Exodus Gods & Kings was one of those ‘no-brainer’ films for me: it involved my favorite Old Testament figure and it was directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Prometheus, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, etc.) A dozen brave souls from church went together to see and discuss it, but the end result was a mashup of Cecil B. DeMille and scenes from Gladiator, without nearly the degree of introspection of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what new look Scott wanted to bring to the age-old story of Moses, God, the pharaoh, and “let my people go.”
The film has the look, at the right times elegant and at others gritty, as long as you can look past the two main Europeans, Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, playing Moses and Ramses. The special effects, from the chomping crocodiles to the burning bush to the crossing of the Red Sea, all have enough flash to make us think better of it. And the battle scenes, Scott’s period-piece flair, are hectic and action-packed.
I know from various interviews that Scott wanted to tell a big story with a naturalistic take on the various phenomena that are attended to in the Exodus event of the Old Testament. You’ll get no argument here that a certain amount of creative license has to go into the telling of an oft-told story. I’m not threatened by that: show me something that makes me think about it in a way I haven’t seen it before. But several points along the way left me wondering which story Scott was trying to tell.
#1 Scott seems to focus in on the Moses (Bale) versus Ramses (Edgerton) story from the get-go. There’s plenty of sibling rivalry (and Scott dedicates the film to his deceased brother and former creative partner, Tony) but the finale fails to emotionally connect us to the way that the two seem destined for confrontation. We understand Ramses wishes he had been his father’s favorite (Scott has him tell his sleeping child that he “sleeps well because he knows he’s loved” but Ramses can’t sleep) but the angst doesn’t develop organically (Sigourney Weaver as his mother is a blip on film). I see all of those earmarks in the first third of the film, but the middle and ending fail to satisfactorily wrap them all up.
The ‘other’ brother, Aaron (Andrew Tarbet), has few speaking lines, which is ironic, given that he’s the one appointed to do the talking because Moses isn’t much of a talker (Exodus 4:10-17). Of course, Scott needed Moses to be a warrior so Bale could play twelfth century B.C. Batman but to fail to investigate his hesitancy at speaking and leading doesn’t jive with the Maximus Decimus Meridius-like figure that Scott went for here.
#2 Moses is a faithless person, raised in the pharaoh’s palace without knowledge (subconsciously buried?) of his past life as an Israelite baby. He lacks the connection to the Israelites (which I get) but his transformation doesn’t really occur (from doubt to faith) until much later than seems necessary in the Biblical narrative. There’s no reason to expect his forth-with-it-ness throughout the story if he doesn’t believe. Of all of the points, this is the one that came closest to helping me re-examine the composite Moses in my head, but even it seems flat and not completely ripped into by the end of the film.
#3 God’s depiction and involvement as a direct actor and participant in the Biblical narrative is what ties the whole thing together. Here, he is a vengeful child, a figment of the imagination, a passing storm – all or none of the above. [If Moses is insane, then Aronofsky has already portrayed a Biblical figure as insane in a much more profound way.] But Ridley, intent on the humanistic take, fails to see that God is what drives this story, not Moses, in the Old Testament, even as he has Moses say, “This isn’t a very convincing story, or even a well-told one at that.” God acts in Exodus (the book) to move Moses, to move Pharaoh, to act divinely; in Scott’s version, God is nearly an afterthought. [It’s what leaves the Passover scene feeling empty, because sin and grace and protection aren’t unpacked (sheep or first/perfect sheep? Exodus 12), and it’s instead like Moses made it up.]
#4 Moses’ relationship with Zipporah (Exodus 2:21-22) shows a flash of romance, but seems to be a strange insert into the story; when we return to her character again, it’s one of several endings that Scott doesn’t seem happy with, as if he doesn’t know how to wrap the whole thing up without ending up in Canaan – and that would take forty years of wandering. Scott seems interested in these side stories to the main Moses narrative (like making Aaron Paul a contemporary of Bale’s Moses, as Joshua son of Nun (Ben Kingsley)) but none of them flesh-out, not even Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald), whose early scene may be the most compelling one on screen.
Finally, all of these good-but-not-great pieces scream a Director’s Cut. But after two-and-a-half hours of this, I was bored. Was the plague on the firstborn sons chilling? Of course! Were some of the scenes well-shot and powerful? Absolutely! But the script was too convoluted, the acting at times too ham-fisted (was that Moses or the Dark Knight in the stable scene?), and the overall package trailed off in the end like a story that didn’t know what to do with itself. For all of its differences from what I believe and think about the creation story, Noah was a better, more thought-provoking film.
Maybe Scott should’ve made Joseph: Slaves & Rulers and done better. He could’ve been epic, and not had to worry about God-as-character so much. I don’t mind the creative license to fill in the parts that are glossed over in the narrative, but to reduce God’s role to a fireside hallucination seems to be an adventure in missing the point. It’s a shame, because Moses is a figure we could all learn something from if shown in the right light.