Silver Screen: Exodus: Gods and Kings *1/2
The operative question in Exodus: Gods and Kings is, just who exactly is this movie intended for? Heathens and scoffers likely won’t find much reason to invest a full two-and-a-half hours in a Bible epic— it feels an awful lot like sitting through church. Yet the faithful will likely blanch at the story’s revisionism, which attempts to rationalize the supernatural elements of the source material and remain coy about whether or not Moses truly was a divinely inspired prophet. Too often big-budget Hollywood movies are calculated to please everyone. Here director Ridley Scott seems eager to please no one, and to that end he has succeeded.
You probably already know the story of Moses, unless you’re one of those people who’s going to hell. (Kidding! There’s a good chance you’re going to hell anyway.) Ridley Scott’s version of Moses, played by Christian Bale, is a battling badass more prone to action-movie montages than pious pontificating. He might be a son of Abraham, but cinematically he’s a descendant of Spartacus, Audie Murphy, and Gladiator’s Maximus. He’s the right hand man of Pharaoh-to-be Ramses (Joel Edgerton), whose own father (John Turturro) doubts his son’s capacity for leadership.
Moses is mildly sympathetic but mostly indifferent to the plight of the Jewish slaves conscripted to build pyramids and monuments in honor of Ramses. He has a change of heart when Jewish elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) reveals to him that he’s descended from the Hebrew line, was placed in a basket, and floated down the river to save him from King Herod’s decree that all Jewish firstborn sons must be killed to stop the coming of a prophet.
What points Moses toward his destiny has less to do with familial revelations than a bonk on the noggin. After abandoning Egypt, Moses settles down in a small desert outpost where he gets hitched and has a son. While tending his land he’s caught in a rockslide and takes a boulder right between the eyes. Unconscious, he dreams that God comes to him in the form of a prepubescent boy (eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews) and demands that he help in the holy quest to rough up the Egyptians and lead the Jews out of slavery.
Scott takes a realist/historical approach to the Moses story, which is akin to attempting to stay dry while winning a diving competition. Say what you will about the Bible— some of the reviews I’ve read on Amazon have been pretty harsh— one of its core tenants is faith in the face of the seemingly impossible. Scott attempts to discard the majesty in favor of dry rationalizations. Thus, the river runs red not just with blood but clay after a mysterious influx of alligators. The tainted water causes the fish to die, the dead fish draw clouds of flies, the flies spread disease that causes boils and skin rashes, et cetera. It’s something like Rube Goldberg’s design of seven plagues.
God’s punchline at the end of the natural disasters is to take the life of the firstborn Egyptians, while the Hebrews who paint lamb’s blood over their doorways are spared. This development Scott cedes almost entirely to direct divine intervention, which begs the question: Why try to find a scientific explanation for the previous plagues? Later, in the grand finale, Moses doesn’t so much part the Red Sea as just notice that the tide is receding faster than usual and urges everyone to cross. In all of this hem-hawing about the veracity of miracles, Scott manages to water down a sacred text without doing anything significant to sway the unconverted.
Exodus is an airless, humorless affair that’s competently staged but impressive only in its scale. It seems not divinely inspired but mandated, as though Scott was forced by his confirmation-class teacher to film a report on a book from the Bible. Not only does it not contribute any ideas about the vexing questions of human existence, it doesn’t make a case for its own existence. If swordfighting, computer-generated warfare, and a lack of judicious editing is what you seek, just wait for the slightly more fun version in the next Hobbit movie, which will at least make up its mind that dragons are real.
Exodus’s most entertaining moments come in the form of unintentional laughs. Christian Bale must have a sense of humor— he was awfully funny in American Hustle, The Fighter, and American Psycho— but his default mode is grim-faced shouting. That only makes it funnier when Ben Kingsley’s character shares with Moses his true origins, and Bale argues back, “It cannot be, I am not a Hebrew!” That’s for sure. You’re a white Welshman named Christian; the only way you could be less Jewish is if you worked Saturdays at a factory that made crosses out of bacon. The decidedly un-Semitic nature of the cast is a kind of constant running gag. When you get bored during the movie— not if, but when— I recommend passing the time by trying to guess just how much Scott must have spent on bronzer to make all these actors brown-ish enough to be pseudo-historically accurate.
Less-amusing is Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as a nefarious, backstabbing viceroy whose prissy affect carries an ugly streak of homophobia. The viceroy is far and away the film’s most loathsome character, treated with much less sympathy than slavemaster Ramses himself, and the depths of his depravity are hinted at when he eyes Bale’s bulky frame and makes a clumsy pass at him. Whether this is a bit of red meat thrown to the conservative fanbase or just the kind of kneejerk homophobia that has long equated “gay” and “villain” in the movies, it’s shamefully outdated.
Exodus: Gods and Kings does bring to mind one Biblical concept. The closest thing Christians have to a Zen koan is “Could God create a boulder so heavy he cannot lift it?” Exodus begs the question, “Could Ridley Scott create a movie so boring not even God himself can finish it?”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.