There are very few people making historical epics anymore, and Ridley Scott seems to be the one most likely to keep doing it. Gladiator is obviously the most celebrated of these, but he’s made others that are, if nothing else, sweeping and full of grandeur if not necessarily the most engaging in story. His 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven about the Crusades was plagued by lots and lots of cuts and the later-released director’s cut, which is much longer, was hailed as something of a forgotten masterpiece. I fear that his newest film Exodus: Gods and Kings has fallen victim to the same kind of truncating. Given how big Scott is on director’s cuts, maybe the studios ought to just let him release those movies. A thought.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is certainly an ambitious film, attempting to cover much of the incredibly lengthy book from the Old Testament about Moses, a Prince of Egypt who is banished when it’s discovered he is actually a Hebrew, the people the Egyptians use as slave labor, all the way through to the creation of The Ten Commandments. (Incidentally, both The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt are much better movies.) Naturally, something like that is going to take up a lot of time, and it was initially reported that the film was well over 3 hours. However, it’s been cut down to a manageable but brisk 2.5 hours and, as a result, it feels a lot of the time like we’re watching an edited highlights reel of a movie, forsaking character moments for the sake of plot and action.
Christian Bale portrays Moses, who, when the film starts (following a few screens of text to tell us context), is a general in the Pharaoh (John Turturro)’s army along with his cousin Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), the heir to the throne. There is a prophecy that in the coming battle, one of the princes will save the other one, and the one who does the saving will become the new ruler. So naturally, Rhamses wants Moses nowhere near him, and of course Moses saves him right away. Moses then travels to check on a nearby city where the Hebrew slaves have started to revolt. It’s there he learns from an elder slave (Ben Kingsley) that Moses is actually a Hebrew himself and destined to free his people. He’s naturally dismissive of this idea, but word reaches Rhamses and Moses is exiled to the desert where he eventually meets and marries a young maiden.
Nine years pass and Moses then begins having visions of a young boy who is meant to represent God who tells him that he must free the Hebrews. He eventually takes up this mantle, returns to Memphis, and begins to slowly make his war for freedom known to Rhamses, whereupon God eventually lets loose the various plagues of Egypt and bad things happen, walking through the desert ensues, parting of the Red Sea, etc. etc. etc. The script is all based on things we’ve seen before, but I do applaud them for at least touching on the idea of the Egyptians trying to explain the plagues away with something other than it being a god they don’t believe in.
Now, here’s the problem with this. We know all of these events. Even if the viewer isn’t a particularly religious person or raised as such, there’s a zeitgeistiness to all of these events and when we get to the plagues or the Red Sea or whatever, it’s more a case of “What will this look like?” rather than “What’s going to happen next?” And because there are SO many major events in Moses’ life, none of them really get a chance to land or have much emotional resonance because we’re just onto the next one. Moses gets the most screentime, obviously, and Bale does a typically good job, though his accent changes all the time depending on if he thinks he’s an Egyptian or a Hebrew. It’s very bizarre. The rest of the cast gets either under-served or not served at all. Aaron Paul is in this movie playing Joshua, a Hebrew slave who takes up with Moses, and he’s onscreen a lot, but we never get much of him talking or doing anything. Sigourney Weaver plays Rhamses’ mother and the Pharaoh’s wife. You’d never know this except you’re told that and she has like two scenes.
And while we’re on the topic of the cast, one of the issues that’s been raised a lot is that all of the main characters, who are meant to be Egyptian or Hebrew, are played by white people. There are a few people of color in the film, but they aren’t in it very much or are relegated to background performers. There is an Iranian actress, an Israeli actress, and a Spanish actress who all have sizable roles but that’s it. And yes, I’m counting an actress from Spain among the “people of color” numbers. Yes, it’s very troubling, and Scott himself has said this was only done because names put butts in seats, essentially. That can’t be the only reason, can it? This isn’t the 1950s; there are many great actors all around the world who could be included and yet aren’t.
The cinematography is very rich and sumptuous, though why it’s in 3D is really anyone’s guess. The action is also quite impressive but not really anything we haven’t seen many times already. I really wanted more depth from a movie like this and the people involved. It’s like all of the scenes exist purely for the trailer or for an extended sneak peek; in isolation, they’re impressive, but together there isn’t any connective tissue. Maybe all of the good stuff is in the hour that got cut out and the inevitable director’s cut will be the thing to watch, but until they start letting Ridley Scott make the movies he wants to make, or stop him altogether, we’re going to be left with shrugs and memories of better movies.