‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ Review: Thou Shalt Not Love It
Although it is considered bad form for critics to judge stories based on their popularity, The Old Testament should probably be an exception to that rule. It’s at least 2,000 years old and just about as popular as ever, so it must be doing SOMETHING right. So as such, even though I am hardly a scholar on the subject, I feel comfortable suggesting that it probably deserves a better adaptation than Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Because there are just some occasions when it seems like director Ridley Scott is arbitrarily adapting historical fiction instead of saying anything whatsoever about it. Kingdom of Heaven was fairly impressive (at least, the director’s cut was), and Gladiator was popcorn fun, but then you have films like Robin Hood and now Exodus, which glumly go through the motions we’ve all seen before, occasionally spiking with an epic action sequence, and then vacating the premises of our collective consciousness as quickly as possible.
The sad fact is, when two weeks later I have more vivid memories of Horrible Bosses 2 than a mega-budget biblical epic based upon one of the most enduring stories of all time, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Which is not to say that Exodus: Gods and Kings is a complete wash. The production design by Arthur Max and costumes by Janty Yates are lush and beautiful, and the visual effects are often gorgeously impressive. The parting of the Red Sea is a genuine cinematic accomplishment in Exodus, and the new interpretation of the Plagues of Egypt are inventively explained and realized as a domino effect of (mostly) plausible environmental tragedy.
But these remarkable events are happening to actual characters who need to make some kind of connection with an audience, and that’s where Exodus: Gods and Kings falls apart completely.
Ignoring – if such a thing is possible – the whitewashed casting of Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn and Aaron Paul as Egyptians, those actors are no slouches. They are simply saddled with a screenplay that rushes through the important plot points, lingers on the boring parts, and issues out dialogue that sounds more like stage direction than anything a human being might conceivably say.
Christian Bale looks particularly lost here. He’s one of the finest actors working today but all that has been asked of him is to look dead serious and seem like he doesn’t want to be here. Moses should be conflicted, certainly, about turning on his adopted family with all of God’s wrath backing him up, but the best he usually manages is to look like he’d rather throw rocks with his son and shave goats with his wife.
Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton is playing to the back of the room as Rameses, not quite capturing the grandeur of Yul Brynner’s performance in The Ten Commandments but coming close enough to deserve a pat on the head for the effort. At least he registers. Apart from Turturro, who can always be depended on even in absolute dreck (see also: Collateral Damage), the rest of the cast looks like they either had their roles cut out almost entirely in post-production or were only asked to show up on set that day as some sort of favor.
The story, as if you didn’t know, is about Moses (Bale), adopted by Egyptian royalty but secretly born to the Jewish people who have been enduring generations of slavery under their tyrannical rule. When his brother Rameses (Edgerton) discovers Moses’s secret, he banishes his brother from another mother, who eventually returns to free his people and unleash the fury of God in the form of deadly plagues that ravage the Egyptian populace. It’s a big story of no small consequence, whether you think it’s real or not, and it’s been adapted before into Hollywood epics that at least came close to doing it justice.
Exodus: Gods and Kings has the scale right but not the intimacy. Its enormity dwarfs anything human about the subject matter, and the disappointing result makes less of an impression than a half-hearted reboot of a comic book about turtles who are ninjas. The story will endure throughout the ages. The movie will be completely forgotten in a few months.