“Once brothers, now enemies”
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley
In Ancient Egypt, Pharaoh Seti I (Turturro) sends his son Ramses (Edgerton) and foster son Moses (Bale) to destroy a Hittite army massing near the border. In the battle, Moses saves Ramses’ life, completing the first part of a pre-battle prophecy that ‘a leader will be saved, and the saviour will one day lead’. Moses later visits the Hebrew slave works under Viceroy Ambiguously Queer Hedonist Scumbag (Mendelsohn; the character has a name, but names are actually pretty hard to come by in this film), and there learns from one of the elders (Kingsley) that he is in fact the child of a slave, floated down river during a cull of the slave population (and by ‘floated downstream’, I mean literally walked downriver into the hands of a childless princess by his sister.)
Viceroy AQHS learns of Moses history and reveals it after he is accused of embezzling. Ramses then has Moses banished, but provides a sword – one of a pair made for the brothers by Seti – so he can pull a Gladiator on the assassins sent by Ramses’ mother, Queen Tuya (Weaver). Moses meets and marries shepherdess Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and has a son, but chasing runaway sheep into the mountains he encounters God in the shape of a young boy (Isaac Andrews) who sends him back to Egypt.
Finding that his people are deeply and sincerely under the shithammer, Moses rallies a force under his brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) and Hebrew hardman Joshua (Paul) to conduct what I’m just going to go ahead and call a series of terrorist attacks on the Egyptian infrastructure. After several months of this, and with a Hebrew family hanged each morning in reprisal, God comes along and is all ‘dude, you don’t know terror,’ before making with the plagues. Adviser after adviser tries to claim either natural causes or acts of the Egyptian gods for the disasters and get hanged for their efforts, before the deaths of the firstborn sons of each Egyptian household, including the Pharaoh’s, provokes him to first let the Hebrews go and then pursue them intent on slaughter.
Moses leads his people to the shores of the Red Sea, where he witnesses a falling star and the waters recede. The Hebrews cross, the Egyptians pursue and are killed as the waters return in a tsunami. Moses and Ramses clash one last time at the centre of the channel, yet both survive, Ramses to return home in defeat and Moses to pick up his family en route to Canaan and start carving some Commandments.
What’s wrong with it?
It’s par for the course that a Biblical epic should be bad history, but Exodus: Gods and Kings manages to be bad Bible, without picking up any slack on the historical front.
Exodus = Hebrew slaves, but the film is set in the 19th Dynasty, a period in which work on the monumental tombs in the Valley of the Kings was primarily undertaken by a body of skilled workers based in the town of Set Maat. They were comfortably off and highly regarded for their skills.
Ramses is the most famous Egyptian king, so they tend to settle on him for this story. The problem is that the historical Ramses was a baller, a titanic ginger badass who was succeeded by his oldest surviving descendent, his thirteenth son. For the purposes of this story, however, he will be portrayed as a neurotic mummy’s boy.
Seriously, I swear that the douchebag Viceroy who appropriates slave rations to finance his lavish lifestyle is hitting on Moses at one point, which given the lack of any other even vaguely gay characters is… It’s not good.
Once again, the Middle Eastern and North African past is really, really white.
The film opens with Moses and Ramses as adults; the whole story of the basket and whatnot is told, not show. In fact, a lot of this film is told where it ought to be shown.
Ninety percent of Tuya’s scenes are cut, leaving little more than a random cameo from Sigourney Weaver. With Miriam reduced to a minor role and precious little for Zipporah to do, this leaves the film short on actual female characters.
The film dithers on the matter of God, with Moses encountering Malak – apparently some sort of messenger angel with the face of a smug ten year old – on multiple occasions, but the plagues and the Red Sea being ascribed quasi-scientific explanations and Moses remaining stubbornly irreligious for most of the movie.
The final cut of the movie doesn’t have the Golden Calf. Like… at all.
What’s right with it?
While we watched the film, my partner noted that the imagery was incredible, and I remarked that it will be a sorry lookout the day that Ridley Scott can’t put a shot together. Whatever else you may say about him – and, let’s be honest, there’s a lot to say these days – he has always been a remarkable visual director, and the film is not just beautiful but visually eloquent. If the characters and action had as much to say as the shot composition, this would be a very different review.
As horrible as the death of the firstborn is, the execution of the scene is brilliant. A shadow sweeps across the city, with the lives of the firstborn snuffed out as quickly and painlessly as their candles. I applaud the decision not to go for any sort of spectacle.
How bad is it really?
Exodus: Gods and Kings feels like the reverse of the Disney movie adaptations that my daughter gets me to read to her, which dash through the specifics of each story with pretty illustrations, but no sense of heart or poetry. Although the film is visually arresting, the characters are thinly drawn and their conflict therefore uninvolving. In part of course this is because the story of exodus is not about people, but about a people, and their god, but this film isn’t that interested in the Israelites or the God of Abraham either. It’s about Ramses and Moses, and everyone else is kind of incidental. It’s as if Ridley Scott has fundamentally misunderstood the point of an epic.
Best bit (if such there is)?
As Ramses leads his chariots along a narrow ledge at inadvisable speed, a single accident precipitates a massive landslide which tips most of the army into the sea and traps most of what’s left on the wrong end of the pass… and strands one poor bugger right in the middle of the now impassable cliff-face.
What’s up with…?
- The undercover sister? Yes, it’s in keeping with the Bible that Miriam got Moses mother appointed as his (openly Hebrew) wet nurse, but in this one she seems to have been masquerading as an Egyptian… with the blatantly Hebrew name Miriam.
- Miriam in general? Seriously; way to sideline a Biblical prophet. Still, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of other strong, female characters in this oh, wait!
Production values – Scott’s technical prowess remains unassailable. 2
Dialogue and performances – The characters are weakly drawn and poorly motivated. The dialogue is not terrible, but it’s nothing to write home about. I probably haven’t seen The Ten Commandments in over a decade, but I can still remember Chuck dragging a Hebrew slave out from under a giant Lego brick and snarling at the slave master ‘Blood makes poor mortar.’ Nothing in this film is so memorable. 12
Plot and execution – The film tells the story, but it does it like a box ticking exercise: Two brothers, check; secret origin, check; floating in the Nile, check; Red Sea, check… There’s no focus, no narrative drive. Actual God demands a course of action, and it’s still just stuff happening. 16
Randomness – Why have God turn up and talk to someone, then go hog-wild making every miracle scientifically explicable? Are we really supposed to accept Christian Bale’s explanation that this is the story of a delusional schizophrenic taking advantage of a series of unlikely coincidences? 8
Waste of potential – Biblical epics are a bit of a crap shoot, but they could at least have tried to make the cast look like they might come from Egypt. Also, it’s no Ten Commandments. 12