From acclaimed director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Prometheus) comes the epic adventure Exodus: Gods and Kings, the story of one man’s daring courage to take on the might of an empire. Using state of the art visual effects and 3D immersion, Scott brings new life to the story of the defiant leader Moses (Christian Bale) as he rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.
If there’s one Biblical story Hollywood loves, it’s the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. It’s the story of an underdog (or a group of underdogs) overcoming their oppressors. It’s the story of an almighty God unleashing his power through a series of plagues, which can be recreated using the latest technological achievements. Its particular placement makes it marketable to multiple religions. It’s also the story that’s been told so many times that any new production needs to find a unique way to tell the story. Unfortunately, in spite of a few new tricks, Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t feel all that far removed from many of the other productions of this story we’ve seen so far.
To its credit, the film offers some promise at first. In this particular adaptation, Moses is a skilled military leader for the Pharoah, a fact that’s not lost on his brother Ramses, who’s next in line for the throne. The film takes some time at the beginning to show that Moses is a natural leader, unlike Ramses. This goes as far as having the current Pharoah, Seti, indicate that he wishes in some way that Moses was his biological son, so that he could assume the throne instead of Ramses.
The film also takes an interesting tact when it comes to the plagues that spread across Egypt, and the later parting of the Red Sea. Rather than making all of these events into incredible, out-of-nowhere phenomena, natural explanations are attempted for several of them. The Nile turning red, for example, is the result of scores of crocodiles attacking humans. And the darkest plague of them all – the death of Egypt’s first-born sons – is depicted in the most chilling way I’ve seen, with multiple boys shown drawing their last breath over a few minutes that seem longer.
I don’t think that’s enough, though, to warrant this massive retelling of the story. For comparison’s sake, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah may have been controversial with some of the approaches it took to that classic Biblical story, but it also took some elements of the story that appear in the Bible that normally don’t make it into adaptations, and it added in elements that logically make sense (primarily, Noah’s descent into madness). It was a different element to a familiar story, and one that was big enough to provoke conversation.
Here, we have an odd attempt to do two things with the same story: have Moses speak with God (as portrayed by a petulant boy), while also making him look insane to those around him. His first conversation comes after a mudslide that knocks Moses unconscious, while later conversations show Moses, when viewed by Joshua, talking to thin air. I guess this was done to appeal to the religious-minded while also offering something for those who are less inclined to believe, but I don’t believe this was a good choice.
The film also broaches a potentially intriguing issue, then backs away from it: namely, after the final plague, Ramses questions what kind of a god would do such a thing, and still be worthy of the praise of the Israelites. Moses is even shown questioning God’s plan, and why He’s chosen this particular time to be upset about the Israelites’ suffering. The idea of exploring the rationale in some way of a vengeful, angry God just seems like it would be dripping with interesting storytelling, but it’s only brought up a couple of times, then dropped almost immediately.
I also have to note my issue with one particular section of the film. Early on, Moses travels to a nearby province with a corrupt governor, who has taken to brutally overworking the Israelites in order to make his own accommodations appear as regal as the Pharoah’s. My issue with the governor is that he’s portrayed as overly, stereotypically effeminate, which is compounded by a futile attempt to seduce Moses in order to gain Moses’ silence over his corruption. That last part, in particular, was not needed. Look: I don’t buy into the concept that gay characters can’t be villains, but I think in order to get rid of some of the stereotypes we’ve seen over the years, they have to be handled intelligently. The portrayal here was offensive and backwards, no two ways about it, and it’s quite possibly the most homophobic thing I’ve seen in a major motion picture in years.
Speaking of offensive choices, there’s already been a lot of discussion about the whitewashed cast. Honestly, it would’ve been bad enough if this film featured an all-white cast, including background actors. Somehow, I think it’s worse that the background cast consists of actors of color, but the highest they can get to an actor of color in the cast goes to some of Pharoah’s advisors. Then you have the tans applied to most, but not all (hi, Sigourney Weaver) of the main cast. Those tans, especially the one Joel Edgerton wears for Ramses, come off as dark as an attempt to make them “look” the part.
In short: the scale of this film is admittedly impressive, and there are elements that are interesting. But there are plenty of script choices and casting decisions that are, for lack of a better word, problematic. With the rise of faith-based films as a box office force, I doubt this will be the last Biblical story to get an adaptation in the near future. I can only hope that the next team to tackle a story eschew the issues presented by Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah, while at least trying something closer to the latter’s sense of something new. This film’s attempts just don’t cut it.