Presumably, the creative itch to bring back the bygone era of sword-and-sandal epics comes about when a big-deal Hollywood director spends six weeks in post-production fussing with his latest CGI-laden blockbuster. Fed up with pixel manipulation, he begins to fantasize about lording over an old-fashioned, bloated production, shot on location, with scores of faceless extras who exist solely to imply scope. “Those were the days,” he thinks.
If this theoretical auteur is Ridley Scott, he gets “Exodus: Gods & Kings” going and assembles a baffling cast of largely lily-white performers to act out his revisionist Bible fantasies (which inevitably ends up packed with CGI), does some paint-by-numbers “epic” filmmaking (bland, been-there-done-that vistas lovingly swiped from David Lean and a confounding preoccupation with recreating every Laurence Olivier performance ever, regardless of period or regional relevance), and leaves you with only moments of startling weirdness worth the running time. Oh well.
“Exodus” begins with the sibling rivalry between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) before awkwardly morphing into the familiar tale of the Hebrew fight for freedom, complete with the requisite Red Sea parting and the other expected iconography. At its heart, “Exodus” really wants to be the story of two brothers but Bale and Edgerton’s chemistry never quite syncs up. Though Edgerton’s Ramses is arguably the most consistently entertaining thing in the whole movie, it’s only for its eccentricity: His entire performance feels culled from a series of throwaway takes where Scott let him experiment and try new things, regardless of tone or intention.
Meanwhile, Bale plays Moses as kind of a prick. This is nice because Bale embodies harshness and blind ignorance well, but his screen time is still marred by the unfortunate handicap of this being a Christian Bale Performance: persistently overwrought and Try Hard. So here, he decides to use his cumbersome “American guy” accent instead of his natural voice (in Ancient Egypt no less), which is just icing on the “why didn’t they cast someone else?” cake. He’s pretty much playing a particularly hirsute and time-displaced Batman here. And just so we are clear: This is a movie starring English actor Christian Bale in the role of Moses.
The compelling sibling rivalry stuff goes away, replaced by the dramatic tug of destiny when Moses makes a visit to Pithom to visit a corrupt viceroy (Hegep, played by a mincing, effeminate Ben Mendehlson, the most fun turn in the film). There, slave elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) tells Moses that he is in fact secretly Hebrew. Moses scoffs at its believability, remarking that “it isn’t even a good story.” Whether or not this is meant to be some meta-dig at the Bible, whoever penned that pithy line of dialogue is patently wrong. Moses’ tale of a Hebrew baby raised Egyptian who goes on to free his people from tyranny is a fucking great tale. It’s just that Ridley Scott and his four, yes, four writers bungle it by never convincing the audience of this gigantic shift in the protagonist’s understanding of his world.
Moses is so sternly atheist that to fully sell us on him becoming the instrument of any god (Egyptian or otherwise) would require a truly rousing cinematic sequence, perhaps something with a stunningly realized burning bush. Instead, we’re treated to God, visible only to Moses, played by a persnickety 11-year-old English boy (Isaac Andrews), an absolutely terrible idea on Scott’s part. When Moses’ initial crusade against the Egyptians proves fruitless, little boy God snarls at Moses to step aside and “watch.” This, of course, brings us to the plagues and Ridley Scott, visual stylist comes alive here.
Up until God begins smiting the Egyptians on screen, you wonder why Scott, at this stage in his career, felt compelled to take on the story of Moses. In recent interviews, Scott found himself cornered on the subject of whitewashing in “Exodus,” after he remarked in Variety that he could never make a film of this magnitude with “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” in the lead role. Given that 21st Century Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch was later quoted as claiming all the Egyptians he knows are white (utterly baffled at even the merest whiff of controversy), this sounded more like the sad reality of the film industry than any overt bigotry on Scott’s part, though he’s walking a line with that “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” bullshit.
The sole reason Scott wanted to craft such a milquetoast, Eurocentric reimagining of ancient history, it seems, is so he could helm an extended, balls-to-the-wall horror movie sequence. No film in recent memory has so gleefully switched stylistic gears. One minute, we’re up to our eyes in conventional horse-and-spear battle scenes, when all of a sudden it’s like Sam Raimi showed up on set with his manic camera for an orgiastic look at pestilence and locusts. There’s an alligator scene right out of a Syfy Channel hate-watch telefilm and somehow it’s the best thing in the whole movie. For a couple of shining set pieces, Ridley Scott cuts the shit and enthusiastically admits with wild-eyed camerawork and fierce editing that he just wanted to make a slasher movie where God is the killer.
That the film’s only exuberant display of cinematic prowess is reserved for an extended 30-minute sequence of God raining His wrath down on the ruling class won’t be lost on viewers in the year 2014, which has seen so much racial injustice, but too soon, it’s all over and we still have to sit through Moses leading 400,000 people through a thunderstorm, and you’re left wishing for more flesh-eating frogs. For a little while there at least, Scott gives us enough forget that we’re enduring such tedious whitewashing. ν