Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

exodus-gods-and-kings-christian-bale-joel-edgerton-600x398In response to the incessant whining from proselytizing atheists on their minority religious opinion not being recognized or heard, agnostic and rabid non-believing comedian Marc Maron said, “because it’s shrill and annoying and no one really wants to hear it.” Self-righteous atheist evangelicals are very real whether they’re the four horseman of the non-apocalypse—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (RIP), Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—or your self-congratulatory neighbor of reasonable enlightenment who annoyingly says moral people don’t need religion while never bothering to volunteer time at any charitable organization. It’s not that the point of view isn’t valid, but you begin to wonder what the end game is to disproving, demystifying, and denigrating stories that are based on faith and were written with a moral, historical, and cultural context in mind. Context, however, isn’t the concern of director Ridley Scott in his latest film Exodus: Gods and Kings since he turns a story of destiny, betrayal, and freedom into a historical and biblical farce of epic proportions. One doesn’t have to be biblically dogmatic or historically accurate to retell this tale of two men who were practically brothers on opposite ends of a battle of gods, conscience, and power, but one certainly has to be interesting. And interesting, dramatically involving, and thematically coherent are not the items on Scott’s agenda as he bypasses respectable understanding and fictional license straight into smug mockery solidifying him as one of those shrill self-righteous finger-wagging atheist preachers of the secularist order. Exodus: Gods and Kings, beyond its distracted and empty criticisms of religious doctrine, actually represents the final end in Scott’s devolution as a filmmaker from the exciting grandeur of Gladiator and the relative thoughtfulness of Kingdom of Heaven to the revisionist confusion of Robin Hood and the mindless hollow spectacle of Prometheus. Scott’s literalist, anti-miracle interpretation of the story of Exodus and the freedom of the Hebrews from subjugation as a political violence uprising might possess an intriguing twist on the biblical foundation, but in the end it’s a detached and emotionless regurgitated tale that mistakes the size of scale for actual cinematic grandeur.

Retelling Exodus in all of its epic majesty and thematic weight is a daunting task for any credible storyteller even without injecting modernist revisions on political slants and stripping away the fantastical elements to substitute a logical reasoning for the atrocities that befall the people of Egypt. A writing room of screenwriters from Accepted’s Adam Cooper and Bill Collage to The Constant Gardener’s Jeffrey Caine and American Gangster’s Steven Zaillian suggests a disorganized thought process and the lazy outcome of simply using the template of the biblical tale confirms a superficial understanding of the material and neglect towards the themes it possesses. On the surface it’s about as familiar as Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments with a militarized twist with Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) serving as generals in Pharaoh Seti’s (John Turturro) army, as Moses seems to be the embodiment of reasonable skepticism and wise reflection while Ramses is the privileged and irascible heir to the throne. After being forced into exile on the discovery that he’s actually Hebrew, Moses suffers a blow to the head where he then sees the image of god as a petulant, jealous eleven-year-old boy in what passes for clever symbolism these days. Exodus: Gods and Kings seems complimentary to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah but it actually takes a reverse slant by having Moses being guided by a Dawkins defined megalomaniacal, fanatical god instead of the man taking an extremist interpretation of his given instructions. The script’s intention seems to want to blend the structure of Gladiator—general exiled only to return to face an ex-brotherly figure—with the revolutionary political slant of Robin Hood as Moses becomes a political figure of violent upheaval in the face of moral and financial injustice (Moses laughably never requests the slaves be free but rather have an equal societal standing and fair wages). Exodus: Gods and Kings clearly seeks to diminish the role of god and give a modernized look at the predicaments of a past and complicated society and in doing so dilutes the relationship of Moses and Ramses into a familiarly simplistic altercation of power, ludicrously explores the genuine moral conversations between god and Moses, and never really understands the thematic context or emotional weight on this story of subjugation to freedom.

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Equally atrocious and misguided is Ridley Scott’s direction which as of late has seemed to rely on the largest of scales in storytelling rather than on the intimate and sensitive moments he was able to capture in his early career from the soundless eeriness of Alien, the moralistic contemplations of Blade Runner, or the freeing wit of Thelma & Louise. Those sensible moments have long been gone in Scott’s filmography and though he is a master of chaos and an aficionado of special effects spectacle his best calculated sequences always seem to get lost in the meaninglessness of the story he’s telling. It’s almost as if Scott defends the extravagant use of special effects and even the replacement of white actors in arguably ethnic roles much in the same ridiculous way Joel Edgerton’s Ramses defends the establishment of slavery claiming, “From an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic.” Exodus: Gods and Kings might have some exquisite production designs from longtime Scott collaborator Arthur Max (Prometheus, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) and colorful costumes from another collaborator Janty Yates (Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Gladiator), but the details seem to get lost in the largesse of the production that plagues the screen with lazily designed and arduously held aerial shots of Memphis’ columns and monuments and poorly executed special effects. Most of the effects are focused on a rapid fire barrage of naturally explained plagues in the middle of the film from crocodiles eating fisherman to cause a river of blood to boils being caused by the delivery of diseases through bugs. It’s at once a mixture of unintentional absurdity and an equal failure to capture true sincerity in its seriousness with Scott aimlessly attempting to find some thematic importance within his criticism of the biblical tale. Despite some occasional sequences of kinetic technical mastery showcasing Scott’s undeniable ability to piecing together engaging action, such as the climactic pursuit of Ramses into the Red Sea or the apocalyptic undercurrent of particular non-effects driven plagues on Egypt, the film unfortunately doesn’t have anything of importance to say nor does it have anything within its empty and misguided direction.

Casting seems to be on the forefront of criticism and misdirection for Exodus: Gods and Kings even before the film had come out and when trailers were showcasing some fairly white, or practically porcelain, actors portraying Egyptian, Northern African, and arguably ethnic parts. Though these criticisms are representative of one side of an ongoing anthropological debate relating to the exact hue of darkness that Ancient Egyptians were, mostly because Ancient Egypt and the Nile served as a trading point for numerous cultures and skin colors, perhaps those fortunate not to be cast in this epic misfire of biblical denigration and historical inaccuracy should be thankful they dodged a catastrophic career bullet for the sake of making wholesome white entertainment. To be fair it’s actually confusing what sort of audience this film was made for since it’s far from Oscar bait territory, shamelessly unfaithful to scripture, and is too ponderous for a continuous thrilling popcorn affair. With Christian Bale in the lead as a monotone, uninspiring, and oddly passive Moses it probably sought to get fans of his blockbuster fanfare into the seats but his unconvincing presence just adds to the plodding nature of the whole film’s boring tone. He isn’t the most miscast element of the film since both John Turturro as Pharaoh Seti and Sigoruney Weaver as Tuya claim that awkward title. Bale’s counterpart in Edgerton’s Ramses is promising at first as he broods his way through most of the first half of his performance. Unfortunately Edgerton seems to lose interest, unsurprisingly so, as his character becomes laughably obtuse with villainous clichés such as caressing snakes and pounding his chest. The rest of the cast are nonessential placeholders for plot conveniences with the wasted talents of Ben Kingsley and Ben Mendelsohn being almost as shameful as forcing Aaron Paul to attempt making a character out of blank staring. Writing templates of characters instead of diving into their thematic importance, their potentially rich collaboration, and their ability to be something more than expository peons doesn’t give a cast much to work with and Exodus: Gods and Kings suffers dramatically for it.

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Ironically Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is practically an hour plus shorter than its campy predecessor The Ten Commandments but due to its sermonized derision of biblical authenticity, its dry revisionist political violence slant, and its thoroughly boring drama between characters it seems far longer. The themes, drama, and opulent potential to the story of Exodus seems to be missed here in Scott’s intentionally ludicrous interpretation of biblical events as the liberation of the Hebrew people and their organization as a known surviving identity comes with no emotional weight while the reflection on the contentious relationship with their god is simplistically handled. Removing the fantastical elements of god’s divine intervention turns this hollow ghost of the Exodus tale into a literalist and uninteresting reflection on power that also wants to keep its sense of Technicolor biblical epic spectacle. You can’t have it both ways and Scott’s film learns the hard way by losing its grip on all of its elements due to an uninspired script, misguided direction, mediocre acting, and most especially a lost understanding of what the Exodus story means. Exodus: Gods and Kings might be only slightly shorter than the average Passover Seder, but it certainly doesn’t possess any of its lessons, history, culture, or arguable importance.

Grade: D

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