Sometimes you review a movie and can’t quite figure out where to begin. That is not the case with Exodus: Gods and Kings; one of the film’s biggest issues is right there on the porcelain-white surface. I’ll let director Ridley Scott take it from here: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t come up.” He’s got a point – why even consider ethnically appropriate actors when you can make a movie about ancient Hebrews and Egyptians starring superstars like Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, and Aaron Paul? The closed-mindedness that Scott exhibits here is incredibly frustrating, and that very notion ought to invalidate the movie entirely. But it was made and released regardless, so reviews must be written.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (a subtitle that really does nothing to clarify the film itself) depicts roughly the same story that you are familiar with from Sunday school. In pre-common era Egypt, Moses (Christian Bale), raised as a member of Pharoah’s (John Turturro) family, must turn against Ramesses (Edgerton), the man he considered a brother, upon learning his true lineage: the biological son of Hebrew slaves. After years in exile, Moses returns with a newfound conviction to see his people freed, and after much debate and many plagues, new Pharoah Ramesses agrees, but he reconsiders the decision soon after, with deadly consequences.
Sorry if there were any vague spoilers in that description, but everyone knows this story already. And for good reason, as it is one of the better bits in the Old Testament. Scott and the screenwriters (including – but probably not limited to – Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian) take liberties with the “true story,” but one cannot be so precious with source material. Fans are becoming more and more accepting of changes to properties based on comic books, and those are just as realistic as the story of Moses.
One aspect that the filmmakers choose to put a lot of focus on is the contentious relationship between Moses and God. The God in Exodus: Gods and Kings is absolutely the petty and vindictive God from the Old Testament. He’s not kind and forgiving – he makes you pay for your sins. And pay. And pay. The way that he (or “He”, I guess) interacts with Moses is such an interesting dynamic, even in the book. These guys bicker and makeup and get jealous. It’s really like a marriage. A tragic one, as ultimately God is so insecure that He won’t even let Moses enter the promised land after 40 years in the desert. Because Moses got a little cocky. See what I mean? This is great stuff. And Scott and company play with the relationship. God is represented by a young boy (Isaac Andrews) in the film, and neither character is afraid to speak his mind to the other. Moses is skeptical and proud, while God is kind of petulant and a bit of an asshole (let me cover my tracks by saying, if God does exist, I’m talking about the character here, not you big guy). They play off of each other really well, which is a testament to Andrews’ ability, as Bale can be tough to hang with.
This conflict (a literal embodiment of “man vs. god”) is often ignored by re-tellings of the exodus story, but it’s inclusion here is one of the few bright spots. It doesn’t help that the film cannot avoid being compared to an entire list of depictions of the same story, particularly the strongest entry in that’s series of films: The Prince of Egypt. The animated feature is a giant in the expanding field of biblical film, built mostly on this strong brotherly bond that is sadly broken between Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) and Ramesses (Ralph Fiennes).
It’s not fair to say so, but Exodus really can’t stand up The Prince of Egypt in that regard. Because the newer film focuses so much on this God-Moses interplay, everything else suffers. Ramesses is barely a character, existing only say “no” when Moses makes his famous request (I don’t think he ever actually says “let my people go” – a letdown, for sure). I suppose Edgerton is giving it his best, but there isn’t much to work with, and the actor ultimately just looks out of place. His presence does yield one of my favorite shots of the year, however, which is a fire-lit shot of Ramesses brooding while draped in a snake. The character has no real motivation, which is roughly true to the original story, though in that version God is hardening Pharoah’s resistance on purpose, to make sure a lesson is conveyed. There’s none of that here, even though it would have gone further in making God the almost-villain that the filmmakers are moving toward
That’s a tricky concept to try to pull off in a Hollywood film, so credit where credit is due. Ultimately the anti-war message gets lost and confused in the wake of God’s actions. Neither Moses not God are likable; That is a conscious decision by the filmmakers, but also acts as a difficult sell when none of the other characters are developed enough to identify with. All that’s left is a cold skeleton covered in rough CGI skin. And that CGI skin is most definitely white. Everyone involved is capable of more than they showcase here, and that includes audience members like myself who paid to see it in the first place.