Ridley Scott really should have quit while he was ahead. Yes, Alien is an immortal masterpiece, Blade Runner is a classic by any definition, and even Gladiator was a very good film. But what has he given us more recently? Between the infamous failure of Prometheus and the baffling misfire called The Counselor, to say nothing of his already-forgotten Robin Hood retelling, Ridley Scott’s reputation isn’t nearly as pristine as it used to be. Sure, a couple of bad movies could just be a dry spell, but the man is 77 years old. How much does he have left in the tank, really?
So here’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Ridley Scott attempts to dramatize the story of Moses. I’ll say this for Scott, he’s not afraid to swing for the fences. I was very much looking forward to reviewing this one, given the talent involved, the sheer scale of the production, and the present status of Scott’s career. This could either have been a triumphant return to form for Scott or a failure so catastrophic that it would be the final nail in the coffin. So let’s see how things worked out.
We’ll start with the cast, because I was never one for avoiding an elephant in the room. There’s been a great deal of controversy around this movie, specifically with regard to casting white actors in Middle Eastern roles. Scott himself has already commented on this, stating that he couldn’t get funding for a project of this size (much less box office returns or awards buzz enough to justify it) without some A-list actors. And sadly, the list of Middle Eastern actors with that kind of star power could be counted on no hands.
And you know what? In theory, that’s fine. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Fair enough. In execution, however, that excuse only goes so far.
Sure it explains why Christian Bale got cast as Moses, since he’s on top of the world right now. It could even explain Joel Edgerton as Rameses, since he’s a wonderful actor whose profile has steadily been rising these past few years. And Ben Kingsley? The guy has so much credibility and he’s played so many different ethnicities in his career that his presence needs no excuse. But then things start to break down.
Take Ben Mendelsohn, for example, here playing a slimy viceroy in charge of the Hebrew slaves. He’s a solid character actor, sure, but I can’t imagine that funding ever depended on his getting cast and he was never going to get any awards buzz for such a two-dimensional role, so what’s he doing here? Likewise, Aaron Paul may be a good actor, but he’s not a huge audience draw and he plays such a small role that anyone else could have taken his place, so what’s with the white guy?
Then there’s Sigourney Weaver, who was criminally misused in this picture. Ridley Scott reunites with Ellen Fucking Ripley, and she only gets maybe two or three lines? What the hell?! Oh, and John Turturro is almost as bad. He was cast as the Pharaoh, father of Rameses and foster father of Moses. This guy is supposed to be the wise and benevolent ruler of Egypt that Rameses and Moses aspire to be like. The mentor and loving father figure of Moses himself. And it’s John Turturro. Of all people. Bald and wearing enough kohl that he looks like a clown. No. Sorry, but no. Just no.
Last but not least, it really doesn’t look good when pretty much all of the major roles are played by white people dressed up in so much kohl that they look like stereotypical Egyptians (does that count as a kind of blackface?) while most of the slaves and disposable background characters are played by dirty brown people. There are exceptions, however. Some of the background characters, for instance, are caked in so much dirt that it’s hard to tell what their skin color is. We’ve also got Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She’s played by Maria Valverde, a talented and exotic beauty from the faraway land of… Madrid, Spain. That’s better, I guess?
All racial gripes aside, how’s the rest of the movie? Well, let’s start with the main antagonist. I get what the filmmakers were going for with Rameses on paper. Rameses loves his adoptive brother dearly, but he still holds himself above Moses because of his birth. Yet he also recognizes — as their father does — that Moses is clearly the better leader and the better man, which makes him jealous to no end. After all, Rameses is heir to the throne of Egypt, entitled to all the power and godhood that the position of Pharaoh entails. Ramses thinks he can handle that level of power simply because of his bloodline, but the awful truth is that he just can’t handle it.
The basic idea of the character is fine. In practice, Rameses was written, directed, and performed to place the character beyond hope. Rameses is made to look like a whiny and spoiled bully without even the slightest hint of ability to govern. If Rameses had any regard for his people, or if he was capable of doing anything except cracking down with brute force, he might have come off as a tragic figure who fails despite his good intentions and best efforts. That would have been far more interesting than the guy who so consistently makes the worst possible decision every single time that it begs the question of why Egypt hasn’t already crumbled to pieces under his regime. It’s not even any fun to see this guy lose, it’s just pathetic. Which brings me to Moses.
At the start of the film, Moses is okay. He comes off as a perfectly serviceable ubermensch, equally capable as a compassionate leader and a formidable warrior, and of course the erstwhile Bruce Wayne can sell it. It also bears mentioning that Moses is a more rational and sensible leader, without regard for any godly omens, prophecies, superstitions, etc. Until the burning bush appears. And this is where the movie steadily starts to go downhill.
See, this movie portrays God as a petulant little kid (played by Isaac Andrews), which is oddly appropriate for the jealous and vengeful God of the Old Testament. But of course there are drawbacks as well. An example comes when Moses is called upon to be the general who marshalls the Hebrews to fight for their freedom. So Moses leads the Hebrews in guerilla warfare to attack the Egyptian supply lines, like you do when attacking a far greater force. But then God comes back and says “You’re taking way too long, Moses. You hang back and let me handle this.”
Well, why did you call him in the first place, then?! If God was just going to unleash the plagues anyway without Moses’ help and free the slaves that way, why is Moses even in this movie?!
Then we have the plagues, which take up pretty much the entire back half of the second act. This movie takes a curious approach to the plagues and miracles, in that they could just as easily be the result of natural phenomena as divine intervention (or both). Even when God appears to Moses, that happens in such a way that Moses could just be some delusional hallucinating nutjob. This works as a novel approach toward the issue of faith, as the characters (and the audience) are left to interpret the cause of all this misery and figure out what can be done about it. But of course there’s a trade-off. After all, we don’t want to see Hebrews wade to freedom through low tide, we want to see Moses part the goddamn Red Sea!
Perhaps more importantly, because the plagues and miracles are depicted in such a way that they could either be caused by God and/or nature, Moses has nothing to do with them. This means that through a significant chunk of the film — half an hour at least — and some of the most iconic parts in the story, our protagonist is doing precisely nothing. He could’ve been casting these spells and curses against his better judgment in service of a God he blindly believes in, or maybe he was just a crazy person waving a stick while all the coincidental mayhem goes on. Either one could’ve been way more provocative and compelling than watching Moses sit and twiddle his thumbs. Moreover, we’re left to watch wholesale death and destruction by endless swarms of CGI. Sure it’s impressive to watch and the epic scale is very admirably presented, but this empty VFX spectacle seems more at home in a Roland Emmerich film than a Ridley Scott jam.
Another big problem with Moses and his nasty habit of doing nothing is that it strains his credibility as a leader. Through pretty much the entire movie, Moses is in charge entirely because of some prophecy that everyone believes for some reason. Even when Moses is clearly talking to a God that no one else can see, no one questions his authority until the climax, and that tension lasts for all of half a minute. It doesn’t feel like Moses has truly earned his place among the Hebrews, and considering that this is supposed to be an origin story for Moses, that’s a deal-breaking problem.
I’ll say this about Exodus: Gods and Kings: For a Ridley Scott movie, it’s a very good Roland Emmerich movie. The scale is appropriately epic and the visuals are wonderful throughout, but its more intellectual and spiritual ideas fall hopelessly flat. The cast does a good job with what they have, though some are barely given anything (Weaver), some are hopelessly miscast (Turturro) and some were doomed to fail despite their best efforts (Edgerton).
The best thing that I can say about this movie is that it works as a brainless CGI extravaganza, and I expect more than that from a Biblical epic. Moreover, I expect more from the man who gave us such mind-blowing works of fiction as Alien and Blade Runner. The time has officially come for Scott to quit coasting on those laurels. If he can’t pull something out of his hat that amounts to more than a good idea with clumsy execution, then it’s time for the guy to retire with what dignity he has left.