Directed by Ridley Scott.
2014. Rated PG-13, 150 minutes.
It's nearly impossible to go into a movie like Exodus: Gods and Kings without preconceived notions. For starters, it's a retelling of one of the most famous stories in the history of the world, the Biblical one of Moses, here played by Christian Bale. Regardless of the religious affiliation of the viewer, most people think they have an idea of what it's supposed to be. On top of that, it's a big-budget Hollywood production which immediately recalls perhaps the most famous Biblical epic of them all, The Ten Commandments, whether the filmmakers intend to or not. Speaking of the filmmakers, the man at the helm, director Ridley Scott, also causes many viewers to form expectations. Lots of people either love him, hate him, or used to love him but hate him now. Finally, much controversy erupted around it before it even hit theaters when critics got a look at it. Still, I went into it with as open a mind as possible. I think.
Some of the earliest images in Exodus are jarring. The controversy I spoke of comes rushing to mind as soon as we meet our principle players. The charges against it are that it's a complete white washing of history. All of the roles of any consequence are played by Caucasian performers despite history telling us otherwise. This was easier to get away with in 1956 when The Ten Commandments came out. Nearly sixty years later, this is inexcusable. Many of the people present in this film are fine actors. They just shouldn't be playing these roles. Things reach levels approaching parody when we see John Turturro, an actor I love, made up to be Seti, the current pharaoh of Egypt. It was a cringe-worthy sight. The role should have gone to anyone besides Turturro, even if that were another white actor. It was that bad.
Admittedly, I have been one of those who has not minded when traditionally white characters have been portrayed by non-white actors. The difference is that these are fictional characters for whom whiteness is not a defining trait. Therefore, I have no problem with Marvel Studios casting Idris Elba as the Heimdall, a character drawn as white in the "Thor" comic books. Nothing about Heimdall says that he has to be white. The same applies to James Bond, should the internet get their way and Elba is chosen to play that role in the future. When making films based on history in some form or fashion, the powers that be are obligated to portray the people depicted as accurately as possible. This doesn't mean you need to find a doppelganger for every person, but at least have someone of the same race. This means that while Elba makes a fine Heimdall, and potentially an excellent Bond, I don't want him replacing Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs.
I've spent a lot of time pontificating about the egregious casting of Exodus, but what of the film they made with what they had? It has problems. Lots of problems. From a narrative standpoint, it misplaces its protagonist for a large stretch of time to the film's detriment. Without getting into which details were changed from the source material, I'll just say that Moses never truly feels like one of the people. There is never a moment when he doesn't feel above them. This makes it hard to understand why they would follow him. Yes, there is talk of him fulfilling well known prophecies, but it all seems to come too easy. The same problem goes for our antagonist, Ramses (Edgerton). He goes from merely incompetent ruler to stark raving lunatic in an instant. It feels like lazy writing, relying on the audience's preexisting knowledge of the story to fill in the gaps instead of taking the time to properly flesh out the characters on the screen.
The film's depiction of God is also troubling. Whether the viewer is a Christian or not, this film sets out to make you believe that this version of God is a superior and supreme being, all-knowing and perfect. Instead of this, Exodus literally reduces God to a petulant child. He seems unsure of Himself and prone to temper tantrums. When a swarm of locusts comes to Egypt, it feels more like the work of someone shoving aside and mocking the person tasked to do the job, Moses, than it does wrath against an unjust king. The effect is that we roll our eyes and dismiss His actions as childish foot-stomping.
Race aside, the performances of the cast is disappointing for such a talented group. Our lead, Christian Bale is immensely gifted, but feels like he's phoning it in a bit. With all the sulking and his doom and gloom demeanor, it's like he's doing Bruce Wayne in Ancient Egypt rather than Moses. Joel Edgerton fares better as Ramses, but is prone to stretches of scenery chewing. Ben Kingsley is wonderful the first few times we see him, but then does nothing the rest of the way. Speaking of doing nothing, Sigourney Weaver collected a paycheck for standing off to the side. Though I've already mentioned John Turturro's appearance being laughable, it bears mentioning that his actual acting was no better. In a movie where most of the performers are miscast, he stands out as being particularly out of place.
Visually is where Exodus makes its best impression. The film's recreation of Ancient Egypt is, at times, spectacular. In its full glory, it brings to life all of the grandeur we associate with that place through the pictures we've seen in history books all our lives. Best of all is how desolate it appears on the outskirts of the kingdom. There is a stark contrast between how the two halves live. It adds a proper sense of space to the setting. We get the idea that we are observing events that take place across a broad and varying landscape. Late in the film, the script belies the world created for our eyes by having some issues with time and travel. This condenses the area easily fixed by changing a few words of dialogue. By this time, luckily, the area is well established in our minds simply by the way things look. The one disappointment is the one thing the movie didn't bother to show. To be fair, it showed it, but in a far different way than any of us see it in our mind when we close our eyes. That's the parting of the Red Sea. It completely lacks the oomph of Charlton Heston instantaneously forging a path for his people.
As I've said before, pretty pictures do not a movie make. That is totally the case here. The nice visuals are simply no match for the faulty script and sub par acting. What may have helped it is that same go-for-broke attitude employed by The Ten Commandments. The events and people depicted should all be played larger than life. In an effort to keep things as accessible as possible, things are muted. This leaves everything we see empty. We're left with a film struggling to remove the spectacle from a story which most lends itself to that very thing. True, the white-washing of the tale is an indefensible offense for a movie made in this century. However, it's something a better movie could at least make tolerable. The error is merely compounded by the lack of quality in so many areas of this production.