Ridley Scott has never been one to limit himself to dreaming small, and considering how powerful his best work has been, I wouldn't want him to suddenly change the way he does things. That ambition has led to some truly great movies, and I'm sure he's got at least one more great movie in the tank. He does not seem to be showing any signs of flagging energy, and considering he didn't really establish himself as a commercial filmmaker until he was 40, there's always something about him that feels like he's making up for lost time, like he's hungry, even now, even at this point in his considerable career.
One of the things that I find most fascinating about Scott, though, is that when he makes a bad film, he doesn't do it by half-measures. He has made some truly terrible movies. Most recently, his “Robin Hood” was just a mess, almost confounding in how bad it was, how dramatically confused. And while I think “Prometheus” has some strong visual moments, the script issues with that film worry me. There are things so dumb in that film that it makes me wonder if Scott is just lucky when he gets his hands on a great script. There are visual stylists with no story sense at all, and I feel like someone who was story-oriented would have insisted that script go back up on the blocks. I feel like they also would have asked an essential question before they started production on “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the same question I've been asking since I saw it.
The Exodus story has been exhaustively retold in our culture. We've had big Hollywood versions of it before, as well as animated versions, and I feel like it's a story that has been told definitively. That doesn't preclude someone making a new version, of course, but I would expect that if you're going to do something as well-worn as this, you'd bring something new to the table. There are definitely things that could be explored from a new angle, characters that could be delved into more deeply. Considering the way Scott's “Kingdom Of Heaven” examined the Crusades, it does not seem out of line to expect that “Exodus: Gods and Kings” might be something different.
Instead, this is as down-the-middle a presentation of the story as possible, earnest to a fault, and the film is undone by tone within the first ten minutes. Sometimes you can just feel it when a film isn't working, when the filmmakers never pull off the essential magic trick of bringing the film to life. This is almost disturbingly inert, and there are some major casting issues that hobble the film from the start. In addition, the film seems to reach for a weight that it simply doesn't achieve, and no matter how dour Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton are as Moses and Rhamses, they're never able to make these characters come across as anything but types.
While there are a number of familiar faces in the film, like John Turturro as the Pharaoh or Sigourney Weaver as his wife or Aaron Paul as Joshua, no one makes any impression beyond the occasional passing thought of “Well, he seems miscast.” Characters appear and disappear almost randomly, and through it all, Bale is front and center but more invisible than I think he's ever been. It's hard to even know where to begin criticizing his Moses because it's just a misfire from start to finish. I don't believe that this guy is particularly driven by either a fear of God or a desire to do good, and he does what he does in the film because that's the way the story goes, not for any reason that makes any sense as you're actually watching.
Portraying God onscreen is never an easy thing, and there's no one right way to do it. The script by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zallian chooses to create a character played by Isaac Andrews, turning God into an 11-year-old boy who whips from emotion to emotion in his conversations with Moses, playful, then angry, then petulant, and the relationship they have is just as half-realized as everything else about the film. There's nothing particularly wrong with their scenes, but there's also nothing about the choice that sheds any new light on either Moses or how Ridley Scott and his collaborators feel about God. It's just a dramatic device to give someone the voice of the Lord, explaining things explicitly as much as possible.
One of the things that this film can do that no previous version has been able to match is the scale with which it presents the various plagues on Egypt, and it's certainly rendered in vivid detail. But unlike most set pieces in giant-budget action films, I have a hard time getting worked up about the technical accomplishment when what I'm watching is the death of the firstborns. And what you might expect would be the highlight of the film, the parting of the Red Sea, is re-imagined in a way that is both geographically confusing and oddly uninvolving. It is a flat and tension-free sequence, complete with a ridiculous confrontation between Moses and Rhamses right in the middle of things. It seems to me that if you can't even nail the Red Sea sequence, there's nothing here to recommend. Even the superficial feels to me like it doesn't work, and normally with a Ridley Scott film, you can count on at least a certain degree of surface slick worth looking at.
This is that rare case where it feels like every choice Scott made was off, and the cumulative impact of all of these choices is one of the most crushing disappointments of the year in terms of who made the film and how little of it works. I feel particularly bad for Edgerton, who is saddled with a thankless role, and who has been rendered visually ridiculous. Everyone feels like they're in an amateur production, and no matter how much research you want to tell me was done into ancient Egypt, this feels phony in the details. The hair, the costumes, the make-up, the sets… it all feels like one of those '50s epics where everything is arch and absurd and hyper-serious.
When I recently rewatched “Gladiator” for the first time in a while, I was struck by just how much Scott managed to avoid the hallmarks of the sandal epic, how he managed to bring this great raw kinetic feel to things while also embracing tech as a way of presenting a long-gone world in a very immersive way. It's hard for me to accept that this is by the same filmmaker, by a filmmaker with 13 more years of experience, a filmmaker who is by all accounts a spirited collaborator even now in his 70s. This just doesn't feel like the Ridley Scott whose work I like and even sometimes love. I'm curious to see if the faith-based audiences that Fox is counting on turn out for this one, and I'm equally curious to see if they have any cross-over to a secular audience that just turns out to see a good film. Like “American Sniper,” this is a film that is hard to discuss simply in aesthetic terms because of the way people feel about the subject matter, but my problems have to do with this as a movie, first and foremost.
Whatever the case, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a flat, uninspired telling of a story that has been told enough times that we deserve something better than this.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is in theaters December 12.