Nutshell: I’d give Exodus: Gods and Kings a C-. Barely passing as an epic, and though there are some interesting moments when the 21st Century tries to science-splain ancient Egypt, it never once stirred my interest past the FX. Who’s your Moses now? Who cares.
I really wanted to love this movie. Because c’mon, who doesn’t love the cheesy goodness of Yul “WHO’S YOUR MOSES NOW?” Brynner in The Ten Commandments? And I’m not even gonna touch the bombast of Charlton Heston’s Moses. It’s grand, over-the-top, and a must-watch for me every Spring.
Unfortunately, Exodus doesn’t live up to the hype of it’s cinematic forefathers. At times it’s a breathtaking visual treat but it’s much like another Spring favorite of mine, the chocolate bunny. It’s pretty enough, and maybe even a bit impressive, but once you sink your teeth into it all you’ve got is a crumbling facade and a hollow that’s damn disappointing.
Y’all know the basics; Moses was an adopted son of Pharaoh. But when rumors of how he was really brought into this world (think reed basket, Jewish binkie and a desperate-for-a-kid Egyptian princess), Moses decides to embrace his heritage, starting with freeing Jewish slaves. All of them. Cue the Exodus!
Director Ridley Scott plays a little fast-n-loose with the basics of the tale;
- A Jewish blanket is swapped for a bracelet with his Hebrew name on it. (Or something like that, as it was tough to understand that scene with all the quick mumbling.)
- The Plagues are re-fashioned into scientifically plausible occurrences. (Or something like that, as it was tough to believe how the first one started. Fun to watch, but tough to believe.)
- He sees the “Burning Bush” after getting literally stuck in the mud from a fierce rainstorm.
- “God” is a kid that serves him tea and verbally spars with him. Nobody else can see the kid, so everyone thinks Moses must be (tripping balls) (schizophrenic) imagining things.
But y’know, I could let all that slide if the story was compelling. However, Scott and his screenwriters suck all the fun out of the story, and barely give the actors much to do except react to things. This is supposed to be a coming of age saga writ large, but Moses doesn’t seem to do much more than fight for Pharaoh, leave Egypt, and then drag himself back to town to watch God plague the crap out of the Egyptians. I watched the characters, rather than rooted for them, because nobody thought to deal with anything more than the trappings of the story. The performances felt like cameos, even from the leads. I’m not even sure that Sigourney Weaver (as Tuya, Queen of Egypt) had more than 3 lines. And Aaron Paul (as Moses’ right hand man Joshua) does little more than stare hopefully at Moses, waiting for orders.
There’s no real boo-hiss baddie here either; Joel Edgerton as Rhamses (sic) is just a guy that still loves his adopted brother even after he’s had to exile him. Can’t a guy just run a country and subjugate the masses in peace? Speaking of, mistreatment of slaves was just another bit of set dressing rather than a heartbreaking main point. With all the scenes in Egypt where slaves were building the pyramids and palaces, they’re given little screen time beyond pan-n-scan. And really, I’ve seen much better “epic” shots elsewhere. Hint: if you’re gonna do sweeping, don’t just scan. Go wide. Otherwise you’ve simply wasted your money, your talent, and your crew.
Another waste was the plagues, dumped one on top of the other as if Scott couldn’t cram them into the film fast enough. Though the RealScience ™ possibilities were intriguing, it left the wonder out of the spectacle. Then again the wonder might have been there if there was a pause to let things sink in; instead it was “And Then This Happened”. In the screening I attended, the people behind me were trying to figure out which plague was happening when, as each attack on Pharaoh slammed into the next. I’m taking a stab in the dark here, but perhaps this was Scott’s attempt to science-splain the plagues, cutting the whole messy God thing out of the picture. And hey, believe what you believe, or don’t…but if you’re making a film based on one of the best known stories of the Bible, you may want to inject at least a touch of wonder here and there.
This is a film that felt too long *and* rushed. With almost 3 hours, Scott could have taken a breather here and there, developed characters beyond Bible paper dolls. Instead, he focused most of his energy lovingly detailing the FX. Typically I love when a director dotes on effects, but that’s typically for a 5-10 million dollar horror cheapie, not a 200+ million dollar hopeful blockbuster. Yes, there’s plenty of eye-popping FX in this film, but I’d hoped for more of a connection to the story and it’s characters too. Otherwise that’s just so much money that could have been used to help feed the poor.
3D? Don’t waste your money, there’s nothing in the film that warrants it. If you’re going, that is.
P.S.: You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the whole “everyone’s white except the slaves” thing that’s happening in this film. But honestly, to quote Scott Mendelson’s review in Forbes, “[t]o be absolutely fair, even if Exodus were cast with 100% racial/ethnic authenticity, it would still be a terrible film.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.