The latest wannabe epic from director Ridley Scott (of “Prometheus” and “Robin Hood”) has been mired in controversy for months thanks to its utterly whitewashed cast and Scott’s own dismissive remarks to his critics (“I can’t cast Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” is an impressively closed-minded response when people complained about why the film is full of white actors playing Egyptians), but there is more to this can of worms. There is a script full of anachronisms, an overload of CGI, a series of miscast actors, a bizarre scrubbing of any real religious ideas, and an utter lack of creativity. Why should this film exist when Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” already does? There is no good answer to that question.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” retells the story of Moses and how he beat Ramses in a war to prove the validity of their contrasting gods, which would result in Moses leading the Hebrews from Egypt, receiving the Ten Commandments, and attempting to reach Canaan, the Hebrews’ ancestral home. But for a film that lasts 150 minutes, there is shockingly little—almost nothing, really—of the latter two elements of that story, and yet there is also shockingly little character development for either Moses or Ramses, or for their family members, or for their followers. Scott is trying to shape this story into an action film, but what he ends up with a lesser version of his own film, “Gladiator,” which was itself a sort of reformulation of “The Ten Commandments.” So here we have Scott copying his own film, which was itself a copy of another film, which Scott’s current film should itself be a copy of. If you’re confused, I’m sorry, but welcome to the frustrating world of “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Nothing makes sense here.
The film centers on the relationship between Moses (Christian Bale, of “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton, of “The Great Gatsby”); the latter is the son of the Pharaoh of Egypt, Seti (John Turturro, of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”), and will be his successor, while the former is the son of Seti’s sister, Bithia (Hiam Abbass). The two are cousins but were essentially raised as brothers at Seti’s knee, with Moses now a fearsome warrior and great general and Ramses … a heavily made up, jewelry-wearing layabout who does basically does nothing but chomp on snacks, lurk in the shadows, and play with snakes. Of course Seti wants Moses to be his successor, but the law doesn’t work like that—and when Seti mysteriously dies of poison, the throne goes to Ramses.
Nevermind that Moses has saved Ramses in the battlefield or served him as a loyal advisor for years; there is a vague prophecy that suggests Moses will become a leader of his own, and when he’s visiting the city of Pithom, he receives another prophecy from a Hebrew elder, Nun (Ben Kingsley, of “The Boxtrolls”), who claims that Moses is the savior the slaves have been waiting for. Unsure of who to believe, Moses eventually ends up in exile while Ramses turns into an even more irresponsible, foolish leader. He wears more eyeliner, more jewelry, and becomes increasingly feminized. (The gender politics of this film are not a pretty thing.)
Nine years pass, during which the slaves are increasingly mistreated; Moses gets married, has a son, and tries to be a good shepherd; and Ramses gets married, has a son, and continues being as tyrannical as possible. Their lives don’t seem like they will ever intersect again—until while climbing a forbidden mountain, Moses suffers a head wound, sees a burning bush, and communicates with a vengeful, resentful little boy who claims to be God. And it is because of the orders of that child (who no one else can see, and who Moses’s wife believes is a delusion) that Moses abandons his family and returns to Ramses to determine his true identity and try to free the slaves from their bondage.
We all know what happens next—plagues, the death of first-born sons, and the parting of the Red Sea—and what is disappointing about “Exodus” is how generically it is all presented. The story is scrubbed of practically everything that makes it actually about Hebrews and Egyptians, and it’s impossible to tell if that’s because Scott wanted the movie to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, or if he just doesn’t actually care about the subject matter. Ramses is conceited, Moses might be crazy, God is a jerk, and there’s no time spent on what either the Egyptians or Hebrews thought about their leaders were doing. With about 10 minutes left to go in the film, one former slave complains about how much Moses is pushing them, and then one soldier notes to Ramses that his plan is reckless, and that’s all you’ll get from “normal” people. As a movie about an actual struggle between specific groups, “Exodus” fails utterly—there are four writers (Adam Cooper and Bill Collage of “Tower Heist,” Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Moneyball”) credited here, but developing anyone aside from Moses and Ramses clearly wasn’t a priority.
Bale, at least, dives deep; his conversations with God are the right mix of pained and desperate. Yet Bale’s committed performance can’t overshadow everything else that’s wrong—and there’s a lot of it. There’s the overwhelmingly white casting, with Edgerton tanned out of his mind and slathered under layers of makeup; with Sigourney Weaver showing up in a series of increasingly ridiculous wigs, only to spout fewer than 10 lines; with Moses’s Bedouin wife played by a white Spanish actress. Were there no actual Egyptian, or Arab, Iranian, or other Middle-Eastern actors to play any of these roles? Why are the only people of color playing slaves, serving people, or “savages” conquered by Pharaoh? Why are there barely any women of consequence in this film—why do Moses’s sister and mother disappear after the first scene they’re in? Why do neither Moses’s wife or Ramses’s wife do anything but provide them with sons and then stand around and pout? Why does everyone have British accents?!
Along with a bevy of ancillary characters who do absolutely nothing, there’s also the lack of chemistry between Bale and Edgerton—Moses and Ramses don’t have enough backstory to make their competition or resentment believable, and Bale and Edgerton never seem to be on the same wavelength—and the film barely feels tactile or real since there is so much CGI keeping us from total immersion. There are some beautiful scenes, like Moses wandering through a desolate, barren desert and Ramses overlooking a Nile River full of burning barges (since Moses leads a guerrilla-like uprising of only-male slaves, of course!), but they’re infrequent, and their visual splendor is brief. For every impressive moment like Moses gazing up at the imposing face of “God’s Mountain,” there is the CGI of the Red Sea turning into a giant tidal wave aided by amateur-looking twisters. If Scott can’t even get it right for the film’s most defining scene, what’s the point?
You could apply that question to the whole film, really. If with a budget of $140 million, you can’t create a film about Egypt starring actual Egyptians, about Hebrews without delving into their culture, about supposed brothers without giving them a believable relationship, or about particular religious principles without even delineating what they are, why do it at all? Early in the film, Moses says about the rumors of his heritage, “I think it’s offensive and I think it’s ridiculous.” Maybe I should have just used that line of dialogue for this review of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—it certainly fits.
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