Gods of Egypt: a brilliantly terrible film about theology and the afterlife

When you go to see a Summer 'blockbuster', try to keep your expectations low. It's a wise principle, the virtue of which is proved by Gods of Egypt – Alex Proyas' sword, sandal and scarab-beetle epic, finally given a UK release this week. Critics in the US slaughtered the film when it was released there in February, panning the film's acting, writing and effects, and criticising the casting of mainly white actors for Egyptian roles. With that kind of ill wind behind it, there's a tough sell ahead for the film's British marketing team.

However, walking in to watch a film which has been roundly branded a disaster turns out to be quite a liberating experience, at least it from where I was sitting. Let's be clear from the outset: Gods of Egypt is a catastrophic piece of film-making. It's got the cinematic sensibilities of a particularly mindless video game, and it's an ugly stain on the acting CVs of cast members like Gerard Butler (his is already pretty stained) and Chadwick Boseman, (recently cast as Marvel's Black Panther) whose wonderfully awful performance in this film is Golden Raspberry-baiting stuff.

But – and I don't say this lightly – I sort of enjoyed it. There's something wonderful about not having to worry about whether a film is going to impress or move you emotionally, because you can then begin to enjoy it for all sorts of other reasons. One of those, of course, is enjoying the terribleness, to the point that the film is so-bad-it's-good. But another way of enjoying the film is to look at what it says, or at least tries to say about the nature of God(s). And it says quite a lot.

Set in an entirely fictional reality in which the earth is flat and Egyptian gods walk it alongside mere mortals, the plot involves a power struggle between two sibling deities for control over the earth. There's the good king Osiris, who kindly decrees that all people will enter the afterlife, regardless of their status or their lifestyle, and the evil prince Set (Butler), who wants to take over and change the rules of entry to heaven so that only the rich get through. It's like a theological argument between Rob Bell and Donald Trump, with lots of added monsters and fire.

Anyway, Set wins and takes over, casting Osiris' son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) into exile in the process. But as Set takes power, he's not satisfied with simply being ruler over the earth; he wants total immortality and dominion over everything. If it had been intended as a portentous satirical commentary on the potential outcome of the US elections, the film would be lauded as a work of genius.

The film isn't about politics though; it's actually about theology, of sorts. While it never strays into territory that's remotely Christian, it's a movie where all the characters have heaven (and hell) on their minds; where forgiveness proves vital and where love conquers all. It's perhaps most interesting when it's exploring the idea of God. By breaking that into its component parts: wisdom, love, power and so on, it provides a woefully insubstantial image of a/the true deity. In fact, the film recognises as much: the evil Set knows that he needs to unify the various powers of the Gods in order to truly become all-powerful, because he, like all of the other 'gods' in the film, is hopelessly flawed and fallible. So while the film gives us a worldview where supernatural forces create, give life and even answer prayer, it provides an insubstantial image of a truly worthy deity to wield such powers.

Similarly, the central question of how the dead get into heaven is posed and prodded at throughout. Three ideas are presented, and none quite chime with the Christian understanding: heaven is either freely given, judged on merit, or only available to those who can afford it. Yet perhaps the truth is different again: that it is both offered freely and bought at a heavy price. It's an option the film doesn't give us, so the various theologies offered to us don't quite ring true. As such, it's a pretty good version of that Athenian altar "to an unknown God" in Acts 17. It recognises God and his purpose for all creation, yet it can't quite locate him.

While the film is surprisingly interesting on a theological level, and entertaining for all the wrong reasons, there are some problems with it which don't simply get a free pass. It's another example – in the UK at least – of a film which has somehow been allowed a 12A certificate when its sometimes terrifying moments of demons dragging souls into hell shouldn't be seen by the eight-year-olds that rating permits. And it's yet another case of a blockbuster which pretends feminism and the Bechdel test never happened. I'm sure talented actress Courtney Eaton was cast for her entire body, but the camera is repeatedly only interested in one part of it. Add to that some pretty severe scenes of what I can only term 'fantasy domestic violence' involving Butler, and it's not going to be winning any awards for gender justice anytime soon.

Still, I suppose there's limited point in listing the problems with Gods of Egypt. Yes, it's bad, but it's strangely entertaining. Pick among the bones of the carcass of this cinematic disaster, and you might just find surprising riches.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders