When it comes to back stories, there’s no work more frequently tapped than The Bible. A rich document with thousands of stories, it’s produced solid cinema, like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 1959’s terrific Ben-Hur, the silly fun of Life of Brian from 1979, and even daft reinterpretations like the recent Noah [read my review of Noah]. There’s something inherently epic about the mythic story of the origin of humanity, and the story of Exodus (from the Biblical book of the same name) has every element you’d want in a great drama.
Which is why it’s surprising how poorly director Ridley Scott did with Exodus: Gods and Kings.
In the spirit of the holidays, however, let’s start with what’s right: the look of the film is gorgeous and the visual effects are extraordinarily effective. Indeed, this is the first film where the plagues are portrayed in a horrific manner that helps propel the narrative forward and helps demonstrate how obstinate Pharaoh Rameses (Joel Edgerton) was as the God of Moses sends increasingly nasty creatures and events to the Kingdom of Egypt.
The death of the firstborn male child — a plague perhaps macabrely commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Passover — was particularly well portrayed as Rameses, a loving father to his young son, stands vigil over the boy’s bed just to fall asleep and awaken to his young corpse.
The parting of the Red Sea was also not just visually stunning, but a very interesting re-interpretation of a visual that we’ve all been primed with from earlier movies: The seas didn’t just magically separate so that there was a convenient dry trail, but rather required the escaping Israelites to have more faith in God and Moses himself as they waded across a shallow, but not entirely dried up portion of the Sea.
That’s the good. The bad, unfortunately, outweighed the good, starting with a surprisingly lackluster performance from Christian Bale as Moses. From the first time we see his neatly trimmed facial hair and short, clean, layered hair on screen, it’s impossible not to think about “Christian Bale as Moses”, rather than having Moses the defiant leader who constantly questions his own faith and sanity. There’s a certain level of passion, of epic performance that is required for an epic film – Bible-based or otherwise – to work, and Bale didn’t deliver.
Worse, neither did anyone else in the cast. When the viewer is aware of the actors “acting”, then the film has failed, and in his desire to have big-ticket celebrities on screen, Scott made a huge error casting such well-known faces as John Turturro as Egyptian government official Seti, Sigourney Weaver as royal court confidante Tuya and even Ben Kingsley as leader of the Jewish slaves Nun. Across the board, there were no truly standout performances, even from Kingsley, an actor who almost always gets the tonality of his performance spot on.
And that’s my biggest complaint with Exodus: Gods and Kings, that it was entirely miscast and for all that Ridley Scott has created some superb films, he was unable to draw decent performances out of any of the cast. Which left a beautiful film with no soul, with no passion, with nothing really memorable other than the visual effects which, in this day and age, we expect in every film regardless of budget.
Like every other cinemaphile, I have my favorite actors who I enjoy seeing in different roles, but in some films, the viewers awareness of the actor really does get in the way of enjoying the story. Next time, Mr. Scott, let’s see what you can do with an epic film and a cast of unknowns who deliver performances truly worthy of the source material.