Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott)

Posted: December 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

Sometimes a film walks right up to the edge of being a good film, only to run away completely in the opposite direction.  “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is such a film.  There are a number of points in the film where it looks like it is going to be good and explore interesting themes, but instead it settles for showing us lots of pretty shots of horses running and extras flocking. What a shame.

We cannot ignore the fact that this is a film of a Bible story, directed by an atheist.  Earlier this year we had another atheist-directed Bible film in “Noah”, and that turned out laughably bad.  “Exodus” isn’t laughable, mind you, but when it comes to dealing with religion it is awfully confused.  The film opens with a title card reading “1300 BCE”.  Already using “Before Common Era” instead of the Christian preferred “Before Christ” was bound to upset Christians, and the films half-hearted attempts to explain the plagues through scientific means (sort of) or compare Egyptian reading of animal entrails to slaughtering of lambs for Passover blood (with similarly gruesome close-ups of animal blood and evisceration) wouldn’t help either.  Shots of supporting characters watching Moses (Christian Bale) talking to an empty spot on a rock when Moses thinks he’s talking to God-as-a-little-snotty-British-boy (Issac Andrews) seem to indicate Moses is talking to himself and is some sort of crazy, hallucinating schizophrenic.  Hell, Moses doesn’t see God and the famous Burning Bush until he’s hit on the head during a mudslide.  Plus, hey, the Egyptian prophecy of Moses saving Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) and becoming a leader comes true, so doesn’t that mean either the Egyptian religion is true (or at least as true as the Hebrew prophecy that Moses will become a leader), or that these prophecies come true as a coincidence?  Weird.

So we start, as an audience, to think this is going to be the “realistic” telling of the famous Moses story. Nope.  We still get a magical sword causing the Red Sea to “part” via typhoon, and it’s hard to explain the weird, murderous crocodiles without some sort of divine intervention, even though one Egyptian tries to blame that on clay found in the Nile.  My guess is that director Ridley Scott wanted to do a realistic Bible tale (kind of like his shitty attempt to make a “realistic” Robin Hood movie), but the studio was afraid that would turn off the Faith-Based moviegoers they wanted to tap into, so we get this weird, mixed attempt that will likely please no one.  This film has FOUR credited writers, so it is likely this screenplay had numerous problems that were tinkered with piecemeal, resulting in this mixed-message thing.

So okay, this film isn’t going to succeed as either a straight-ahead Bible story or an atheist revision of one.  The film will drop the ball when dealing with religion.  It is too confused to make a pro-religion, anti-religion, or even mixed argument about religion.  Moses comes off as crazy, the Egyptians come off as fools, and a god seems to exist as a bratty child who lets his chosen people suffer for 400 years as slaves, and then when Moses calls him out on this, God’s come back is that Moses didn’t do much either.  Moses is also not omnipotent and didn’t know he was Hebrew until recently, so it’s not much of an argument.  It’s also never explained why God needs Moses in the first place.  He taps Moses to free the Hebrews, complains Moses is taking too long, and then releases plagues.  The god of this film is either not omnipotent or mentally handicapped himself.

Failing at religion, the film then seems like it is going to be about Class Warfare.  We have a rich ruling class of assholes (Ramesses pushes slave labor resources to the breaking point to build a palace and tomb for himself; another character embezzles money from the government to build himself a palace, etc) who are subject to a revolution by the proletarian slave class of Hebrews.  When Moses first demands that Ramesses free the slaves, the Pharaoh’s response is a weak explanation that begins “The economics of that alone…”   Moses’ first battle plan is to starve the Egyptian Bourgeoisie (of food and other supplies) until the government has to capitulate to the slaves’ demands.  It would have been interesting to paint Moses as Lenin of 1300 BCE since, in America at least, most strongly religious people would identify as economic Conservatives if not outright Republicans.  But again, the film only dips its toe in the water, and doesn’t really care to make any political statement, as God loses patient with Moses’ revolution and releases frogs.

So with no real comment to be made about religion or politics and economics, the last theme the film tries to bring up is race.  When discussing the Hebrews many characters, including the slave-overseeing viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), use terms and adjectives that one can hear racists today use to describe Blacks who live in poor, urban areas, or to describe Hispanic laborers.  Not to mention that anti-Semitism didn’t exactly die out in 1300 BCE.  The problem with this film trying to indict racism, however, lies in that we never really get to meet or care about any Hebrews other than Moses.  Sure, we meet Nun (Ben Kingsley) and Joshua (Aaron Paul), but we learn little-to-nothing about them and have no connection to them as an audience.  Other nameless Hebrews are hanged, and two Hebrews attempt to betray Moses by tattling on him to their slaver, which does nothing but solidify the anti-Semitic stereotype of the greedy, backstabbing Jew.  The only other Hebrew character the film even tries to get us to care about is Moses’ wife, Zipporah (Maria Valverde), and the film has them meet in one scene, only to get married in the next.  Not exactly enough screen time to be invested in their love story.

That’s not just a problem with race, though.  This is a problem with how unfeeling this whole film is.  In this film, there was exactly one scene where I felt even a mild bit of emotion for any of the characters.  After God has killed all the first-born sons of Egypt (because he’s all loving and hates babies dying of abortion…wait, what?), Ramesses wraps his dead baby son for mummification, kisses him, and tells him he sleeps well because he knows he is loved.  Then we see Ramesses wife rocking an empty cradle back and forth. So yes, it is only for the film’s villain, whose innocent baby son is murdered by God, that I felt a lick of emotion toward any of the characters.  Perhaps this film is so concerned with glittery golden costumes, CGI panoramas of ancient Egypt, and shots of horses and chariots running around that it just doesn’t care about our human characters (or even our divine ones).  Granted, there are a few genuinely good visuals, which the 3D helps as well, but the prettiest pictures in the world don’t make up for a cold and dry story.

Now I know what some of you who are familiar with me and my reviews are going to say.  You will point out that I am a strongly anti-religion atheist, so of course I’m not going to like a Bible story.  Well, you would be wrong.  I’ve always found the story of Moses and Ramesses to be very entertaining.  I especially love the animated film “The Prince of Egypt” (1998), which I feel captures this story the best it has ever been captured on film.  The medium of animation makes unbelievable myths easier to swallow, and that film has beautiful animation, using computer animation to supplement rich 2D animation.  Even in live action, I can enjoy an adaptation of a Bible story as much as I can enjoy one of, say, a Greek myth (though “Clash of the Titans” has sucked in both iterations thus far).  It’s not my atheism that keeps me from enjoying “Exodus”, it’s the failures of the film itself.

The film fails to explore any rich themes even though it dips its toe into them.  It fails to engage us in the story or have us care about the characters.  Individual scenes will work, only to be followed by two that are boring.  The film is both too long, yet also doesn’t have enough time or material to flesh out the scenes and story moments that need to be fleshed out for us to care.  Hell, if you didn’t go into this film knowing about the Golden Calf, you wouldn’t know what it is when you left.  Moses goes up a mountain, there’s a cutaway to something vaguely cow-idol-looking, and Little Boy God shakes his head derisively.   The  10 Commandments?  There’s one scene of Moses chiseling away a rock as Little Boy God talks to him.  There’s no scene of him delivering them to his people, no smashing of the tablets, nothing.  This film doesn’t care about the 10 Commandments at all, which is odd since that is the title of the most famous filmic adaptation of this story.

The film is dedicated to Tony Scott, the brother of the director, who committed suicide not too long ago.  It is clear Scott was drawn to this story because of the fraternal relationship at its center.  This isn’t exactly a fitting tribute, as Ramesses cares about Moses yet still orders his death. Moses seems to not like Ramesses all that much, but whether that is the script’s failure of Christian Bale’s I cannot say. I don’t know if Ridley seems himself as the crazy Moses or the inept Ramesses, but this story of brothers was likely not the best tribute to the late Tony.

Lastly, I have to address the controversy of the casting.  For a story filled with characters who are Egyptian/African and Hebrew, most of the main actors are English, Spanish, Australian, or American.  I normally don’t have issues with actors playing a different race.  Being an actor is about playing someone you’re not, and often times creative casting works better.  Think of Italian Al Pacino playing Cuban Tony Montana in “Scarface”.  We can’t imagine any other actor playing that role.  As long as the performance doesn’t descend into Blackface or racist mimicry, I don’t have a problem.  Granted, when a film has ONLY minorities played by non-minorities, it is a little disconcerting.  Also, in this film I can clearly imagine other actors in the roles because, while the acting in this film is certainly not bad, none of these performances blow me away.  Joel Edgarton gives the best of the lot.

“Exodus” is dry, emotionless, and has too many mixed messages or failed messages to be worth seeing for most.  The acting is sufficient and the film has some good visuals, but this is a mediocre film at best. C.

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