Exodus: Gods and Kings is a disaster of biblical proportions. Critics who have praised the film's lavish visual style are grasping at the only thing in the movie that works.
Is Exodus riddled with biblical inaccuracies? Yes. But a Bible epic designed to appeal to the Richard Dawkins/new atheist crowd might find an audience. (Some people can rally around a film that has nothing for everyone.) But as a Christmas gift to moviegoers everywhere, let's look at three parts of the film that should keep any reasonable person away.
Despite his beard, Christian Bale is still locked into his Batman role. His armor is black. His horses are black. He is the consummate hand-to-hand warrior. And, often, his menacing presence is enough to get local bad guys to back off. Unfortunately, Moses can't always be in battle.
When he is in the court of Pharaoh, Bale seems lost. An interrogation scene in which Pharaoh attempts to discover the truth about Moses' family origins makes no sense. Ramses is Pharaoh. He doesn't need proof or justification for his actions. He is a god to his people. But it is important that Moses be convicted, so he can be exiled, to set him up for a stealthy return. Apparently, Ridley Scott thought this courtroom drama preferable to the Bible's account of Moses killing an abusive Egyptian and then running away.
Though an outcast and a marked man, Moses is so Batman-stealthy and skillful that he manages to infiltrate Pharaoh's stables unseen (how he knew Ramses would be there is not explained), directly threaten the king of the Egyptians, and disappear into the darkness. Later, he manages to walk into the palace, confront the Pharaoh, and walk out unmolested. The Bible's account of Moses has him coming before Pharaoh as well, but that Moses arrives with miracles in hand, prophecies of destruction, and a demand that Pharaoh let his people go. This Moses comes with a sword and veiled-to-the-point-of-obscurity threats.
Ramses' reactions are equally inscrutable. Does Ramses fear Moses, love Moses, or hate Moses? It's hard to tell. There is no clear character arc. Ramses feels whatever is necessary to move the film to the next set piece. The film is a narrative mess.
Often, however, Exodus moves from the merely bad to the laughable. There is a scene in which a court advisor has a piece of papyrus laced up on what can only be described as a forerunner to a conference room white board. He narrates the hieroglyphics describing the play-by-play of a recent battle. All that was missing was a laser pointer.
When that same character evaluates the efficacy of slave labor and actually says, "from an economic standpoint," all sense of antiquity vanishes. This is Exodus by way of The Office.
Poor Sigourney Weaver is horribly miscast as Ramses' mother. Thankfully she has little screen time. All the actors speak their lines in their native tongue, and so the dialogue is, literally, all over the map: American, British, and French. With all the money spent on the production values, no one thought to invest in a dialect coach?
Christians have forgiven bad acting in many films, as long as a movie adheres reasonably well to the Bible narrative, and provides a sense of the transcendent. But Exodus treats the story of God's deliverance of the Hebrews as a particularly expensive Discovery Channel documentary written by the new atheists (perceptive viewers might even draw a connection at the end of the film to Sharknado).
All of the plagues are scientifically explained as a singularly inconvenient series of natural events, rather than as definitive smackdowns of the gods of Egypt. The plagues are never predicted and never identified as a consequence of Pharaoh's refusal to free God's people. Even the Egyptian court magicians are shortchanged. In the Bible, they manage to imitate a number of the miracles, but eventually confess that later miracles are beyond their abilities. In Exodus, the court magicians are so impotent that one wonders why they have a job. (To be fair, Moses, the rationalist, questions their utility early in the film.) The plagues are just remarkable things that, uh, happen. The only hint viewers get that something supernatural is going on is that a petulant young boy (who is Ridley Scott's idea of God) tells Moses to stand down his military effort, sit back, and watch. But raining death without explanation, warning, or giving Pharaoh a chance to reconsider isn't much of a negotiating strategy.
And it is possible that all of the "god stuff" resides entirely in Moses' mind. The option is left open, throughout the film, that Moses is suffering from a blow to the head. The crafting of the tablets that carry the Ten Commandments felt like a scene out of A Beautiful Mind. It would be easy to conclude that Moses was a brilliant battle commander who used his knowledge of the territory to defeat the armies of Pharaoh, and who carried on occasional conversations with an angry child deity that no one but he could see.
Some Bible-based films are bad but redeemable. They just require Christians to fill in the gaps or correct some bad theology. Exodus: Gods and Kings is just bad. It's not "picket-the-theater" bad; it's "don't waste your money" bad. Maybe that way, Hollywood producers will get the hint that while special-effects spectacle is a draw, story still matters.
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