Folks don’t know this about me, but I have a soft spot for biblical stories. Having been raised half Roman Catholic, half who gives a hooey, I have an abundant knowledge of Christian bible quotes and intricacies. Regardless of your beliefs, you have to admit the Bible is full of fantastical, involving stories ripe for big budget adaptations like these.
It’s really the simplicity of it all that makes it entertaining. Bad guys are bad, good guys are unequivocally good, and some invisible force is guiding everyone’s decisions. But when that guiding force doesn’t know when to reign it in, you get Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is the story of Moses (Christian Bale), raised as the son of an Egyptian general and his close friend Ramses (Joel Edgerton), who’s next in line to inherit the Egyptian throne. After Moses learns he’s actually a Hebrew child saved from a disaster, Ramses sends him into exile. Through this exile and years of traveling, Moses discovers the Isreaelite God and learns he’s been chosen to free the Isreaelites from slavery. Then we’ve got all the beats you remember: plagues, Passover, and an Isreaelite army training montage.
There was a big casting controversy surrounding this film before its release. When Ridley Scott revealed that the Egyptians (and Moses) were played by white actors while the non-white actors were stuck with the lesser roles (like slave and thief), it caused quite a stir. Arguments went back and forth as to what the cause was (ranging anywhere from “you can’t sell a film with non-white actors” to “this is historically accurate”), but I’d like to confirm that at the end of the day, none of that actually matters. Exodus: Gods and Kings is a big, dumb, and goofy epic so the whitewashing is like vanilla icing on the cake. It’s an oddly helpful anchor as you slowly realize the rest of the film lacks this kind of conviction.
Exodus can’t decide whether or not it wants to be religious as there are semblances of both anti and pro religious arguments. While there is an active presence of God in Exodus, it’s portrayed as a young boy making rash and violent decisions, and it’s wonderfully sacrilegious (He makes Moses raise an army of Hebrews, sends sharks and alligators as a plague, kills without hesitation) when there’re hints that Moses might just be senile. But it totally backs out of this by falling back on the “faith over all” that’s inherent in this story. It completely comes out of left field as “faith” isn’t a major theme of this film before the final third. Whether or not you agree with the faith, a story praising the work of God at least knows what it wants to do. And it’s not like the other side of that coin wouldn’t work either. A recent example, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, proves that you can tell an agnostic version of a religious story and still hold weight.
Without the fervor brought on from commitment one way or the other, we’re left wallowing in this grey matter. Add this to Exodus‘s overtly long run time, any period of indecisiveness is felt even more so. The pace is almost punishing (exacerbated by the amount of filler present in the narrative). And honestly the turgid pace and whitewashing would’ve been fine had anyone done anything of note. Other than Joel Edgerton as Ramses (who stands out with his prim, nervous take on the Pharoah), no other cast member (even Christian Bale) survives in this blob. It may be the fault of the source material, but there are far too many characters given far too little screen time to actually care what anyone is doing. And when someone does show up and says something, what little plot they’re given is swept under the rug in favor of something else. It’s like weaving a rug thread by thread, taking a break, and starting from a different end each time. Nothing’s ever started, so nothing finishes.
Oh, and what was that accent Christian Bale? Seriously.
Exodus is evocative of classic Hollywood tropes in the best and worst ways. With biblical stories of this ilk, there’s just some things you have to accept. You have to accept they’re going to be a certain length, you have to accept it’s going to retell the same story once again, and you’ve got to accept that it’s going to have certain underlying messages. But you don’t have to accept an un-entertaining film. While this bloated narrative does invoke the “epic” nature of classic Hollywood (and it looks pretty damn good in some areas), and is therefore coincidentally nostalgic (bad as it is, seeing white folks rescuing brown folks is something we’ve seen time and time again), it’s so mismanaged that you’re better off with one of the many other takes on this story.
If after reading this review you’re still somehow compelled to go out and see Exodus: Gods and Kings, here’s a funny tidbit. During my screening, a gentleman in the row in front of me fell asleep…twice. It wasn’t the humble, slumped over sleep either. He had an abrasive, loud snore each time.
I don’t think there’s a criticism more fitting.