As an agnostic atheist, I am on a constant search for opportunities within the artifice of cinema to give myself over to an experience and, for the duration of a motion picture, believe in God. The greatest failure of Exodus: Gods and Kings is that for all the discussion of God, faith, and miracles, I was left not believing. It is a gorgeous film crafted to within an inch of its life by a director who believes in the spirituality of cinema and, unfortunately, built upon on a script written by people who don’t seem to have a single spiritual bone in their bodies. Why, for two and a half hours, am I to sit through a biblical epic without once feeling like I understood anything about spiritual catharsis? It isn’t that I’m incapable of being sympathetic towards Judeo-Christian ideals; it’s that the film doesn’t seem to have any method of engaging those ideals on a visceral level.
Moses and Ramses were, as the film goes to very explicit lengths to tell us, born side by side and raised to be as close as brothers, but do they ever actually connect? No time to think about it long, unfortunately, as immediately after the film’s opening discussion of civil unrest, one that I’m afraid to say would have George Lucas’s seal of approval, the audience is hurled into an action sequence with hardly any warning or sense of context. A dazzling set piece it most certainly is, perhaps too much so for the film’s own good; what does such a rousing sequence mean when we haven’t been primed for it? After Moses saves Ramses’s life in the midst of combat, he meets with the viceroy of Pithom to discuss something I cannot be bothered to remember before taking a chance to meet the city’s slaves. A slave played by Ben Kingsly tells Moses that he was born just as much a Hebrew as any slave and describes how Moses’s sister gave him up as a child to be raised by the royal family. Moses leaves in a huff and denies this entirely, but the truth is nevertheless out.
I struggled to piece together the preceding synopsis because the film’s plot is painted by such deadening dialog that any scene of explanation or interaction with even the smallest potential for complexity, intimacy, and intrigue is rendered stillborn. It is a serious film written without the slightest amount of levity, and whenever the film stops long enough to explain the nuances of its socio-political going-ons, it becomes like treading through a cocktail of tar and molasses, with the retinal napalm that is the 3D of this movie making it quite literally painful to watch. I kept wondering if the use of 3D was what kept me at such a distance from the film, and it’s true that I had to remove my glasses at least 7 times throughout the film just to achieve some kind of relief, but the moment I removed my glasses, the stale, flavorless words kept flowing, and my interest shriveled with each and every one. Ridley Scott’s last film, The Counselor, was also criticized for its dialog, but at the very least, it retained a personality that I admired. Not only was there no personality to the writing here, but it’s greatest sin is that it seems to have no grasp on the emotions that drives Christianity.
And if there is no compelling writing, then how are the actors going to be anything but wasted? Christian Bale and Joel Edgartown are both masterful performers, but what can they do with characters so flimsy? Bale resorts to acting with his eyebrows and ability to shout at unlikely intervals, and Edgarton, although providing the most textured performance in the film, is given some of the most unintentionally silly scenes of alleged catharsis I’ve seen since Brian De Palma’s Passion (a movie that’s ultimately far shorter and, it should be said, far more entertaining). Sigourney Weaver doesn’t even attempt an English accent, and Aaron Paul, despite having more than enough screen time, doesn’t utter a single line until at least two hours into the picture. He isn’t meant to be enigmatic. He simply does not speak, and when he does, one is left wondering, “Really? Is that honestly what you were leading up to?”
All of that shouldn’t distract from the individual moments of absolutely spellbinding transcendence. Every occurrence of divine intervention is handled with unparalleled grace, a grace the rest of the film sorely lacks. Some of Ridley Scott’s most impressive visual achievements exist in this movie, especially one sequence beginning with an attack by crocodiles and ending with a plague and swarms of flies and locusts. It is during these moments that the movie finally comes to life, and watching these sequences gives one the sense that Ridley Scott deserves more impassioned stories. He is an extraordinary filmmaker of great depth of intelligence, and every success of the movie is a direct product of his distinct eye and touch. Considering all of that, one has to wonder what it was that made him invest in such limp, heartless material.
Throughout the film, the voice of God is spoken through a little boy who appears as Moses’s recurring vision. At the end of the film, we see an aged Moses being carried through the desert in a cart alongside his ocean of disciples. There is a glint in his eye that suggests he has made peace with the burden he was given, and as he stares out through his stampede of followers, he spots the boy and shares a moment of silent understanding with him. This is a moment that speaks volumes about what the film should have been. I don’t often like to compare films to what I think they ought to have been, but if your goal is to make a biblical epic, shouldn’t the audience gain insight into what it feels like to have the milk of God coursing through your veins? We don’t have to believe it, per se; we simply need to understand it. The movie itself, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t even approach that, so how can we?