The biblical story of Moses and his delivery of the Israelites from the bonds of Egyptian slavery has inspired several films of varying quality, although none miss the mark quite so staggeringly as Ridley Scott’s 3D spectacle Exodus: Gods and Kings. Here is a confused, dull, unpleasant, emotionally inaccessible film that traverses from start to finish without ever really knowing what it wants to say. It’s also something of a paradox – a movie that lumbers wearily through its excessive 150-minute length yet condenses the story to such an extent that it always feels as if something is missing. This might actually be the case, considering Scott’s history with films that get compromised by editorial tweaking (Blade Runner, Legend, Kingdom of Heaven). Of course, he also has a history of recutting his films subsequent to their theatrical releases, typically to greater effect. Here’s hoping a similar fate awaits Exodus.
In an October 2013 interview with Adam Sternbergh of The New York Times, Scott identified as an atheist. This likely accounts, at least in part, for the film’s more rational approach to specific events described in the Book of Exodus. It doesn’t, however, account for moments in which reason is altogether abandoned, in all likelihood for the sake of narrative simplicity. Why, for example, would the Plagues of Egypt be depicted as an entirely natural and random chain reaction while, later on, the Angel of Death most certainly does discriminate between first-born Egyptian males and Hebrews who have painted their doorways with lamb’s blood? Why would the Red Sea not part so much as gently ebb away to a very low tide – with multiple waterspouts twisting up into the sky, no less – only for all the water to return as a gigantic tidal wave at just such time when the purusing Egyptian army closes in on the Hebrews?
Although the backstory of Moses, here played by Christian Bale, is the same – born a Hebrew, raised as an Egyptian – his personality has been changed, and at times, it’s not even almost for the better. Initially, during the years he believed he was an authentic Egyptian, he’s portrayed as a skeptic who snubs his nose at prophecies, omens, and oracles who use bird entrails to make predictions. But then he learns of his true heritage, is promptly banished from Egypt, wanders to the land of Midian, marries a Bedouin woman named Zipporah (Maria Valverde), and nine years later hikes up Mount Sinai in a rainstorm, only for a rocky mudslide to knock him off his feet and render him unconscious; after this incident, he’s depicted less as the heroic deliverer of the Chosen People and more like a terrorist, using his newfound faith in God as an excuse to rally a Hebrew army and commit acts of vandalism and violence against the Egyptians.
He gained his faith, it must be noted, only after getting knocked unconscious and having a rather underwhelming vision of the burning bush, next to which stands God in the form of a boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews), who cannot be any older than eight or nine. He will reveal himself to Moses at other times as well, adopting an unbecoming snide and sarcastic demeanor while actively encouraging Moses to take revenge against the Egyptians. Naturally, no one else can see God when He converses with Moses; to a bystander, most notably a Hebrew slave named Joshua (Aaron Paul), Moses always appears to be talking to himself. The not-so-subtle implication is that Moses isn’t having any genuine visions of the divine, that hitting his head triggered hallucinations or activated a dormant mental illness, probably schizophrenia. I grant you that this is a perfectly acceptable and even intriguing narrative approach.. But isn’t there a much more engaging way to go about it? And how does it jibe with the already mentioned Angel of Death sequence, which wasn’t depicted in a rational way?
Now let us examine the immediate aftermath of Moses hitting his head. He comes to on his bed with Zipporah at his side; even without full awareness of what he saw when unconscious, she proceeds to tell him that his vision was only in his head, that he never actually saw a boy or a burning bush. Keep in mind that this is coming from a woman with a firm Jewish faith, which is to say she would probably be the first to suggest that he really did have a vision of God. Anyway, Moses insists that his vision was real, and that he has been told to return to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves. It is, of course, possible for a person to choose belief after a period of non-belief, but I find it very farfetched that it would happen as immediately and dramatically as it does for Moses in this film. In fact, given his initial staunch skepticism, you’d think he would be the first to consider an infinitely more likely possibility.
Because the film is caught in a tug-of-war between the rational and the divine, it frequently undermines itself, leaving us to wonder what it’s really about. We don’t see a plot so much as sequence of events, and never once do we meet a character we’re made to care about. This is probably because most of them are at best infrequently seen. These would include: A Hebrew slave named Nun (Ben Kingsley), whose only purpose is to quickly summarize the prophecy that brought Moses to Egypt in the first place; the Egyptian queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver), a murderous plotter whose lines of dialogue can be counted on one hand; and Seti I (John Turturro), whose only memorable attribute is his phony British accent. There is, of course, Moses’ adoptive brother, Rameses (Joel Edgerton), who may have a much bigger part to play but is so petulant that we’re not made to notice much else about him. Exodus: Gods and Kings gives new meaning to the phrase, “Thou shalt not.”