Exodus: Gods and Kings
The immediate question that springs to mind with Exodus: Gods and Kings is “Who is this for?” The core audience for a Biblical epic is surely the hallowed Christian ticket, one that promises potential rewards on a vast scale (The Passion of the Christ). So why make a movie where the Old Testament protagonist’s communication with God is implied to be all in his own head, and where God’s interventions – at least in part – are serviced with “feasible” scientific explanations? Noah also went off message, and had a God who was profoundly silent (not surprising from atheist Aronofsky), but it was stuffed full of enough weirdness to make it something different. Exodus appears tailored to fall between a myriad of stools and so is thoroughly anaemic (in its casting too), its ultimate undoing.
Watched in an unintentional double bill with The Voices, it’s more than evident that Ridley Scott (with writers Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) was intent on presenting Moses as a functional schizophrenic (certainly, this was Christian Bale’s take). His first experience of God comes after a bump on the head, a pretty clear indication of how the makers are seeing this.
Effectively, they’re just hedging their bets, mistakenly assuming that if they water down the religious-miraculous they’ll appear to a wider audience, when they end up appealing to no one. The climactic killing of the first-born doesn’t fit into the “explicable” lens Scott is looking at the Biblical account through, so it begs the question of why bother going that route in the first place? Where the director doesn’t get to part the Red Sea and Moses doesn’t even carry his crucial staff around. As for suggesting a host of crocodiles is responsible for turning the Nile red, surely, it’s no more “grounded” than a plague sent by God?
Moses is rendered a strangely passive, on-looking figure in all this. Joshua, played by Aaron Paul as a Monty Python “It’s…” in search of his next crack pipe hit, continually observes Moses’ chats with God from afar. In which Moses is talking to… no one! The nutter! Moses doesn’t interact or announce the successive plagues (compacted into a series of successive connected incidents here), and there’s no progression of confidence as he takes the speaking role first given to Aaron (who hardly figures).
This mad Moses is seen throughout; his voices are even personified as a dramatically inert kid delivering the God part (such a conceit can work in horror, but for gravitas it sucks). When we get to the Ten Commandments, it’s Moses chipping away at them up Mount Sinai, rather than receiving them from Him signed and sealed. As on old man he’s still seeing his young scamp version of Yahweh. Yeah, this version will go down a storm in Sunday school.
It would have been more interesting to see a stark depiction of the Old Testament God, the one who hardens the Pharaoh’s heart, presented in a warts-and-all fashion. It might have given some substance to Ramses’ outraged line “Is your God a killer of children?” (which might elicit a “I know you are but what am I?” response, to an Egyptian religion that is uninterrogated aside from auguries, entrails and the odd bit of deduction to stress it’s all perfectly explicable during the plagues). Scott handled distinctions between religions much better a decade ago in the (patchy) Kingdom of Heaven.
Which leads one to wonder how Ridley developed this rep for being good with such swords and sandals fare, or period pieces generally. He’s only ever been as good as his script since the mid-80s (when he started out he built worlds, now they’re more like Lego kits), and his successes (The Duellists, and qualified appreciations of 1492 and Gladiator) need to be set against the increasing cluelessness in the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Exodus. However you look at it (and most these pictures have done proportionally better internationally than in the US) the price tag hasn’t justified the enormous expense. Then you take into account the critical drubbings and you have to think he’d be best to steer well clear.
He’s particularly off with driving the plot of Moses, spending a lot of time establishing his relationship with Ramasses II (Joel Edgerton) but seeming to have no sense of how to (presumably) navigate a man who finds his way back to his heritage. Exodus is long enough (two and a half hours) that it should be able to cover its bases, but aside from Bale’s uncompelling Moses and Edgerton’s petulant Ramasses barely anyone gets a chance to stand out. Neither of these two is well cast. Edgerton looks plain silly with his bronzed skin and make up and, even leaving aside the whitewashing of the roles, neither seems entirely comfortable. Bale has a very modern sensibility and delivery, in a way say Russell Crowe can overcome by dint of charisma. Bale’s moody authority is bland and unconvincing here, probably the most unpersuasive he’s been in a role since Terminator Salvation.
On the side-lines, Ben Kingsley hardly registers, the same with Sigourney Weaver (as Ramasses’ mum!) John Turturro and Ben Mendelshon make something of limited screen time, the latter as the weasely fellow who gets Moses in trouble in the first place, and the former as Sethi I and Moses’ surrogate father. Indira Varma and Maria Valverde make an impression as a high priestess and Moses’ wife respectively, the former sharing a fate with Ewen Bremner’s “expert” in one of the picture’s few amusing moments (Ramses gets tired of his inaccurate advisors).
The special effects are as accomplished as you’d expect, but all for nought. Exodus is an inert, pointless picture (the irrelevant double think of its subtitle may have been a result of Exodus already being taken, but I’d be surprised if they hadn’t gone with it anyway; it illustrates splendidly that they don’t know who their appealing to or why). Increasingly with Scott, since his Gladiator emergence as a financial (semi-) reliable, it’s hard to pinpoint what he sees in his choices, other than a fleeting whim. He’s a guy who pronounces story is king, to the extent he believed his agnosticism benefited his approach (“because I’ve got to convince myself the story works”), which is like having conversations with NASA before taking on Legend.
Look at the mess that was the storyline progression for Robin Hood, or the permutations Prometheus went through. From the start of Exodus: Gods and Kings, the story allows itself that prediction and the supernatural exist. Moses is told, “I know you don’t believe in omens and prophecies, but I do believe”, something validated when the prophecy of Moses becoming a leader comes to pass. To go from there to vacillating between delusional visions and lucky natural phenomena and actual divine intervention indicates a lack of clarity of theme and purpose. Scott has nothing to say with Exodus, other than that he thinks its still fine to cast white to the point of absurdity and recognises some fairly banal points about the terrible things done in the name of faith. Just keep churning them out, Ridders.