Exodus: Gods and Kings Dir. Ridley Scott

[20th Century Fox; 2014]

Styles: Biblical epic
Others: The Prince of Egypt, The Ten Commandments, Gladiator, “A Rugrats Passover”

Ridley Scott’s style is that he has no style. Whether directing a war film or a science-fiction film, Scott shoots with the same sleek polish and attention to production values. Nothing seems to interest Scott and he has no trademark, which means the success of his films depend entirely on the quality of the screenplay. His best film is Alien, which is a triumph of plausible, economical screenwriting. By that same token, Prometheus (TMT Review) is an utter disaster because the screenplay denies its characters any clear motivations or intelligence. Scott’s latest is Exodus: Gods and Kings, a Biblical epic with an astoundingly terrible screenplay. Long stretches of the film are so tedious and rote that they won’t inspire much anger; instead, audiences will simply forget they saw this utter misfire. In fact, the main reason I hate this movie is because this review is forcing me to think about it again.

After starring in American Hustle, where he played an overweight Jewish criminal from Long Island, Welsh-born Christian Bale leads the film as Moses, a scrawny, adopted Jewish prince from Egypt. The hunky Australian Joel Edgerton plays Ramses, the other Egyptian prince who’s the biological son of Seti the pharaoh (played by Italian John Turturro). The film begins with a wholly unnecessary battle sequence, as epics must, so the plot goes into motion when Moses learns he’s actually a Jew. The subsequent identity crisis causes a schism between him and Ramses, so Moses goes into exile shortly after Seti’s death. While Ramses kills more Jewish slaves for more monuments/pyramids, God tells Moses he must return to Egypt in order to set his people free (Aaron Paul and Ben Kingsley turn up as Jewish slaves, although their roles are minuscule). Moses is not an effective shadowy leader, exactly, and God intervenes with one horrible plague after another.

Four writers share the credit for the adapting the source material, which is admittedly not known for its rich nuance. The Exodus story is more about incident than character development, so the solution is to pad out the story instead of a rush to the good stuff. After Moses’ exile, for example, there is a meandering, dull sequence where he marries and has children. Bale and his co-stars show little interest in this material — they must know the dialogue is devoid of any passion — so the profound disinterest passes onto the audience. By the time Moses confronts Ramses with righteous foreshadowing and a righteous scraggly beard, Edgerton speaks with economic platitudes that would embarrass an ideologue on a Sunday morning talk show. There is a rule in Hollywood that epics must have epic running times, so parts of Exodus are mere placeholders until we get to the good stuff.

Scott films the ten plagues with a vague sense of plausibility: we know this is divine intervention because God promises it, yet the plague sequences are meant to look like a series of natural disasters. Invasive species explain away the frogs and locusts, while bloodthirsty crocodiles are responsible for the Nile turning to blood. The special effects are admittedly terrific: with a reported budget of $140 million, we see every little insect and corpse of a mutilated Egyptian. Scott and his screenwriters punctuate the plagues with the Egyptians fretting over the latest calamity: there is no sense of divine justice, only an afflicted civilization that tries their best to cope. Long before the tenth plague effectively murders dozens of innocent Egyptian boys, Scott loses his grasp of the narrative and instead opts for the Biblical (TMT Review) equivalent of a geek show.

The central problem with Exodus: Gods and Kings is that with a modern perspective, the point of the story is lost. In the Old Testament, God is a petty asshole who kills large swaths of humanity who don’t worship him properly or whatever. Scott clearly internalizes this version of God: the only good casting choice in the film is Isaac Andrews, who plays Him. Andrews is a blue-eyed English boy around age eleven or twelve, which invites the comparison between this notion of God and that nasty turd from Toy Story who tortures his toys for fun. Exodus: God and Kings concludes with Moses and the Jews almost finding their homeland. It also includes a scene in which Ramses holds his dead son in front of Moses and asks, “Is this the God you worship?” (He has a point). It is impossible for Hollywood to reconcile a sadistic God and the righteousness of the chosen people, so Scott bores his audience with the vain hope that they’ll forget this incongruity. His bold strategy does not work.

Scott’s obsession with the plausibility continues with the parting of the Red Sea, the most famous incident from the Book of Exodus. Moses is not responsible for the miracle; instead, there are a series of storms and tornadoes that drains a passage that makes it possible for the Jews to cross. The CGI is fabulous, with menacing waves and lots of lifeless Egyptian bodies, yet Scott blunders the climax with a misguided need for a character moment (no one would begrudge Moses or Ramses if they ran away from a giant fucking wave of death instead of meeting in the middle for reasons that I doubt Bale or Edgerton could explain). Exodus: Gods and Kings could have been a brilliant long-form music video, one that serves a highlight reel of God’s psychotic phase. But as a feature-length narrative film, Scott and his screenwriters are as lost as Moses in the desert.

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