Saturday, April 9, 2016

REVIEW: Gods of Egypt and the Australian film industry

Some are more sequel than others

Should you be wondering where public funding of the Australian film industry has gone, besides the $6 million into a film discouraging asylum seekers, you couldn’t much worse than watch new blockbuster Gods of Egypt. A US$140 million behemoth of CGI and ceaseless bombast filmed in Australia after the uncommon generosity of the New South Wales government who agreed to foot 46% of the bill via tax credits.

Whether the $75 million in generated income promised by the government when they chose to offer tax credits to the swords-and-sandals epic eventuates remains to be seen. What turns up on the screen is far from what anyone would consider an ‘Australian’ film.

The last few months have seen a concerted negative buzz build around Gods of Egypt even before its much-vaunted pre-Super Bowl trailer debut. It seems director Alex Proyas missed the backlashes against Ridley Scott’s whitewashed casting of his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Darren Aronofsky’s all-white Noah. Kevin Reynolds’ Biblical mystery Risen, also out this week, similarly trades realistic skin tones for an all-white, mostly American, cast.

To his credit, Proyas and the production company Lionsgate apologised for their casting decisions: “We failed to live up to our own standards,” Proyas said in a press release. “I sincerely apologise to anyone offended by the decisions we made.” That was in November, so the diversity obsession that has seen forthcoming films cast African American actors in roles originally intended for white actors.   

Despite the shortlived #EgyptSoWhite tag (Chadwick Boseman’s dozen-odd lines as Thoth hardly buck this trend) it turns out it’s young, cheap and talented Australian actors who will be either wearing the shame of Gods of Egypt, or using it as a learning experience and moving swiftly on.

The film is set ‘before history’ in an Egypt in which gods walk among mortals. Bryan Brown’s Osiris bestows his crown to his chosen son, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Horus only to have the family black sheep turn up, Set (Gerard Butler), who -along with an army of CGI minions - wrests power and launches a tale of revenge in motion. Mortal teenager Bek (Brendon Thwaites) and love interest Zaya (Courtney Eaton) have a parallel story involving the afterlife. That the architect of destiny Geoffrey Rush’s sun god Ra rides a glass ship and battles the essence of chaos with a rod of light doesn't seem out of place says much about the balminess of this film.

While the story itself could be riveting in other hands, here it’s a series of CGI setpieces shot with restlessly vertiginous camerawork, frequent explosions and Marco Beltrami’s relentlessly bombastic score. Apparently Sydney’s Centennial Park stands in for the grand palace, but best of luck spotting it.

When a film reaches a budget this big and is aiming for middle America, it seems concessions to innovation must be made. In this case there is plenty of cleavage, but no nudity. Violence aplenty, but no blood, anger and passion, but no swearing or anything hinting at sex. It’s so boldly ‘family friendly’ that its sheer blandness becomes offensive. 
Like most big-budget international films Australia courts, Gods of Egypt is destined to be a critical failure and probable box office bomb. Along with similar stinkers I, Frankenstein, Knowing, The Matrix sequels or the Star Wars prequels, it’s another example of an iconic Australian city, in this case Sydney, standing in for somewhere else and providing a raft of film industry professionals leaving an expensive premiere with eyebrows raised and muttering "well, at least it kept some of us in work for a bit."

Expect it to happen again soon with the next raft of blockbusters brought to Australian film studios promising of hundreds of short-term insecure employment opportunities and little chance of attracting the burgeoning location tourism industry as happens with so many films and TV series.

In March Screen Australia announced the following films were due to be shooting at least part of their production in Australia: two Lego Movie sequels, the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, the next Thor and X-Men films, David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Scott inadvertently spoke for all of these film’s directors when he promised his Alien sequel would feature “fairly formidable CGI”. Like the creators of Gods of Egypt no doubt, Scott promised the possibility of sequels to be shot in Australia, “if the film is successful”.

All major studios are looking to find a franchise that can pick up where Harry Potter and Hunger Games left off, and it seems Gods of Egypt will join the boldly-funded ranks of The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, Eragon and Inkhart as films full of promise, twists on familiar material and a raft of new faces hoping for an illustrious start to their career.

While arts funding across the board has been subject to cuts from the government, film funding has been more savage than most. Screen Australia, the nation’s most notable funding body has $10.3 million taken from its budget over the next four years. The Thor and Alien sequels will be receiving nearly $50 million from the government in what has been one of the most explicit signs of valuing the foreign blockbuster over Australian stories. If Gods of Egypt is anything to go by, bean counting precedent set by the government seems to have carried all the way down to the very last pixel.

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