REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

Exodus

These problems are only amplified by the lackadaisical direction of Ridley Scott and the rest of the crew.  As if the words on the page were not bad enough, Scott’s decisions turn “Exodus: Gods and Kings” into a film glorifying the privileged white savior and marginalizing minorities.  In principle, I was not extremely bothered by the controversial decisions to cast primarily white actors.  Iconography and celebrity have driven Hollywood cinema for nearly a century now, and few actors have gravitas and recognition at the scale of this epic.  (An unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless.)

But “Exodus” really adds insult to injury for the darker-skinned counterparts of the leads.  Black actors are present in the film, sure.  When they do appear, though, they are either objects in the most literal sense or pure victims longing for the film’s savior.  In addition, the film propagates horrible stereotypes about homosexuals through Ben Mendelsohn’s Hegep, a devious and duplicitous character all too quick to make veiled sexual advances.

As if that was not enough, Egyptians and other Middle Eastern peoples also get short shrift as their heavy makeup makes them exotic, not normal.  It gets so excessive that when Bale’s Moses stands with the Egyptians, it looks like Bruce Wayne has just swooped in to save the season finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”  Bale does a half-decent job humanizing his legendary character, yet he can only be as good as the script lets him.

While Scott may struggle with humans in “Exodus,” he at least succeeds with spectacle.  The back half of the film is a fairly impressive visual spectacle, particularly in the realization of the deadly plagues that strike Egypt.  He and the writers also come to an intriguing conceptualization of God with some very interesting ramifications.  It might be worth further unpacking, although that would mean having to watch “Exodus: Gods and Kings” again – a task better off avoided.  C2stars

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