I honestly have no idea why Exodus: Gods and Kings got made.
I mean, I get the practical-cum-cynical reasons: biblical epics seem to be back on the rise, and it’s a massive money grab by the studios, etc. But why director Ridley Scott or actors Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, or the film’s stable of scribes, looked at this script specifically and said to themselves, “yup, this story is something I want to devote months, if not years, of blood and sweat to” is just beyond me. Almost nothing in the film really registers.
The story – a mainstay of the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah, for all you secular liberal heathens – is brute and primordial: thousands of years ago, the Israelites were held in slavery by the Egyptian empire, building their cities and temples and pyramids. When the Egyptians decided to quell insurrection by killing every firstborn Israelite child, one family saved their son, Moses, by floating him in a basket down the river. Found and raised by members of the Egyptian royal family, the grown Moses (Bale) is now a general, friend, and adopted brother to Ramses (Edgerton), who will eventually succeed his father Seti (John Turturo) to the throne.
Then Moses discovers his heritage, as does Ramses, resulting in exile. Out in the wilderness, God recruits Moses to free the Israelites from bondage, and Moses returns to Egypt – bringing with him 12 spectacular divine plagues aimed at breaking the spirit of the Egyptian empire.
It’s a hell of a yarn on paper, but the plagues sequence also hints at what’s wrong with the film. They are beautifully realized by Scott and his crew – the idea of an entire river flooded by blood, or an entire city overcome by flies, locusts or frogs, is brought home in a visceral and naturalistic style – but they also come in a kind of dull factory procession. One plague hits, then another, then another, as Moses looks on, increasingly horrified by the devastation, and arguing with the Malak (Isaac Andrews), God’s messenger. These debates are surface-level interesting, given Moses’ inner moral conflict paired against the Malak’s (and presumably God’s) righteous fury and bloodthirstiness. But they also go nowhere; they’re just a quizzical note that’s hit on top of the film’s rote recitation of the story. And then the production moves on, with nothing left in the scene’s wake.
All of Exodus is like that: a rock skipping over good ideas without ever digging into any. Ramses is a petulant sociopath, completely bought in to the divine nature of his own office in Egyptian culture. (“I am a god!” he cries at one point.) Then the movie also makes a play for a kind of shattered brotherhood dynamic between him and Moses, and the scene following the deaths of all the Egyptian’s first born – when Ramses holds up his child’s body and asks, “Is this the god you worship, a childkiller?” – is genuinely disturbing. But nothing really happens with any of it.
Moses starts out as a skeptic, then a believer, then a conscientious objector – Israelite means “he who wrestles with God,” as Moses observes – but no sense of an actual relationship between him and God ever emerges. Andrews is a young boy, which almost works for the Malak by making the conversations somewhat otherworldly, with an element of childish unpredictability to the Malak’s/God’s fury. But Andrews lacks the gravitas to really pull off the role, and a late scene that hints at an understanding and friendship between him and Moses is utterly unearned by the film.
Then there’s the issue of the cast: a group of white leads and non-white supporting cast in what is supposed to be a pre-modern Mediterranean world. That’s drawn charges of incipient racism, to which Scott has bluntly responded that the film could’t have gotten made without big stars, the vast majority of whom are white. That’s probably correct, though it’s still a condemnation of how race and privilege still structure Hollywood and decide whose stories get told and how. But within the context of the movie, the casting is almost weirdly appropriate, as the Egyptians are presented as a brazenly colonial power. But that idea, too, is then abandoned. And as for the Israelites themselves, other than an old man who reveals Moses’ heritage (Ben Kingsley) and the revolutionary Joshua (Aaron Paul), they’re just crowds.
To a certain extent, I can understand how this happened: Moses’ story is sprawling, from his early years in the Egyptian court, to his exile, the plagues, the exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, and the arrival of the Ten Commandments. Figuring out what to include, what to cut, what the beats are, and what the narrative throughline is must be difficult. But Darren Aronofsky actually pulled it off in spectacular fashion with this year’s Noah, precisely because he had a reason to make it. That film is completely committed to the idea that God has decided to simply scrap the human race, while asking what that means and what the psychological costs are for Noah’s titular hero. As a result of that vision, the film sloughs off the cultural baggage of being a “bible film” and becomes its own story unto itself.
Exodus has no equivalent animating question, and the movie falls apart around that hollow center. The only parts that actually move emotionally are little bits the actors can pull from the morass: Bale’s relationship with Moses’ wife (Marîa Valverde) for example, or Seti’s growing realization that his adopted son is a far better steward and leader than his actual one.
The movie is, of course, visually wonderful. This is Ridley Scott after all, and the movie’s climax at the Red Sea is a particular marvel. But I left the theater feeling like I hadn’t seen a film so much as a bunch of scenes all strung together, with no underlying story or characters to get to know, or who changed.