Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Godsmacked: Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (2023) Review

Director: Wuershan

Notable Cast: Kris Phillips, Li Xuejian, Huang Bo, Yosh Yu, Luke Chen, Naran, Xia Yu, Yang Le, Chen Kun, Yuan Quan, Ci Sha, Yafan Wu, Luoyong Wang, Hou Wenyuan, Tim Huang


Now that the Chinese film industry has punted many of its lower-budget films to streaming services, it’s not shocking to see a massive CGI-heavy multi-film adaptation of a classic fantasy story look and feel so much like modern Hollywood blockbusters. The initial trailers for Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms were brimming with massive superhero-like action set pieces, while the promise of this being a “part one” of a trilogy indicated that this would be E.P.I.C. Truly, this looked like the Chinese fantasy blockbuster to end all blockbusters. 


Director Wuershan’s adaption of the Investiture of the Gods story is undoubtedly just that. Nothing in Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms is subtle or straightforward. This is a big scale to the blockbuster nth degree, and it shows for better or worse. As the first part of this trilogy, it’s still a highly entertaining film; for that, it does get credit. It’s just par for the course that its stunning visual feasts and entertaining action sequences come with a script that is scattered in trying to jam in dozens stacked upon dozens of characters, plots that never feel fleshed out, and a narrative that feels elongated and still rushed. 


But it also features two massive stone monsters possessed by an occasionally headless evil wizard chasing a god stripped of his powers on horseback. So, you know, give a little, take a little. 


Kingdom of Storms finds its value in its visuals and bigger-than-life narrative. Between the sweeping sets, gorgeous production designs, and the massive CGI creations of its fantastical lands, director Wuershan knows how to put every penny on screen. Granted, the overall CGI elements aren’t quite matching Hollywood, but they’re damn close, and Kingdom of Storms is using its big bold visuals - including some massive war sequences and one that opens the film that features flaming horses - to hook its audience into its world. 


Punctuating the solid visuals and impressive production designs are some otherworldly action set pieces that embed various classic Chinese gods into the universe. Although the war sequences highlight the film with massive group battles and some shocking violence, it is when the titular gods arrive that the film moves entirely into spectacle territory. 


Classic gods like Jiang Ziya (played by the always-welcome Huang Bo), Nezha, and Yang Jian appear as they attempt to right some evil leaked into the world. However, the film introduces these charming Gods and promptly tosses them out of the narrative at a little past the halfway point. It’s a relatively strange choice that makes the film feel like it has far more in store for them later. By later, I mean in another film. Still, when they are on screen, the film finds some humor and heart in their performances and the action spectacle they bring to the mix.


In the place of this secondary plot of gods trying to save humanity from a possibly supernatural evil that has manipulated a great general into killing his way to the throne, played with an exquisitely sinister performance by Kris Phillips aka Fei Xiang, Kingdom of Storms focuses on a duo of guards trying to find balance between loyalty to their king, justice, and familial oaths. It’s the classic wuxia and Chinese fantasy tropes for young heroes, but fortunately, the performances by Yosh Yu and Luke Chen get the job done. The plot between these two heroes, further complicated by their relationship with other rulers, their friendship, and an overwhelming sense of social justice that allows the film to skate by Chinese censors, tends to be the most convoluted of the film. Many characters swirl around these two, feed into the plot, and add more secondary plots; it generally makes the film feel like it's spewing forth enough material for three films. Well, that’s cause it is, and the Kingdom of Storms rarely hides it.


This intention of laying out the chess pieces on the board makes Kingdom of Storms feel like it is a half-step from narratively derailing itself as it frantically jams in more and more detail, plot, and characters. Wuershan does his damndest to get it to all smoothly ebb and flow, but often, the film must include odd edits between characters or plots to get its audience back and forth quickly to avoid bogging down the pacing. Weirdly, and I hate to admit this, there were several times during the film when I thought this story may have served better as a big-budget television show instead of a movie. 


Yet, watching this in a packed theater in IMAX, it’s hard not to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms. It’s fantastical entertainment to the fullest, brimming with gorgeous production designs, bigger-than-life visuals, and some spectacle-driven action set pieces that ought to have audiences glued to the screen. It’s not the most cohesive storytelling as it sets the stage for a trilogy of films, and many characters or plot threads seemingly weave in and out without resolution. 


Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms is a hell of a kick-off for the franchise, but it's apparent that despite its entertaining values, it will be better to watch as a whole when the other films are released. 


Written by Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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