At the beginning of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ramses II—heir to the Egyptian throne—and his adopted brother Moses prepare for battle against a Hittite army. Before riding off into the fray, they exchange swords as a symbol of their fraternal bond and intertwined destinies. It’s a compelling scene, and I had high hopes that Exodus would prove to be an evocative retelling of what is perhaps the most intriguingly human strand of the biblical narrative: two men, who are raised as brothers, become bitter adversaries in an epic clash of powers. As it turns out, while there are plenty of adjectives that can be used to describe Ridley Scott’s latest film, “evocative” is not one of them.
As far as cinematic interpretations of the Passover story go, Exodus is the most uninspired, laugh-out-loud-ridiculous of them all. Seriously, this movie makes A Rugrats Passover look like Citizen Kane. Exodus is plagued (see what I did there?) by turgid dialogue, campy costumes, and an abundance of logical inconsistencies. As Moses, Christian Bale does what he can with the script, but it’s hard to accept his gravitas while he’s covered in spray tan and spouting off cornball lines like, “You can learn a lot about somebody by looking him in the eye.”
For the most part, Exodus sticks to the key points of the biblical narrative: an Egyptian prince discovers that he hails from a family of Hebrew slaves, goes into exile, has a pow-wow with God, returns to Egypt to liberate the Israelites, and much divine smiting ensues. The film’s interpretations of the scriptural story are more often than not contradictory and absurd. Early on in Exodus, two Egyptian officers mistakenly refer to Moses as a slave, and he kills them because… well, it’s not entirely clear why. When Moses is told by one of the Hebrews that he was born to a Jewish mother, he responds in disbelief: “That’s not even a good story. I thought you people were supposed to be good at telling stories.” And yet Moses seems to have known for some time that a palace servant is actually his Israelite sister. How he comes to this realization is never made clear; maybe the filmmakers figured we would forget about the discrepancy if they threw enough CGI locusts our way.
The most laughable of all the film’s ludicrous moments is the appearance of God, who manifests to Moses as a little boy with a British accent and a shoddy haircut. I’m not sure what to make of the religious implications of this casting choice, but it is disastrous on a narrative level. Whenever the Almighty brims with rage, it’s impossible to refrain from thinking that he needs to be sent to his room and have his Xbox privileges taken away.
The truly unfortunate thing about Exodus is that the film bungles some perfectly fertile source material. There is much to explore in the story of an Egyptian prince whose world is upended when he discovers that he belongs to a nation of slaves, and who is forced to wreak havoc upon the very people who saved his life when his own mother was forced to abandon him. But in Exodus, Moses and pretty much every supporting character are frustratingly half-baked. The first meeting between Moses and his biological brother Aaron packs about as much emotional heft as a cardboard sandwich. As Moses’ wife Tzipporah, Spanish actress Maria Valverde is reduced to shooting lusty glances in Moses’ direction and uttering the least exciting dirty talk imaginable (“Proceed”). Aaron Paul makes an appearance as Joshua, Moses’ eventual successor, but he isn’t given much to do except shout “Moshe!” at crucial moments in the narrative.
Only in Ramses II, played with spirit and copious amounts of eyeliner by Joel Edgerton, do we get some semblance of a multi-dimensional character. Ramses is pained by the suffering of his family and his people, but he cannot bring himself to concede to the one thing that would rid Egypt of the plagues. He rages over the insubordination of the man whom he once thought of as a brother. He seems bewildered by Moses’ allegiance to a God that wipes out a nation of firstborns. But as soon as God begins the wreak havoc in Egypt, the interactions between Moses and Ramses become too clipped to feel substantial. At one point, rather than show up to the great palace in person, Moses sends Ramses a white horse with a warning written on its side. I think this is supposed to be menacing in a Godfather-y sort of way, but it really isn’t.
I will say that unlike some other biblical epics (ahem, Noah), Exodus looks great. The film is shot against a vast expanse of creamy sands and looming mountains. There are mudslides, and hailstorms, and some pretty epic croc attacks that usher in the first plague by tainting the Nile with human blood. The parting of the Red Sea—essentially the climax of the whole story—is pretty underwhelming though. For some reason, in a movie about a man who talks to God and ushers in a sequence of divinely-ordained plagues, the filmmakers decided that this would be a good time to affect some realism. As the Israelites prepare for their crossing, the Red Sea simply froths and dries up without much ceremony—not unlike the trajectory of this film.
(Image: 20th Century Fox)