fight.
And wouldn't you know it, there is one. In one of the more concrete Egyptian tales, Horus and Set fought for the mastery of Egypt. High stakes, certainly; if the concept of Set as a complex and even protective deity got lost in translation, that's no surprise, but the right story could still paint the conflict as having shades of gray. There's even a seduction at the center of this superhuman struggle, as Set tried to seduce Horus and thus invalidate his claim to Egypt. Horus, instead, invalidated Set's own claim by secretly hurling Set's semen into the Nile, and then spreading his own on Set's favorite lettuces; when the council of gods tried to declare a winner, Set's sperm wept in the Nile while Horus's answered from inside Set himself.
Let's be honest: whitewashing and hamfisted production design aside, if the trailer held any hint of this subplot, that would almost justify the money to see it. It's safe to assume a movie that takes time to shoehorn a scrappy thief and his knowledgeable-but-somehow-sidelined girlfriend has neither the time nor the inclination to tackle such a monumental moment in the history of godhood. And damn if that's not a shame. Why even have a Set-versus-Horus movie unless you plan to include the semen double-cross? Why does cinema exist if not to capture forever the sublime silence in the moment before Set's sperm cries out, far in the distance, a few little wriggles in the current of the Nile? Why did we invent art—why did we learn to ever tell stories—if not to express the triumph of Horus exhorting his issue to reply, and Set's stomach making whatever noise we imagine a god's stomach makes with talking sperm inside it? (That's a problem for the foley artist.)
Gods of Egypt is also part of a larger tragedy, a bully caught out in the center of a pivotal pop-culture discussion about culture and representation in Hollywood.
Hollywood has a long, entrenched tradition of accepting white actors and white approaches to stories as a universal signifier. Within this system, a white character stands for everyone; a character of color signifies a story About Race. But the whitewashing endemic in Hollywood is getting pushback from audiences who know better and have run out of patience. Last year's Exodus, which tackled the myth of Moses, got slammed for a cast that was almost entirely white (except for some servants, a feat of token casting almost breathtaking in its short-sightedness).
By then it would have been too late for Gods of Egypt, which was already filming in Australia, but obliviousness to the tide of public opinion didn't make those three leading men any less white. (A subtler problem arose in the casting of Chadwick Boseman in a supporting role as Thoth, the all-knowing deity, which means that, however accidentally, the cast's only major role for a man of color is as the Magical Negro—a trope almost laughably easy to point out except to the sort of people who cast studio blockbusters.)
It's a cast worth apologizing over, even if it's almost unbelievably surprising that the studio and director Alex Proyas actually did. It would seem like a last-minute lurch for box-office pity, except that they had to know this was the sort of apology that could do nothing to fix the movie or its chances. When February rolls around, they'll be putting out a turkey.
Another tragedy? That won't much matter.
Despite the apology, and despite the movie's almost inevitable box office spiral, it's likely this is just the beginning of Hollywood's mining the impossibly incestuous Egyptian family tree for material. Keep in mind how much it actually takes to tank a concept in Hollywood; being a woman director or having a star of color will usually do it, but otherwise things have a way of staying afloat. The critical failure of any of the dozen mythology blockbusters in the last five years is no hindrance to trying again; they were all meagerly successful at the box office, which is often the prevailing factor—it takes a Pan-sized flop to make a studio pull up short.
Summit is a respectable up-and-comer among the new crop of production studios. It hit the big time with the Twilight franchise, and its adaptations of the Divergent series of novels is holding steady at just under $300 million each—which, for production budgets of around $100 million, isn't a bad take (assuming the old Hollywood rule of thumb that, with promotion and other invisible costs, a movie breaks even if it earns twice the production budget). It even had a surprise hit last year when it picked up distribution rights for sleeper-hit B-movie John Wick, which made six times its production budget and got fast-tracked to a sequel. But Summit has also made some sour bets in their attempts to launch an original franchise with legs: The Three Musketeers in 2011; Ender's Game in 2013; and 2014's Legend of Hercules, which never even managed to recoup its production budget.
But amid the hunt for the golden goose, studios are demonstrably willing to accept a lot of losses. And while Summit's Hercules movie lost money, Paramount/MGM's Hercules, which had the advantage of Dwayne Johnson's star power, scooped up more than $240 million on a $100 million budget. The takeaway from that: mythology is still marketable, under the right circumstances. Those circumstances might include more recognizable faces—say, Gerard Butler, an action-film staple whose turn in 300 is still an icon of dude-cinema—but they're demands well within reach for a production company ready to invest in a potential winner.
The Scorpion King franchise—itself a spinoff of surprise hit The Mummy—has turned out three direct-to-video sequels since the 2002 feature film's respectable box office showing. The sequels are largely a playground for B-movie actors, but with modest budgets (The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption reportedly cost about $20 million), they're effective studio products even if all they do is act as brand ambassadors for Universal's Mummy-themed attractions worldwide. There might not be a Scorpion King in theaters, but there's one appearing daily in Universal Studios Singapore. That matters to a production company; money comes in from all sides. (There's a tragedy for the guy in the costume, maybe, but at some point we have to cut our losses.)
Gods of Egypt has its work cut out for it when it comes to box-office performance. It lacks both the religious pedigree and veneer of seriousness afforded to Exodus (which had only those two elements in its favor to begin with), and, based on the trailer, the biggest thespian draw is a certain grim curiosity about how long Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and company could have deluded themselves into thinking they were in a good movie. The studio sausage nature of it, from its whiteness to its blandness, feels almost inescapable—one of Hollywood's yearly "What do you expect"s. It's a tragedy of apathetic proportions; at some point, the inertia of the blockbuster monster can't be stopped. We'll see another Gods of Egypt soon enough; the only thing more immortal than a god is the promise of a bottom line.