It is unlikely that anyone could have made a satisfying film out of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the Ridley Scott-directed biblical epic that opened last weekend. The script, by four different writers including Steve Zaillian of “Schindler’s List” fame, is a sluggish, unbalanced mess; the first third of the film is an entertaining irrelevance and the most important part of the story is relegated to the last 10 minutes of a long two-and-a-half hours.
Despite that, Scott, who made the film in 3-D, keeps the action moving. And make no mistake, this is mainly an action film with a little oddball theology thrown in for respite; the result is brisk enough that one is never bored. But interested? Barely. Engaged? Hardly. Intellectually challenged? C’mon. But never bored.
Inevitably, the filmmakers put their own spin on the Exodus-from-Egypt backstory, which is their privilege. When the rabbis do it, we call it midrash. The Torah isn’t a 19th-century novel; it’s not long on psychological motivation or introspection, and for modern readers/viewers the desire to fill in those gaps is probably inevitable. While most people, when told that Scott would be making the film, might have thought he was a logical choice because of his practiced hand with big set-piece period films like “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Robin Hood,” the really interesting element of the match of director and subject is Scott’s affinity for deracinated, dispossessed and homeless protagonists, buffeted by historical (and trans-historical) forces that they cannot understand. From Ripley in “Alien” to Moses in the new film, Scott’s central characters are either rootless wanderers or will be within a few minutes of the film’s opening.
As played by the perpetually dour Christian Bale, Moses is another in this long line; he’s a prince of Egypt sort of by adoption, a man who has risen through his prowess, perspicacity and appetite for battle. But he is a man whose past is obscured and whose ostensible family ties turn out to be spurious. Bale does best with the early part of the film, bringing a certain dry wit and undeniable swagger to the princely Moses. Unfortunately, as he becomes increasingly entangled in the struggles of the Hebrews, the actor reverts to his tried-and-true scowling self and, regrettably, the audience must experience the transition as a loss rather than an elevation.
By contrast, Joel Edgerton’s Pharaoh Ramses is perpetually uncertain, hounded by self-doubt and an almost palpable loathing for fleshly things. When the plagues hit Egypt, Ramses clearly becomes a man appalled by the sheer ickiness of things like boils, frogs and locusts.
If you’re going to make a film that follows the source material even minimally, the Exodus story presents a massive structural problem: the supposed hero, Moses, is more the bearer of really bad tidings than an active cause of the downfall of the Egyptians. With an actor as iconic as Charlton Heston (and a script as reverentially linear as Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”) that presents little problem. Heston’s Moses is like a leg-breaker for a loan shark. He makes painful things happen to people who don’t follow the rules. By contrast, Scott’s Moses, despite a certain strange echoing of narrative tropes from the western film, is a veritable sleepwalker, a reluctant servant of a God by whom he is utterly baffled.
A lot of the abuse heaped on “Exodus: Gods and Kings” has fallen on the decision of Scott and the writers to represent God as a small, rather petulant boy. It is an oddly inspired choice. In a film that is obsessed with the generational transmission of community values, the idea of a mysterious youngster as Supreme Being actually makes a certain thematic sense. There are a million ways to depict the Ineffable, and all of them are wrong. This one at least has the minor benefit of being original.
The way that Scott and Co. handle God’s appearance to Moses is indicative of the theological tentativeness of the film. Moses is caught in a rockslide while chasing some straying livestock, struck on the head and buried in geological sludge except for his face. When he comes to, there’s that burning bush and the boy. After that, whenever Moses is seen arguing with the phenomenon, an eavesdropping Joshua (Aaron Paul) sees him seemingly talking to empty air. If not for Bale’s earnestness, the result would feel like “Topper in Egypt,” but it has a cynical logic. Viewers are offered two versions of events and can pick and choose for their own philosophical comfort.
The treatment of the plagues is similar. The script sets in motion a chain of ecological catastrophes that wreck Egypt, and there seems to be an at least superficially plausible explanation until things escalate beyond any scientific interpretation. Scott treats the big set pieces like a mixture of action choreography and horror-film imagery, with the result that it seems all too familiar to a jaded moviegoer.
The film’s use of 3-D is no help. Indirectly, it merely points a large neon arrow at what is really wrong with this film. Whether you are DeMille or Ridley Scott, you are enslaved to the dominant narrative paradigms in which you work. If the only tool you have is a hammer, the world is filled with nails; if the stories you are used to telling are genre stories with a strong line in narrative convention, you will make everything into a western/science fiction thriller/detective film/historical epic. Which is what Scott has done.
It would take a very different kind of film sensibility to look at the last four books of the Torah and see a story about nation-building, lawgiving and developing a relationship to 613 commandments, however you conceive that relationship. If you see the story as a duel between “Gods and Kings,” between slaveholders and slaves, good guys and bad guys, the result is always going to be a film like this one.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is in wide release.