Ridley Scott didn’t need to make Exodus: Gods and Kings. How many times have we seen this story? What’s left of the Moses mythology that could even shock viewers into feigning interest? But alas, the acclaimed English director of similar post-2000 epics Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven decided to revisit the Book of Exodus with a film that’s spiritually confused and altogether void of any tangible characters. Which, I’ve got to say, is quite shocking given that he opted for mainstream Hollywood talent in Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley — a decision that’s, of course, sparked controversy, with many circles claiming he’s “whitewashed” the biblical tale.
“I always look on making a film as a partnership and that’s what casting is all about, whether it’s the star or the guy with one line,” Scott told Yahoo back in August. “And over the years I’ve got the best results from actors who really are my partners in the process and it makes it all the more enjoyable.” That’s a fine argument and every director’s entitled to creative licensing, but the majority of the casting in Exodus: Gods and Kings is plain lazy. Weaver as Queen Tuya, mother of Edgerton’s Ramses, comes across as nothing more than a banner name for the poster — a decision that Scott’s been quite transparent about amidst the backlash. As he told Variety last month: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
(Read: Ridley Scott’s Top 10 Films)
And so, the film’s assembly reads and looks very old-school Hollywood, where white actors play dress up and tell an old tale for God knows why. In that sense, Exodus: Gods and Kings is no different than, say, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 adaptation, The Ten Commandments. This time around, however, there’s an excess of CGI wizardry and a dollop of modern skepticism, as various characters offer reason for the plagues and point to natural causes for various miracles, such as the climactic parting of the Red Sea. There’s even a mild debate about whether or not the visions of Moses are a part of the man’s insanity, but the keyword there is mild. Scott safely oscillates between faith and reason — a fair decision, admittedly — but it’s a choice that strips the film of being at all compelling. The speculation, instead, becomes an afterthought.
It’s a shame because if any filmmaker could grasp those themes and indulge those questions, it’s Scott. In his glory days, this sort of flair was his bread and butter, yet judging by this exhausting 150 minutes, it’s his plate of Melba Toast. So, why? “I was staggered to discover what kind of man [Moses] was and where he’d come from,” Scott admitted to Yahoo. “I had no idea he was the counter-point to Ramses. I didn’t know how close their relationship was and that they were raised like half brothers, half cousins if you like.” Okay, fair point. Here’s the problem: While he does address Moses’ backstory and attempts to forge a bond between the two spiritual brothers, none of it resonates, despite Bale and Edgerton’s best efforts. Confused pacing aside, this issue stems from a scenic screenplay that works with soulless characters, who were all sketched together by a whopping cast of writers in Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian.
Together, the four keep flipping the story’s pages without leaving any time for its characters to forge any bonds. The worst of all being Moses’ relationship to his wife and son — a pivotal connection that should heighten the stakes when he leaves for Egypt on his mission from God. His time in Midian, where he meets and weds Zipporah, leaving her with a child to raise, whisks on by in a very “wham, bam, thank you ma’am, I’ll be on my merry way” sort of style that’s egregious to both the story and character. As such, when he later returns, there’s no feeling of redemption, just as there was no feeling of remorse upon his departure. A similar problem thwarts his relationship to Ramses. Because there’s such a preference for action, the two share little screen time together before Moses is exiled, making them more or less suggestive acquaintances.
These same issues demolished Scott’s last big-budget foray, 2012’s Prometheus. He was able to craft a beautiful picture — many thanks to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, whom he’s worked with since — yet his story just couldn’t connect. What’s worse is that Exodus is all a slog. The plagues are visually interesting but simply offer brief moments of respite amidst a soulless conflict that neither grasps the urgency of Moses nor the tyrannical nature of Ramses — they just exist. In fact, much of the story’s menace stems from the incorrigible Viceroy Hegep, as portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn in what might be the strangest choice of casting since John Wayne read lines as Genghis Kahn. Mr. Scott, there isn’t enough make up in the world to hide the Australian actor’s traditional farm boy features. What’s he doing in the desert?
Actually, what is anyone here doing? That’s a question Scott just can’t answer in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a rote passion project bereft of any passion. Sadly, he even dedicated the film to his late brother, Tony. A better move would have been last year’s The Counselor, a flawed yet highly sophisticated venture that was more in line with either of the directors’ best works. This? It’s exactly the sort of film Hollywood doesn’t need anymore: a gluttonous epic that fails to evoke or teach or entertain. So, save yourself a buck or two by revisiting Gladiator on AMC or doing a quick web search on Moses. Hey, if you’re adventurous enough, you could even seek out a bible. Those are popular around this time of the year, right?