Exodus: Gods and Kings wants to be all things to all people. It’s a Biblical epic, but to make sure all those hip atheistic youngsters are on board, Ridley Scott has attempted to remove God from proceedings. Whether you’re a Bible reader or a Bible-basher, this clearly can’t end well. The feats achieved by Moses (Christian Bale) in his quest to lead the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt are of such immensity and scale that attempts to remove divine intervention actually serve to make the story more unbelievable. The wonder has been drained from the Exodus story, leaving behind what must surely be the most boring cinematic adaptation of Moses’ life thus far.
Opening on wide sweeping shots of ancient cities on the Nile, we encounter our first problem. Exodus is drowning in CG vistas, with little sense of a grounding in reality or historical context. Moses is a general in the army of aging pharaoh Seti, played by John Turturro delivering pronouncements in his unabashed Brooklyn drawl while seeking counsel from Indira Varma’s priestess and her chicken entrails. The favour Moses curries with Seti begins to get up the nose of Seti’s son, crown prince Rameses (Joel Edgerton). In the Bible story, Moses was adopted by the royal family as an escapee of Seti’s purge of Hebrew infants, but Exodus loses a lot of emotional setup and contextualisation in excess dialogue. Most every film version of this story to date knows that the fraternal bond between Moses and Rameses is a vital lynchpin amongst all the plagues and burning bushes, but Exodus fails to make us care. An early battle against the Hittites attempts to frame their relationship, but it’s used more as an opportunity to show that Scott can still direct ancient action nearly a decade and a half after Gladiator.
Indeed, Exodus owes a big debt to Gladiator, not least in its attempts to frame a personal story within a political context. Gladiator’s script mixed real historical figures into a story that was largely gubbins, but it had sufficient dramatic and action heft to make the story work. Exodus’ story is so well known that any attempt to recontextualize the story requires steady writing and a clear directorial vision. Scott still maintains a keen eye, and retains the sterling services of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, but his apparent weakness for half-baked scripts (Prometheus, The Counsellor) is slowly dragging the overall quality of his CV down. It’ s genuinely disappointing to see such names as Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) attached to this.
After being outed as an Israelite, and years of banishment in Midian, Moses is compelled to go back to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. He gets his orders from God, here represented by a small child with an English accent and a petulant attitude. Scott and the script attempt to introduce some ambiguity to this scenario by having Moses be the only one able to see the God-child, but if that is the case then the ten plagues are just a series of tragic coincidences that beset Egypt around the same time. Anyway, the plagues are CG-laden and rather forgettable as set-pieces go. It’s hard to care about CG beasties attaching a CG landscape. God may be missing from Exodus, but the exclusion of any recognisable or interesting characters is a greater loss.
Amongst the cast forced to wade through the ponderously drab script, Bale escapes with his dignity largely intact. He rarely gets histrionic, but even when he does it doesn’t match his shenanigans on the set of Terminator: Salvation. Some very respectable names come and go with very little to do, most notably Ben Kingsley as Hebrew elder Nun, and Signourney Weaver as Seti’s wife. A reunion between the star and director of Alien should offer something exciting, but Weaver gets about three lines of dialogue before scarpering to cash her paycheque. Between an unflattering head shave, some cheesy dialogue and little character development, Edgerton is left with little choice but to be awful. One scene finds him shouting out at Moses “I am the God!” As a grown man, having to bellow a line like that must hurt. At least Ben Mendelsohn has the cajones to look embarrassed as a viceroy; he camps up his performance in an effort to stand out from the depressed pile of a film around him.
A production like Exodus involves a large cast playing dress-up in awkward costumes making unlikely pronouncements; it’s unlikely to be taken seriously, so a director would be as well to go for broke and make it fun. Alas, Exodus plays it straight. The production is dour, and a particularly dark 3D conversion does not help. There’s no sense of lightness or enjoyability to the film, so audience enthusiasm is long drained by the time the climactic Red Sea sequence rolls along. (Though the 2.5 hour runtime doesn’t help either) The last major adaptation of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt, made the story both accessible and dramatically satisfying. Even at its most insane, this year’s Noah kept the audience on board. With Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott appears to have completely forgotten the first rule of filmmaking: thou shalt not bore.