I’ve had trouble writing about director Ridley Scott’s latest attempt at epic period film-making, Exodus: Gods and Kings, since first seeing it. I think I finally know why. After finding huge critical and popular success with his Oscar-winning swords-and-sandals epic Gladiator in 2001, Scott has returned to the period piece action-adventure well several times with limited success – as seen in both Kingdom of Heaven and the recent Robin Hood. The big problem with Exodus, a retelling of the biblical story of Moses freeing the Jews from Egyptian slavery, is that it doesn’t feel like a story Ridley Scott needed to tell.
Exodus: Gods and Kings can be summed up in one word: lifeless.
That’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this movie’s faults, but that’s a big tip. Why do we need another version of the Moses story, anyway? I’m not against a story being retold multiple times. However, if a filmmaker (or novelist, or musician, or interpretive dance choreographer, for that matter) is going to re-spin a tale that’s been well and thoroughly spun, he or she ought to bring a new perspective and fresh approach to the material. Scott absolutely fails at this.
Besides updating the special effects, which are easily the best part of the movie, there is almost nothing new here. The film doesn’t give any new insight into the characters of the Moses story. The action sequences are unengaging. The musical score is absolutely forgettable. The one attempt at tweaking the original Bible story, making Moses a skeptic of religion before he becomes a true believer, feels like it belongs in another movie. The casting is a disaster, while the acting ranges from solid to surprisingly poor.
Let’s talk about that casting now, and the choices some actors made.
I honestly can’t be surprised that Hollywood’s latest version of a story concerning ancient Egyptians and Hebrews would feature mostly white stars. After all, there’s a (proud?) tradition of WASPy actors portraying the figure of Moses on film: from Charlton Heston in Cecil B. Demille’s second stab at The Ten Commandments in 1956 to Christian Slater(!) in the 2007 animated movie of the same name. As I said before, the Moses in Exodus believes more in logic and reason than the almighty for the first half of the film, and completely gone are his pronouncements to the Egyptian king Ramses, where he enumerated each of the plagues visited upon the land and the Pharaoh’s people. Besides being traditionally miscast, Christian Bale’s performance as Moses is one of the least nuanced of the actor’s great career so far. Admittedly, he isn’t given much to work with as the screenplay makes a mess of the character, but most of Bale’s line readings are needlessly shouty.
Joel Edgerton, as Pharaoh Ramses, does a fine job showing his character progress from the spoiled entitlement of a despotic ruler to the quiet grief and despair of someone losing literally everything by the film’s end. He is a white actor in what comes dangerously close to brown face -- I have to guess some mixture of bronzer and tanning beds were employed -- but his performance worked for me. The same cannot be said for his mother, the queen, played by Sigourney Weaver. It pains me to say this, but the once-and-future Ripley delivers a bewilderingly bad performance here. She seems completely out of her depth and her American accent sticks out like the broken spoke on a brand new chariot wheel. Mercifully, she’s only on the screen for a handful of scenes. Equally miscast is John Turturro as Ramses’ father, Seti. I love him, but his screen presence here just doesn’t carry the weight that the role demands.
I won’t belabor the point too much further by continuing to beat up on what is a deeply flawed film. My suggestion is that if you want to see the story of Moses done right by the movies, you can’t go wrong with DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.* DeMille was a director who knew how to handle an epic. Ridley Scott is, too, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Exodus: Gods and Kings.
*Editor’s Note: Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt is also an excellent, character-based, depiction if you want the same story in half the runtime. The author hasn't seen it.