Ridley Scott’s been through a bit of a rough patch lately. There the critical and commercial flop of The Counselor last year despite one of the best casts you could hope for and a screenplay by celebrated American novelist Cormac McCarthy (then again, maybe we can ask F. Scott Fitzgerald how that can work out). Alien prequel/reboot Prometheus did well enough at the box office, but was received middling reviews. And the Russell Crowe-led Gladiator-esque Robin Hood didn’t ever justify its colossal budget.
But what about this latest epic, the Biblically-proportioned Exodus: Gods and Kings. Erik Pascall and I gave our two cents.
Tim: Well, we’ve now seen the second of two major studio, big-budget Biblical epics this year. Did you have a favorite?
Erik: Between the two, I highly preferred The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Tim: Hahaha. Although I think some of the Judeo-Christian undertones from the Tolkien work may have been lost in Peter Jackson’s translation. Another conversation for another day, perhaps. But I guess let’s dive in with the…issue…that’s plagued this production since the early stages of casting: the whitewashed cast. It actually was a bit of an impediment for me. John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver were nothing but laughable, and while Joel Edgerton does about as well as you could ever expect as Ramses, it’s a bit of a low ceiling.
Erik: Actually, I did come up with a justification for the white cast – I don’t know if it’s a good justification (probably not), but it entered my mind. At least as far as Exodus: Gods and Kings is concerned, the land of Egypt is as much a fantasy land as Middle Earth. Therefore, no matter what the race of the actors, historical accuracy is irrelevant. Honestly, I just wanted some justification so I could put the idiotic casting out of my head and judge the movie on its own merits. Didn’t help me enjoy the film anymore, but that’s where my mind was watching it. I chose to view the film and judge it purely as a work of fiction. And as a work of fiction, of entertainment, it wasn’t very good.
Tim: I think that’s a great way to approach this movie. Just like we know 300 is loosely based on historical Greeks, but we don’t get overly concerned with the accuracy of their racial or cultural representation (in part because westerners identify more directly with Greeks than Egyptians, I think, and so are more content to see them as white). But this calls to point on of the biggest struggles I had with the movie. Regardless of how historically accurate you consider the Book of Exodus to be, it’s very intentional in the way portrays Moses and God and Israel, not to mention Pharaoh and Egypt. The book is purposeful and unified in its telling of the story. I didn’t ever feel Exodus: Gods and Kings did that. I mean, Moses is almost completely lost as an active character for a huge part of the film’s second half. And there’s this weird blend of natural and supernatural explanations for the plagues, I didn’t know what to think.
Erik: I had a similar experience. It’s strange how Scott (and the film’s writers) portray God. At first it seems they go the “maybe it really is God, maybe Moses is just hallucinating” route, but once the plagues hit they go full God Mode, until they backtrack and go back to “crazy Moses, everything is a coincidence.” It’s like Scott couldn’t decide who he wanted this movie to be for: those of faith, or the skeptical. I’ve seen adaptations of Biblical stories that go either way but rarely try for both.
Tim: I agree, it’s trying to serve two masters. But to me that’s not even the main point. Regardless of whether Moses is crazy or actually hearing God, I don’t understand making his character less active than in the biblical telling. There, he’s constantly meeting with Pharaoh, he rises to become leader of the Israelites. There’s narrative connection, cause and effect at every turn. Here, it felt like Moses was getting in the god-child’s way more than he was acting as a useful or faithful servant.
Erik: That was weird too. I’ve seen three adaptations of the Exodus story: The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, and a Rugrats Passover special. All three versions (even the cartoons), made it seem like God was acting through Moses, that He needed a tool to work through. You’re right that Moses seemed to be getting in God’s way. In fact, when the plagues hit (which I thought was the best part of the movie; the plagues themselves, that is) it feels like God is acting independent of Moses. Which honestly makes God come off as a prick. If he’s so angry about his people being enslaved for 400 years, why didn’t he send out the crocodiles and frog tidal waves at any other time during those 400 years?
Tim: It’s weird, right? And it’s not helped by the depiction of God as this little boy who may only exist in Moses’s dreams. When the boy is talking about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, he sounds like a vengeful kid that got bullied at recess, not an all powerful, omniscient deity.
Erik: Okay, if people want to complain about casting, they should be complaining about this goddamn (no pun intended) kid. No offense to the little guy – he’s young, and there are very few exceptional actors at that age – but a lot of those line reads were just awful. Did no one, at any point, tap Scott on the shoulder and tell him this was a bad idea? Hell, why did he even think this was a good idea? In Ten Commandments God had a deep scary voice; in Prince of Egypt he sounded kind and soothing (and had the same voice as the person playing Moses – Val Kilmer I believe).
Tim: I’ll bet a lot of money that far from Scott not realizing those were mediocre line reads, he was directing them to be pretty flat. It felt intentional. But it goes back to the questions of vision and intent. What is the purpose behind making God appear as a little kid? Is it because Scott sees God as a mean little kid? That’s legitimate, I guess, but that’s not an attitude that permeates this movie, it just shows up here and there. And so I go back to the question of, what is gained by telling this story in this particular way, as though it’s got more in common with Troy? And I don’t have an answer.
Erik: Another odd thing: soon after the movie was announced, I remember Scott saying he took on the film because he was interested in the breakdown of the relationship between two brothers – Ramses and Moses. Yet, I didn’t see that in the finished film. Ramses was a simpering idiot who resented Moses for being smarter, and destroyed his own kingdom because….he’s a simpering idiot who resented Moses for being smarter.
Tim: Yeah, it seemed to me that Scott was a lot more interested in helicopter shots than character development, because I saw way too many of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. Ramses turns on a dime, as you say, over Moses saving his life. And Moses…comes to self-identify as Hebrew, I guess? He was already a leader when he was an Egyptian prince. One of the interesting aspects of the Biblical version of the story that doesn’t get hit on at all here is that, in that telling, Moses is a lousy public speaker. He’s the tool through which God acts and leads, but his brother Aaron is the charismatic one. Christian Bale really looked like he was phoning this one in, but can you blame him? There was nowhere interesting to take the character in this iteration of the story.
Erik: Speaking as someone who saw Transformers 4 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ramses was the worst movie villain I’ve seen all year. But speaking of characters, I notice we’re not bringing up any of the supporting ones. Could that be because they were even more underwritten than our leads?
Tim: Yes. That is the reason. Yes. There was nothing for any of them. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Erik: For me, this was one of the worst films of the year. So, I have to ask, was there anything you thought was good or redeeming about it? I mentioned the plagues, which I thought were genuinely cool to see (again, frog tidal wave) and I though the final plague was handled in a very nice way: the shot of the city when you just hear the voices of the parents crying out.
Tim: I will say this on Moses’s behalf – dragging him through the mud a bit (both figuratively and literally) does bring home his humanity in a way you don’t often think of otherwise. I mean, this is a guy who was spoken to by God. I’m pretty sure I’d freak out a bit, too. I like that he’s scared, second-guessing himself, feeling like he’s flying by the seat of his pants. But on the whole, this felt like a production that was just vomiting money. I meant what I said about too many helicopter shots. The sweeping vistas full of CGI people and monuments just weren’t all that impressive. Memphis was kind of cool once or twice, but instead of all the spectacle, I wish time had been spent hammering out exactly what the filmmakers wanted to say with this movie. As much as I didn’t think Noah was an especially good movie overall, I also have told several people to see it because Darren Aronofsky had something particular he wanted to do with that story (even if it ended up getting obscured by studio tinkering). There’s something to talk about there. Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t have any of that.
Erik: It doesn’t help that Exodus is two and a half goddamned (again, no pun intended) hours long. I’m not going to be one of those people who say movies are getting too long, because I watched all three Hobbit movies, and though they’re flawed, I wasn’t bored by any of them. And in fact one of my favorite movies this year, The Raid 2, was two and a half hours, and not a minute of it was wasted.
Tim: Funny, Exodus didn’t seem that horrifically long to me. Then again, I had just seen The Battle of the Five Armies, so I found a whole new meaning for “ambivalence” before setting foot in this one.
Erik: After the plagues were over, I was counting the minutes. Maybe it was because I already knew how the story ended, but I’ve seen plenty of adaptations of works I knew the ending to, but still got into them. I thought at least Five Armies had more going on, and a competent villain.
Tim: I thought I knew how this one would end too – and then surprise! Who knew Ramses could survive approximately a metric ton of water driving him into the rocky seabed?
Erik: I suppose you could interpret it as: he didn’t survive and he’s in hell. But could anyone have cared at that point?
Tim: No. They could not have. No. It’s not possible. No. No. No.
Erik: I hope this trend of religious films ends. Actually, no, I just hope a competent artist who actually cares makes one. Oh wait, someone did: John Michael McDonagh made Calvary, and nobody saw it.