Epics of ancient history have been a staple of movies for practically a century already. One could simply dress people up in the clothing of the day and mesmerize audiences with scenes ripped out of the past or the future. Ridley Scott has spent a large amount of his career doing just that, jumping back and forth between time periods to make sweeping films about deadly aliens and fierce gladiators. Nearly all his films have been memorable if not for their story then for their unique visuals and visceral thrills. The first time the alien burst from a chest, when Maximus was brought to the Coliseum. These were events that existed in some form previously but could never in such realistic ways. Movies getting more realistic resulted in a greater impact on audiences. But it was always more than just the images themselves. Characters brought these movies to life and guided us along to see all these new things. Which is unfortunate for Exodus, because it is sorely lacking that all important feature.
It’s the classic tale. Moses and Ramses are raised as brothers in the house of the Pharaoh although Moses is not of their blood. After being banished he’s called upon by God to lead the Hebrew slaves of Egypt to freedom by calling upon his former brother’s humanity. But when Ramses does not yield, God sends down the ten plagues to force the Pharaoh’s hand. Despite the sprawling two and a half hour run time of the film, the story never escapes that basic three sentence outline.
The movie doesn’t have an interesting perspective or twist on any of the events unfolding. The story of Moses and the Pharaoh was never the most neatly wrapped and structured but Bible stories have always been good at pushing themes and morals on the audience that’s listening. That Exodus spends two and a half hours telling this story in the most conventional way possible, is at best boring and at worst tedious. Every moment where the film wants to or even could touch on some important lesson about faith, dreams, and destiny instead undercuts it with a boggling choice to make God’s work more realistic. From a religious perspective this doesn’t make any sense because this is a film whose story presupposes that God is real and he is angry enough to wreck Egypt. That this film would choose to downplay that even in the face of overwhelming evidence for the audience and the characters themselves is, ironically, a stunning lack of faith.
Gladiator this is not. At least Prometheus bothered to ask some interesting questions about whom or what we are in the grand scheme of the universe. Exodus portends that we are the undivided attention of God, except when it’s explicitly stated that he didn’t do anything to help the previous generations of Hebrews that died as slaves so vengeful wrath against the Egyptians seems all that more justified. This is the Old Testament God, no two ways about it.
To briefly touch on the controversy, Exodus, before it even made it to theaters has been criticized for a cast of mostly white actors playing the lead roles in a movie largely set in Northeastern Africa and the Middle East. If this was a better movie there may have been more debate about whether or not the casting was relevant, but it seems to me that it shouldn’t matter. The quality of the film overall is reduced by the inaccuracy. Especially in movies like this where the more “foreign” a character looks, the more likely they are to be a bad guy or minor character. Choice of actor for a part can greatly change the quality of a film, but in cases like this it’s just distracting.
If you’re interested in a new version of the Ten Plagues (or the most engaging part of the movie), then skip the first hour and twenty minutes or so. Otherwise, this isn’t worth investing so much time in.
Exodus: Gods and Kings Premieres Saturday at 8pm on HBO!