This was the year that Hollywood tried to revive the Biblical epic, hoping to duplicate the success of 1950s smashes like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. It seemed like a long-shot, but Hollywood was willing to try anything (other than originality) to pull in audiences. But after Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre Noah and now Ridley Scott’s turgid Exodus: Gods and Kings, don’t be surprised if the idea quietly falls by the wayside and nobody in Los Angeles County mentions the Bible again until they’re called to swear upon it before testifying in court.
Exodus is based on the book of that name found near the beginning of the Old Testament, in which the Egyptian monarchy is infiltrated by a Hebrew baby who grows up to lead his people out of slavery, subsequently discovering Judaism. Scott’s version, from a screenplay with nearly as many authors as the Old Testament, doesn’t deviate too far from the basic skeleton of the Biblical account. You get your burning bush and your plagues and your Red Sea parting and whatnot, the whole package. But you also get Ramses (Joel Edgerton) arguing against abolition from an economic standpoint, and God appearing in the form of a young boy (a rather petulant one at that), bickering with His chosen prophet. So I don’t know if “faithful” is quite the word to describe the adaptation.
Our Moses is Christian Bale, a great actor who can only do so much with a character this underwritten (a word you wouldn’t think would apply to a movie with four credited screenwriters). At first reluctant to believe that he’s a Hebrew at all, let alone an important one, he gradually accepts his leadership role. But there’s no transformation, no nuanced shifting of Moses’ character and attitudes over time. He just, y’know, accepts it. What drives him? What are his motivations? He doesn’t want to do what Li’l Yahweh tells him to do … but then he keeps doing it. Why?
Isn’t answering questions like these (even speculatively) part of the reason you expand a folktale into a movie in the first place?
At some point we ought to feel inspired: Look what Moses has done! But you’d be hard-pressed to find a moment in this plodding beast that even seems like it WANTS to be inspiring, let alone actually IS. In clear emulation of the stately epics of yesteryear, Scott executes the whole thing like a pageant, without any sense of pace or momentum. This happens; then this happens; then another thing happens; then a fourth thing happens; etc. Were it not for the fact that Scott is a self-described atheist, you’d assume the dispassionate, middle-of-the-road treatment was the result of overprotective reverence for the source material. But if that’s not the explanation, I don’t know what is, other than Scott’s general late-career trend of making tiresome, overlong historical epics (albeit ones with some terrific visuals here and there).
There is also the matter of the film’s supporting weirdness, which is sufficient enough to raise eyebrows but not enough to make the film a you-gotta-see-this camp disaster. There’s John Turturro in heavy mascara as Ramses’ father; Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mother, speaking about two lines in her 60 seconds of screen time, making you wonder why she was cast in the first place; whiny Aaron Paul in embarrassing facial hair as Joshua; Ben Mendelsohn as a skeevy, pansexual viceroy; Ben Kingsley as — OK, Kingsley is actually pretty good as Joshua’s devout father. We’re not going to quibble there.
The film’s midsection is intriguing, when an incognito Moses leads the Hebrew slaves in acts of insurrection and rebellion — terrorism, basically, except it’s not terrorism when the good guys do it. Otherwise, this big dud isn’t blasphemous enough to be outrageous, emotional enough to be inspiring, or interesting enough to be good.
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