A lot of critics hate Ridley Scott. A lot hate blockbusters. A lot hate religious movies. Some hate a combination of the three. What can I say? In the immortal words of President Thomas Jefferson, “Haters gonna hate.”
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
The Plot: Moses (Christian Bale) has lived his whole life as a prince of Egypt, cousin to Prince Ramses, later Pharaoh Ramses II (Joel Edgerton). His world comes crashing down when a Hebrew slave, Nun (Ben Kingsley), informs him that he was born Hebrew. Since not being Egyptian is basically like having leprosy, Ramses expels his lifelong friend from court, but refuses to execute him. Moses’ wanderings in exile eventually lead him to have a vision of God (Isaac Andrews), who commands Moses to return to Egypt and free the 400,000 Hebrew slaves from the vicious tyranny of the pharaoh.
2014: the year of the Old Testament blockbuster. Nah, that’s an overstatement. True, though, earlier this year we saw the release of the half-good Noah, but that hardly constitutes a “year of” title. Aronofsky’s spin delved deeply into the psychology of isolation and the moral quandaries of living under a wrathful God. He also added in a bunch of violence and CGI. Exodus sets out with a similar goal, but executes it differently, because though Ridley Scott is a highly visual filmmaker, he manages to avoid the seduction of computers pretty well. At the core of the film beats a complicated triangle relationship between Moses, Ramses, and God. Ramses of course doesn’t communicate directly with the Hebrew God, but his status as a living god falters under the seven plagues of Egypt, and he suffers a crisis of power. It might pay off to take a closer look at each of these three characters.
Moses is treated not as a Biblical hero, but a modern one. Having lived his entire life as an Egyptian noble, he has no respect for the Jews or their ways, and when the truth finally hits him, he doesn’t immediately convert. He struggles with his faith and his position in the world, especially when the plagues hit. What he doesn’t realize is that his reluctance and contemplative nature makes him the ideal leader for the Jews. He wants to lead a bunch of slaves to freedom in… you guessed it, Israel, which means… you guessed it again, “Wrestles with God.” How about that? Christian Bale performs aptly, but has some weird issues with his voice. His accent waivers inconsistently and he sometimes sounds like he has marbles in his mouth. Given the prominence of the Batman films in his career, I wonder if future generations will look back on Bale as a great actor with the strangest voice issues ever.
Edgerton’s Ramses is one of the film’s strengths. He approaches a difficult role, both as being one of the villains of The Bible, which I gather is a fairly popular book, and because the last major live action adaptation of the story featured an iconic performance by the indispensable Yul Brynner. I would not want to try to follow Yul Brynner. That’s actor suicide. Fortunately, Edgerton makes the role his own, and the filmmakers don’t vilify him too much. He goes kind of power-crazy, but Edgerton plays all his cruelty as the result of deep-seated insecurities from a life of superstition and the shock of losing the man he viewed as a brother. This paints Ramses not as a tyrant, but as a naïve man totally ill-suited to lead. It doesn’t help that everyone tells him he’s a god.
Speaking of God, I’m not sure whose decision it was—writers, director, casting director—to cast a ten-year-old boy in the role, but it worked. This unique interpretation totally skews the vision of the wrath, and adds a much darker tinge to the already dark God of the Old Testament. For any readers out there unfamiliar with Christian and Jewish scripture, this is not the “Peace and good will to all” God of Christmas, this is the “Ugh, looks like humanity really screwed up the earth again, better flood the whole thing and start over” God. They’re different. Making him a child sort of gives the impression that the Egyptian gods have been picking on him and pushing him around for the last few centuries and he’s fed up. Now it’s his turn to be the bully. Boom. Plagues.
Sorry, I keep referencing the plagues. Again, for anyone not already familiar with this story, God unleashes seven plagues onto Egypt when Ramses refuses to emancipate the Jews. They range in nastiness from storms of hail and rivers running red to locusts eating all of the crops. The seventh one is the worst, and if you were going to leave one out in order to make the good guys good and the bad guys bad, this would be it. 3,000-YEAR-OLD SPOILERS AHEAD. In the final plague, God kills every non-Hebrew first born child in the Egyptian capital, including Ramses’ infant son. It’s worth mentioning that about 1,400 years go by before He considers peace and good will to all. This not only provides an excellent acting opportunity for Edgerton, but Scott graces us with a wonderful shot of Moses standing alone on a rooftop, listening to the sounds of parents across the city discovering their dead children.
And this is where they missed their mark. Did I make that sound like a good moment? A thought-provoking scene? I hope so, because it was, but the rest of the film rather lacked in that respect. Ridley Scott’s last religious epic, Kingdom of Heaven, is such a great movie because beneath its story and characters runs an underlying philosophical conversation about morality and faith, analyzed from different angles through a wide variety of characters on both sides of the Crusades, and presented in a way that makes it relevant to contemporary audiences while still preserving the feeling of the historical era. It seems like it would have been really easy to stick one of those into Exodus, but they didn’t. They have their story and their characters, and they ably tell the tale they want to tell, but at the end of the two-and-a-half hours, you feel a little empty. The film doesn’t resonate at all; it’s just entertainment. It’s like Guardians of the Galaxy: fun to look at, but ultimately kind of pointless.
Exodus is fun to look at, too. Scott’s an old fashioned director in many ways, and that’s one of his strengths. He opts for using real sets and extras where he can, and doesn’t succumb to the spectacle of the ancient world too much. Even the parting of the Red Sea is restrained. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott will suffer the bulk of the blame for the film’s shortcomings, as he did for Prometheus, but the fault lies with the writers. Scott’s a visual director, and makes visually beautiful movies whether or not they’re good in other respects. Exodus isn’t bad, but it is missing a heart.