Ridley Scott goes on down to Egypt land, and the results sure look expensive.
You’ve honored me with your trust — I honor you with my faith.
Two hours into 2014’s latest — and last — Bible Epic, Moses has led the Hebrews to the shore of the Red Sea, whose waters have supernaturally receded. As he readies them to cross, a random former slave jumps out from the crowd, whinging. You’re leading us to our deaths, he says! You’ve brought us nothing but trouble! Moses shuts him down, but now I’m thinking: who the heck was that guy, and why does it feel like we’re supposed to know? How long was the original cut of this movie?
Working from a script cobbled together by four different writers, Exodus: Gods and Kings as released takes the approach of “Yeah, yeah, you know the story — let’s just get to the good bits.” So there’s no connective tissue between scenes; we lurch forward through a “greatest hits” of the book of Exodus, trimming the same story told by Cecil B. DeMille in four hours to a relatively propulsive two and a half. I say “relatively” because while the action-driven first and third acts are actually pretty exciting, the middle stretch is a dreadful bore. But I’ll get to that.
You’ve probably heard about the controversy, how Exodus continues that inglorious Hollywood tradition of casting white actors in ethnic (especially “Bible-ethnic”) roles. And, it’s true, no amount of bronzing and guyliner can make Aussie Joel Edgerton look Egyptian. Director Ridley Scott, no stranger to the sword-and-sandal genre, made boorishly honest comments about how the film could never have gotten financed if he hadn’t cast actors known to Western audiences — i.e., white people. That’s why we have Ben Kingsley, and (inexplicably) John Turturro as Seti; that’s why we have six-foot-tall Sigourney Weaver hamming it up in her three scenes as Seti’s wife, and that’s definitely why we have Christian Bale grimacing (though grimacing well) through the lead role. But the truth is, good performances and good filmmaking can make you forget about these sort of inconsistencies — Exodus just doesn’t always hold up its end of the bargain. When it does, it puts the “awe” back in “awesome.” When it doesn’t…woof.
Which is funny, because if any Judeo-Christian release this year is poised to make a splash, it’s this one. Its intended audience already savaged Darren Aronofsky’s Noah earlier this Spring, for apparently having the gall to put emotional, risk-taking storytelling ahead of the letter of Scripture. I loved Noah, and I still defend it, because regardless of what you thought of Aronofsky’s take, you can’t deny that he had a clear (if bonkers) artistic vision. That was art, or at least attempted art, in a way that the more down-the-middle, “realistic” Exodus is not. Like Aronofsky, Ridley Scott is on the record as a non-believer, but where the former dove head-first into the spirituality of his central character anyway, Scott only pays it lip service. You can tell Bale and Edgerton (who have said they did a lot of research) are really trying to get it right. Was Scott?
Bale’s Moses is essentially presented as a crazy person, an angry general, who gets his instructions from a boy-angel messenger with a British accent who no one else can see. He pushes back, he complains; he tells the cranky cherub more than once that the God he has only recently accepted has gone too far. Most of these exchanges are witnessed by Joshua (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul), who never brings it up to Moses. Actually, Joshua doesn’t really comment on much of anything, and when he does Paul is struggling with the accent, but he sets some kind of record for “most silently goggle-eyed reaction shots” by the film’s end. I’d call it a drinking game, but I don’t want to put you in the hospital.
(That said, I’d be up for a Jericho sequel with Aaron Paul back in the role, because his wild-eyed magnetism is strangely compelling given his lack of dialogue. But that
could just be is definitely my inner Jesse Pinkman fanboy talking.)
The point is, Exodus has a lot of under-developed ideas, as the film is more interested in hitting its obligatory story beats as quickly as possible than making them mean anything. I’d have liked more reflection on Moses’s psychological state. I’d have liked the film to have explored Ramses’s supposed deity as Pharaoh, and how Ramses really feels about that. The closest we get is a weakly-acted monologue (though Edgerton does have much better moments) that culminates in Ramses shouting “I AM A GOD,” while tapping his chest like a professional wrestler. Way too many characters in this film are annoyingly petulant. Even boy-God is petulant.
Even the underrated, animated The Prince of Egypt put most of its story chips on Moses and Ramses as brothers, where Exodus doesn’t really commit to that, either. But that’s an unfair line of debate, especially when there’s so much time to spend with Moses’s boring wife and boring son! That the film grinds to a halt when Moses goes into exile is, I suppose, a problem with the source material (that’s a joke), but it also provides some of the dumbest dialogue in a screenplay that’s not exactly full of winners. (At least DeMille’s The Ten Commandments has camp. Exodus has precisely one joke.)
Thankfully, once Moses returns to Memphis, Scott brings out the big guns and doesn’t let up. There’s one interesting addition here in not making the Hebrews entirely passive while Moses does his thing: it makes a degree of sense that, with 400,000 of them, there’d be some kind of guerrilla uprising on the fringes, even if the cost of that is a goofy training montage set to Alberto Iglesias’s overwrought score. (Truly, it is not good.) But when we get to the plagues and all that follows, the film does not disappoint. These are dramatic, highly cinematic sequences that simultaneously follow the laws of nature while showing a divine hand (kind of like Aronofsky’s spectacular “have it both ways” Creation sequence in Noah.) The depiction of the tenth plague, the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn, carries a brutal, horrifying weight — a flash of what the film could have been if it played things a little less safe.
I picture Scott in a pre-production meeting, talking about how to make the plagues “realistic.” Okay, so the river fills with blood, which leads to dead animals and flies, and boils — that all works — but how do we get the blood in the first place? There is a pause. Then, the idea: “HUNDREDS OF CROCODILES.” Okay, sure. But it’s cool! That’s something, right? The entire film looks terrific, with the massive (real) sets and expansive locations (which reminded me at times of Lawrence of Arabia, which was also shot in Spain) complementing Darisuz Wolski’s cinematography. The final sequence on the floor of the Red Sea is stunningly designed and directed, in an old-school way — Scott’s finest moment since 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven. (The Director’s Cut, not the abortive theatrical version, which makes me wonder if Exodus will have a similar fate. I sincerely hope it will.)
In the end, the film’s arc builds not just to the slaves being freed, but in Moses finally seeing those slaves as his people. Which is an interesting angle to take with a mostly-earned payoff, if not the most accurate. Sticking closely to the text is not a requirement for me, but if the story the film is telling is muddled and uncommitted, that’s not good either. Yet Exodus does not want for visual splendor; it’s a transportive epic that sweeps you up and deposits you on the shore, with little memory of what you just experienced save a few well-lit images. (Not even a post-credits scene, with the guys eating Shawarma after the battle.) A disappointment, but not a crushing one; if the first commandment of filmmaking is “Thou Shalt Entertain,” Exodus: Gods and Kings has kept it.