Exodus: Gods and Kings looked like an awful, boring re-telling of Moses’ story that gives in to the same vices all biblical adaptations are subject to, and for the most part that’s exactly what it is.
One of the oldest stories in human history, the basic plot remains intact. Moses (Christian Bale), an adopted Egyptian prince, learns that he actually hails from the Hebrew people whom the Egyptians enslave. When this comes to light, Moses is banished into the wilderness, where he does quite well for himself, eventually settling down with Zipporah (María Valverde). But, while climbing a forbidden mountain after some sheep, Moses gets knocked out by a falling rock and hallucinates
that a burning bush that a small, annoying child claiming to be God (Isaac Andrews) standing next to a burning bush tells him to … well, it’s implied that he tells Moses to return to Egypt and free the Hebrews and everybody knows that’s what he’s there to say, but he’s actually a deliberately obtuse little puke whose instructions are more reminiscent of a stupid person being cryptic to disguise the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
On this hallucination’s non-instruction, Moses abandons his family and rallies the Hebrew slaves into a dramatic looking but apparently ineffective siege of Memphis, because for some reason they can get horses, pitch, bows and arrows, the space to train with them and the room to use them effectively, but they can’t just walk out of the place. The mirage brat God mocks his military efforts, then causes a series of completely explainable natural disasters that Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) eventually interprets as proof that the Hebrew God is forcing him to let the slaves go.
Exodus: Gods and Kings, along with Noah earlier this year, are the first movies to really treat the Bible like a work of fiction that is changeable and adaptable to a filmmaker’s vision. It’s bold and I like it, but it carries much bigger risks than regular adaptations. Mess with the plot details of Twilight or Eragon, you alienate a fanbase in the midst an audience that largely doesn’t know the story. Mess with the plot details of the Old Testament, that fanbase is more than half of the global population and the audience they’re in the midst of also knows the story quite well. Every detail must be deliberate, either slavishly faithful or intentionally changed.
More than in the changes themselves, this is where Exodus breaks down — it doesn’t feel deliberate. It feels like a sloppily written, lazily shot and poorly edited action movie brought to you by the Hollywood assembly line.
The movie relies heavily on informed characteristics. It doesn’t take time to develop its characters. Moses is re-framed as an action hero with a hair trigger temper. It smash-cuts from Ramesses’ father, Seti I (John Turturro) first being sick to Ramesses’ coronation, then it jumps directly from Zipporah coming onto Moses to their wedding, but then, after these extremely jarring time jumps are made with no indication other than critical thinking, the movie flashes a “Nine years later” subtitle. Bale is completely unintelligible at times. Ramesses’ cries at his son’s death sound less like grief and more like a severely autistic child’s attempts at communication. Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul, the film’s best and most popular actors, are essentially given extended cameos. Sigourney Weaver’s role as Ramesses’ wife, Tuya, doesn’t amount to even that much. Spacial relationships make absolutely no sense — first with the implication that the Hebrews are free enough to besiege Memphis from within, but not free enough to avoid the daily random executions or simply leave, then with the nonsensical Red Sea scene.
This movie is amateurish. It’s a B-movie. It’s a C-movie. It feels as if someone with no common sense or storytelling experience stumbled into an editing room and patched it together.
The movie has four writing credits — Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, a duo who worked together on 2004’s New York Minute, 2006’s Accepted and 2011’s Tower Heist; Jeffrey Caine, mostly known for 1995’s Goldeneye and 2005’s wonderful The Constant Gardener; and Steven Zaillian, whose long writing career includes an Academy Award for Schindler’s List (1993) and nominations for Awakenings (1990) and Gangs of New York (2002). It was edited by Billy Rich, who worked on several of director Ridley Scott’s films since the turn of the century.
This many writers, particularly when one is a major award-winner, as well as editor who’s worked with him before on a bunch of movies that had the same problems, suggest Scott is clearly the one in charge, and that makes a ton of sense. He’s known mostly for Alien and Blade Runner, the younger of which is 32 years old. Exodus is his 12th film since the turn of the century, only two of which were well received. The entire staff should take blame with this, but Scott frankly needs to take a long look at his filmography and decide whether or not he should be doing this anymore.
Aside from the movie’s terrible fundamentals, it is also in extremely poor taste.
Exodus: Gods and Kings, like Noah, is critical of its source material, but it’s critical in a much less justified way. While Aronofsky flipped the script and turned the Creator’s cavalier attitude toward mass murder into something as morally reprehensible as it should be, Exodus isn’t just going after the God of Abraham, it’s going after the ability to believe in Him or anything at all.
There’s been a snarky scientific explanation theory for the 10 plagues going around the Internet for a while now — the Nile becoming blood was actually a mass disruption of clay deposits, the darkness was from volcanic ash, chintzy bullshit like that — and Exodus plays the plagues as sprung from these causes. It tries to have its cake and eat it too — the plague of frogs supposedly came from frogs leaving the contaminated Nile, but there are about three times as many frogs present in every shot of that plague as there conceivably could be in the entire river because there absolutely must be CGI jizz in an Exodus movie — and they abandon the tack for the last two plagues, but the message is still there.
All of Moses’ encounters with God come after a nasty blow to the head and could be ascribed to that, and even directly are by Zipporah. Joshua frequently looks at their conversations and sees Moses talking to a rock. Worse, Moses is at first a skeptic of both the Egyptian pantheon and the Hebrew faith, but does a heel-face-turn after this bump on the noggin, making not only his visitations by God but the very belief that drives him the product of a well-timed mudslide. Bale said that Moses was likely schizophrenic and “One of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” It doesn’t affect his portrayal of the character, he was sleepwalking through the entire movie, but it does give a sense of the direction Scott wanted this to go.
Faith is a beautiful thing, and even though I personally do not have it, I find these theories and a portrayal based on them deeply offensive. Exodus is a story of miracles. It is a story of faith. It is a story of belief that, against all odds, after centuries of slavery and oppression, salvation will eventually come. It is a story that Jews held onto during the Holocaust and a story that African slaves held onto during the 1700s and 1800s.
Something the Exodus story is not is rational, and rationalizing it weakens it and invalidates the faith that makes the struggle worthwhile and the core of what makes the story something that can be held onto. Casting Moses as a schizophrenic and an entire culture’s deliverance as just one of the funny adventures he got into may very well be historically accurate, but that’s not what this story means to people. As stated, I like that Scott has the courage to play with and really make this story his own, but adapting a work specifically to try and cut out its very soul is classless and petty, and in this case inflammatory toward billions of people alive and dead.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a very poorly made movie, and even if it weren’t, it would still be horrible.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Greatness itself: the best revenge. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.