Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
What makes Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) such interesting fun, even some six decades after its release, is not so much the spectacle of the slave army erecting the great obelisk or Moses parting the Red Sea. Rather, it is the joy of watching larger-than-life figures playing out an epic human drama that constitutes one of the foundational myths of three great monotheistic religions: A man discovers he is not who he always thought he was, in turn breaking the hearts of his fatherly uncle and the woman who loves him, sending a kingdom into turmoil, propelling an evil man to power, and damning one people to life under a tyrant while bringing about the liberation of another. Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, like The Ten Commandments, tells the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of bondage in ancient Egypt as told by the Book of Exodus, but the spectacle of pharonic Egypt--replete with gargantuan pyramids, the Sphinx of Giza, and grandiose royal palaces--is essentially all the film has going for it. Even that, moreover, is somewhat tempered by the unshakable awareness that the world to which we have been transported has been mostly generated by computers rather by than artisans and thousands of extras, as it was in the day of DeMille, Wyler, and Lean.
The film's screenplay is credited to four writers, but there is not even a morsel of dialogue that is in any way evocative or memorable, which has the effect of undermining the gravity of the events we are seeing unfold. The dialogue is, instead, almost entirely expositional, and the film is often confusing and generally fails to proffer believable motivations for the characters' behaviors. Throughout the first act, Christian Bale's Moses appears as little more than a respected and competent military advisor, exuding none of the beneficent humanitarianism of Heston's incarnation. Meanwhile Joel Edgerton's Rameses is a more ambivalent and sympathetic character than was Yul Brynner's, leaving viewers somewhat mystified as to why John Turturro's Seti (who is himself devoid of the natural regalness that one would expect of a supposedly benevolent and beloved king) should favor his rather ordinary nephew over his own flesh and blood. Meanwhile, as there is no Nefertari (as played by Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments) nor any equivalent, no contest for the beautiful princess's hand that, as much as the contest for the throne of Egypt, fuelled the rivalry between Moses and Ramses in DeMille's classic. In unfortunate irony, Exodus, despite making a clear attempt to play down the mystical elements of the biblical fable--the various plagues of Egypt are presented as environmental disasters rather than divine intervention--comes across more like filmed scripture than do many of the epics of the 1950s and '60s, by virtue of presenting characters that audiences can hardly understand, and with whom they can barely empathize.
Where the film does echo the classic epics is in its whitewashing of history, a wholly more appalling practice in the 21st century than it was in Hollywood's considerably less enlightened past. In fact, it's difficult to recall a recent major Hollywood film that is so horribly miscast. Casting Turturro as an aging, overtly effeminate Egyptian pharaoh is a bizarre decision, and it is made even more disconcerting by the casting of Sir Ben Kingsley as the proto-rabbi Nun who is given little to do, other than to look like Ben Kingsley. The palpably WASP-ish Sigourney Weaver looks flat-out ludicrous under an Egyptian headdress in the role of Rameses' mother, Queen Tuya, and, like Kingsley (and, it must be said, like a number of other seemingly significant characters who appear and disappear), she is given almost nothing to do, only appearing on screen for what seems like a few minutes and inexplicably playing the role of the devil in Rameses' ear, encouraging him to order Moses' execution.
Perhaps because Rameses is so prominent, the casting of Edgerton reads as nothing short of offensive. He does the best he can with such an amateurish screenplay--a scene in which he castigates his chief builders for their inability to complete his palace is particularly enjoyable--but he is obviously the wrong man to play a malevolent Pharaoh. Whereas Brynner had an exotic look and was powerfully charismatic, Edgerton looks the white Australian everyman that he has always been--but with makeup. Even Bale, who is almost always captivating, is disappointingly bland as Moses, ultimately leaving audiences pining for the heft of Charlton Heston. Finally, the film also contains a distinctly homophobic subtext involving Ben Mendelsohn's Hegep, which, when combined with its archaic approach to casting, seems more nasty than hip.
With Gladiator (2000), Scott took an admirable, but mostly forgotten, film from the golden age of the epic (Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) and successfully updated it in accordance with contemporary sensibilities, resulting in a film that essentially revitalized the genre after more than three decades of dormancy. In attempting to remake one of the true classics of the genre, however, Scott has this time bitten off more than he could chew, crafting a profoundly inferior imitation that has not enough fidelity to the biblical source material to appeal to religious audiences, not enough gravitas and human emotion to appeal to fans of the genre, and not enough action to appeal to a younger generation raised on Marvel films and blood-splattered histories like Gladiator and Zach Snyder's 300 (2007). Coming so soon after the failure of Darren Aronofsky's equally disappointing Noah (2014), it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone if Exodus sounds the death knell of the genre for the immediate future.
Rodney Wallis, University of New South Wales