It is a bit disappointing to see Ridley Scott, a director who had made enough classics to cement him as a living legend, be one of the most inconsistent filmmakers ever. His outings in the past decade or so especially tend to be quite divisive. I’ve personally enjoyed many of his recent outings, but I will admit he hasn’t made a truly masterful film in over two decades. His latest release is Exodus: Gods and Kings, which has screenplay credits to writing team Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, as well as Jeffery Caine and Steve Zaillian. The film is, of course, a retelling of the story of Moses and his efforts to free the Hebrews. There aren’t many big changes to the story, so I won’t bother with a plot synopsis.
Since it seems to be the biggest thing people talk about in regard to the film, I’ll address the casting first. Going in to the film, I honestly didn’t expect to be too heavily affected by the “whitewashing” of the film. Unfortunately, I found myself surprisingly distracted by the fact that practically everyone in the film is miscast. Now I know that we don’t know for sure what Ancient Egyptians looked like exactly, so there could be debates to be had in terms of historical accuracy. However, the problem is that no one in the film feels like they belong. Everything looks right, the details are well done, and you feel like you’re in Ancient Egypt and then John Turturro shows up as the Pharaoh, Sigourney Weaver pops in for a couple minutes with only a few lines of dialogue, and poor Aaron Paul didn’t even have to say a single line before I started laughing. Even Ewen Bremner shows up…Ewen Bremner! As far as the actual acting goes, its fine, but considering how the film seems like it’s trying to be an update on those old school biblical epics, it manages to falter in the one aspect of those films that people laugh about to this day. It also doesn’t help that anyone with a remotely darker skin tone will only show up as a slave, servant, criminal, love interest or simply a background character. Hell, the movie even starts with Christian Bale’s Moses and Joel Edgerton’s Ramses leading their army to attack a village of noticeably darker-skinned people. Now I won’t go as far as to say that the film or the filmmakers are racist, this is simply a symptom of a much bigger problem with studios relying too much on name power to sell tickets, and if there were more open support towards films with lead characters played by minorities, then there is a chance for studios to be more lenient on how films are cast. I get why it’s a thing, I understand the rationale, but I don’t like it.
There are other things in the film that drag it down too. For one, considering the long runtime of the film, there an astounding lack of proper character development and a lot of bad storytelling. The film starts off interestingly enough, combining the scale of an epic like The Ten Commandments with the political intrigue of something like I, Claudius. As the film goes on though, every plot point feels incredibly underdeveloped, and the story never quite takes a hold on its themes. It will bring up certain elements that are interesting, but nothing is ever fleshed out. It’s as if simply introducing something is enough to add depth without actually exploring it. One thing I liked was how the film essentially portrayed God as a literal child throwing a temper tantrum, but not much is done with it. There is also an added element of ambiguity in regards to Moses’ mental state, since every time Aaron Paul’s character sees Moses talking to God, he sees nothing. Again, interesting set-up, but there’s no pay-off and is never really referred to except for one throwaway line. Many moments in the film seem to go by in a flash. There is a scene in which Moses first meets with Zipporah (played by Maria Valverde), they don’t say much, but it’s clear that she seems to be fond of him. The next scene, we’re told she has invited him home for dinner, which he tells her father (who we only see for this one scene by the way), the next scene is them having a very brief conversation and then they make googly-eyes at each other. Then they marry in the next scene, after sharing maybe five to ten minutes of screen time. It’s awkward and laughable. There simply is no meat in the story and it feels like it’s simply going through the motions; all while taking it’s sweet time to do nothing interesting.
Even with all these problems, the film does manage to work in terms of its sheer spectacle. What makes Ridley Scott such an accomplished filmmaker is his brilliant and consistently perfect handling of aesthetics. He is a visual craftsman that, despite his age, can compete with any young director easily. The production side of this film is wonderful, and as I said before, it feels authentic. It throws you back in those times. As soon as the Plagues begin, it’s very entertaining and the action scenes are very well done. The music by Alberto Iglesias is really good, the VFX are great and one of the most underrated DPs, Dariusz Wolski, does some excellent work as the cinematographer (he was also the DP for Ridley Scott’s last three films). The film is a visual treat, making it just watchable enough, even if it doesn’t necessarily make up for the subpar script.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is not a terrible film, but it’s not a good one either. Despite its set-up and the talent involved, it manages to be one of the least ambitious epics I’ve ever seen. There are good production values and decent acting, but it is not enough considering how much better the film could have been. There is no thematic or character development, little emotional connection and tone deaf racial politics. It’s a very good spectacle, but if you’re expecting any substance, then be prepared to be really disappointed. I have seen an interview where Ridley Scott mentions that an earlier cut of the film ran four hours. Considering how chopped the film felt, it wouldn’t surprise me if that version is much better, similarly to Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. So, perhaps wait for the Blu-ray release in hopes of an extended version, otherwise the film is hard to recommend as is. I may have had some fun watching it, if mostly for Joel Edgerton’s performance and the spectacle of it, but then again I am one of maybe four people on the planet that liked The Counselor. So, make of that what you will.
Side Note: If I were to recommend another Moses film, it would be The Prince of Egypt. It’s the 1998 DreamWorks animated film with Val Kilmer doing the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes voicing Ramses. It does have some goofy moments and unnecessary musical numbers, but it manages to get so much right that Exodus gets wrong. What Prince of Egypt does so well is create a grand sense of scale with its jaw-droppingly beautiful animation, but keep the drama personal. It’s a story that focuses strictly on the relationship between the two brothers and their falling out. The characters feel three-dimensional and their actions and motivations make sense. There’s genuine thematic and emotional depth to the film because it allows the characters to breathe and the story to unfold naturally. It also has one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores. It’s a film that works on many levels, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has not seen it yet. It’s certainly a far better film than Exodus. 55.