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Exodus: Gods and Kings review

Exodus turns out to be one swords-and-sandals epic too many for Ridley Scott

As the master moviemaker responsible for cinematic titans like Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and more, Ridley Scott has proven himself beyond capable of executing grand ideas, and pursuing great visions. But in pursuing the perilous path of biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, even Scott is in over his head, a victim of numerous plagues — most notably, boredom.

Exodus: Gods and Kings tells the story of Moses. Perhaps you’ve heard of him; he’s the Egyptian prince and war hero who becomes an exile and outcast once he and others learn that he’s secretly Jewish. Here, he’s played by Christian Bale, doing his very best impression of Russell Crowe circa Gladiator.

Maybe it’s less that Scott’s out of touch, and more just … bored.

Early into his exile, Moses finds love and purpose in the form of his new family, but it takes him years to reconnect with his religious roots. On a dark and stormy night, Moses slips on a rock, hits his head, and wakes up from darkness to the sight of an eerie burning bush, and a small child who may or may not be God himself.

When the child tells Moses that he needs a general to lead his people, Moses instantly experiences a spiritual reawakening. He returns to Egypt to free the Jewish slaves he once rejected, but initial attempts at peaceful negotiation soon give way to all-out war — and when Moses’ guerrilla tactics against the Egyptians start moving at a snail’s pace, the little boy God decides to speed things up with some decidedly drastic action.

You know what comes next: plagues of hail, locusts, frogs, pestilence, and precious children dying by the wayside. And you know what comes after that: a perilous trek across the desert in search of a promised land, punctuated by the parting of the Red Sea and all the danger and drama that comes with it.

Really, Exodus is an unspoilable movie; it’s an adaptation of what is inarguably among the world’s oldest tales. And Scott doesn’t dare rewrite ancient history. Sure, there are flourishes of color here, a sinister snake in the royal court there, but the general arc of Moses hearing the word of God and rescuing his people accordingly is safe and sound.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

That’s not the problem with Exodus. The problem is that Scott is so clearly, painfully bored. He has told this type of story before, and he’s told it better. The Book of Exodus is a source of inspiration for several large-scale epics, what with its narrative of redemptive heroes who sacrifice body, mind, and soul for the greater good. See, for instance, Gladiator, the story of a military hero exiled from his people, only to lead a revolutionary movement against a mean man in power, leaving his entire life on the line in the process. Sound familiar?

The parallels are plain to see between Gladiator and Exodus: Maximus and Moses, Commodus and Ramesses, the disenfranchised Romans and the Jewish slaves of Egypt, and beyond. Similar parallels exist in Scott’s other sword-wielding epics, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood. All of these tales owe at least some small thanks to the story of Moses — and by the time Scott gets to the actual story of Moses, the big kahuna, it’s one swords-and-sandals epic too many. You don’t need to see a burning bush to come to the abundantly clear revelation that Exodus offers Scott nothing new.

Likewise, Exodus offers very little for Scott’s main cast. As Moses, Bale is oh-so serious, barking orders and acting tough, the hint of any emotion other than raw exhaustion rarely if ever washing upon his face. He’s played this speed before, in the Dark Knight trilogy, in the train wreck known as Terminator: Salvation, and more — and it’s a speed that’s far less interesting than when Bale breaks out of the box with characters like Patrick Bateman and Dicky Eklund. As awesome as it sounds on paper, Ancient Egypt Batman isn’t all that interesting.

Other notable actors include Aaron Paul as Moses’ disciple Joshua, Ben Kingsley as a wizened old man named Nun, and Sigourney Weaver as Ramesses’ mean mother Tuya. All three of these excellent actors bring nothing to the table beyond their recognizable faces and marquee names; there’s no meat for any of them to chew on — especially Weaver, who has one scene of actual dialogue, and otherwise just stands there in the background.

Moses is played by Christian Bale, doing his very best impression of Russell Crowe circa Gladiator.

In fairness, at least Joel Edgerton tries to do something interesting as Ramesses. As if taking a cue from Bale’s playbook, Edgerton is unrecognizable as the petulant Pharaoh: drenched in bronze makeup and dark eyeliner, bald as a baby, and as selfish and needy as one, too. Edgerton avoids becoming a mustache-twirling villain by providing enough moments of genuine rage and sorrow to make him somewhat relatable. Other than Edgerton, John Turturro is the other main cast member allowed to play against type, somehow occupying the role of Pharaoh Seti I; he’s pretty good, too, for all five minutes he’s in the movie.

Even with Edgerton and Turturro turning in solid performances, their involvement in Exodus speaks to one of the most major criticisms leveled against the film. Indeed, much has been made of Scott’s whitewashed cast, and the complaints aren’t unfair — especially when the major roles go to famous caucasian actors, and only the secondary and background players are of Middle-Eastern descent. In interviews, Scott seems like he doesn’t care about these criticisms; in fact, in some cases, he seems outright hostile toward the issue. It’s a shame to see such a seasoned pro so out of touch; at the very least, one has to think that even Scott knows his Hollywood cast doesn’t work for this picture.

But maybe it’s less that Scott’s out of touch, and more just … bored. Maybe he’s so disinterested in the movie he made here, that he’s already focused on the road ahead. (His next project, The Martian, sounds much more promising than Exodus, starring Matt Damon in a Robinson Crusoe-on-Mars situation.) That was certainly the impression after walking away from Exodus. It’s not a terrible movie; it’s a tedious one — and perhaps that’s the greatest offense of all, if not exactly the most shocking outcome.

(Media © 20th Century FOX)