Film Review – Exodus: Gods and Kings
Exodus: Gods and Kings
When the cast for Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) was announced, there was controversy over the ethnicities of the characters. In retelling the biblical story of Moses and the escape of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, a Welshman was cast as the lead (Christian Bale), an Australian was cast as Ramses (Joel Edgerton), and an Italian-American from Brooklyn was cast as Ramses’ father (John Turturro). In fact, the only actors that appear ethnically appropriate (African/Egyptian) play slaves, enemies, or supporting characters that are easily dismissed. Hollywood (and cinema in general) has had a long history of casting performers in roles outside their own race. But there’s something with this film that feels deliberately insensitive. Seeing the featured actors wearing makeup and eyeliner to change their ethnic backgrounds didn’t sit right.
But ignoring that element for a moment, this is one of the most strangely casted movies to come out this year. Weird to say, given the director is Ridley Scott. Whether you enjoy his work or not, we can almost always be assured that a “Ridley Scott Film” will look good, and will feature a strong cast. Only one of those translated through here. Along with the leads, we also have names such as Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kinglsey. There is nothing wrong with them as actors, but they fill empty roles far below their skills. Sigourney Weaver sadly has the least to work with, as her character Tuya – mother to Ramses – is relegated to a plain observer. Why cast such strong names and give them nothing to do?
The story…well, you already know it, don’t you? Moses and Ramses grow up as princes, Moses learns of his past and relinquishes his power, receives a message from God, and returns to Egypt to confront Ramses and free the Hebrews. There’s some plagues, water turns to blood, a sea separates in half – been there, done that. The story is so familiar that there isn’t much in the way of surprises. The challenge Scott had was to execute it in a different and fresh way. That didn’t happen. The screenplay (credited to Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian) has a clinical way of unfolding the plot, leaving out all the heart and dramatic tension.
This was meant to be a grand, epic experience. But try as they might, the filmmakers could not get that sense of awe or amazement over the events that take place. When a plague of frogs descends on the land or when a hailstorm crashes in, no one really stops and considers how impossible this all is. Scott doesn’t take enough time to allow these catastrophes to settle in and really make an impact, he seems intent to move forward and get to the next chapter. Because of this, these incredible acts – however beautifully rendered they look on screen – end up being underwhelming. The parting of the Red Sea comes off more like a simple low tide rather than a stunning set piece.
There is a cold, mean spirited tone. Moses doesn’t return to Egypt as a prophet pleading with Ramses to let his people go – he comes as a warrior of a vengeful God, spouting threats of terrible things if his demands aren’t met. This Moses even wields a sword, and isn’t afraid to put blood on it. Scott misses an opportunity to ramp up the drama between Moses and Ramses. These are two men who grew up as brothers, who loved each other, and fought together side by side. To be enemies all these years later could have made for a great stand off, particularly between two very good dramatic actors. Christian Bale has more of the straight role, and plays the character as such. Joel Edgerton employs the Brad Pitt, “constantly eating something” approach, having the most fun with his role. The two work well together, but their relationship is never developed. All of that is done away with. They’re painted in stark contrast: Moses is good, Ramses is bad, and nothing in the middle.
Ridley Scott has always had a reputation for making good-looking movies. This is no exception. Sets, costumes, and props are all designed remarkably. The art direction has a tangible, real world feel to it, we can sense how big (and expensive) the production was. Practical effects are intertwined with CG effects seamlessly. I was most impressed by scenes taking place inside the pyramids or in Ramses’ home, where large columns, marble floors, and painted walls make their presence known around the characters. If anything, it must have been fun to work inside such elaborate sets.
But that is the problem with Exodus: Gods and Kings. Everything that works stays on a surface level, leaving us with a film that’s vacant and soulless. Even if we don’t consider the racial problems in casting, the emotional motivations are flimsy at best. No amount of pretty visuals can mask clunky dialogue and thinly veiled characters. There’s no denying Ridley Scott as a master of craft, but beneath the shell is where the cracks start to show.