The problem with Exodus: God And Kings is that it gives no indication what Ridley Scott saw in the Exodus story that made him want to retell it. Was it the burning bush? The frogs? A fond childhood memory of Charlton Heston’s beard? Why are we telling this story? Scott treats it like he’s illustrating a foreign novel.
2014’s other biblical epic, Noah, felt like Darren Aronofsky’s earnest attempt to make sense of an ancient, obtuse, semi-nonsensical Old Testament parable. It was a big mess (really? rock monsters?), but it was great fun watching Aronofsky attempt the rhetorical gymnastics required to reconcile his ideas about a just and loving God with this story about God murdering a bunch of people. It’s a struggle that goes on in the mind of every rational believer, and in that way, as weird as it got, Noah was still relatable. In Exodus, there’s no struggle, no attempt to unpack or elucidate the ancient, idiomatic storytelling, just a lot of jewelry and yelling. Scott dumps all the convoluted and contradictory narratives on us in such a half-assed way that you can almost feel him throwing up his hands as if to say “I dunno, man, it was in the Bible.” No character in Exodus relates to another in any meaningful way, and we’re just supposed to believe things that happen because… well, that’s God, man! Sh*t was f*cked up!
When Exodus begins, Rhamses and Moses are brothers from other mothers, the original origin story. Rhamses, the impetuous prince of Egypt in shiny bracelets, Moses, his level-headed protector, in less shiny bracelets. The wise but sickly king of Egypt, played by John Turturro, tells Moses that he worries Egypt would be better off in Moses’s capable hands than in his dickhead son’s. Hey, just like Gladiator! (Godiator?) Soon, they find out The Hittites are amassing at the borders and decide to attack them before they can attack Egypt. Moses and Rhamses ride off on chariots, and after Rhamses is thrown from his in battle, Moses saves his life. Then they both jump back on chariots and give the command to circle. Did Egypt win this battle? Did they lose? Are they heroes? Was this important? Also, who are the Hittites? We get SPECIAL FX + NARRATIVE BULLET POINT. The entire movie is like this.
Later on, Moses goes to visit a Hebrew slave camp, ruled with an iron fist by “Egyptian” Ben Mendelsohn, another blue-eyed Australian in eyeliner (though he is a quarter Jewish, FWIW). A slave played by Ben Kingsley tells Moses that Moses is actually an Israelite, sent down the Nile when he was a baby to save his life, and later adopted by his royal Egyptian mother. Moses refuses to believe him at first, then comes to believe him about two minutes later because… . Ben Mendelsohn (whose character wasn’t even present for this reveal, but whatever) tips off Rhamses to Moses’s Hebreity, leading to the following exchange:
Rhamses tries to cut off Miriam’s arm to get her to admit the truth, and only Moses’ intervention at the last second saves her. The party breaks up and Rhamses has a pow-wow with his mom played by Sigourney Weaver, the only person in the movie without a British accent. Rhamses talks it out with her, trying to come to grips with the idea of his brother being an Israelite. He can’t believe it’s true! He wishes it wasn’t! Which is confusing because… didn’t he just try to cut a lady’s arm off in order to prove it? Who goes to such lengths to prove something they don’t want to believe in the first place? The long and short of it is that nothing in this stupid story makes sense.
There’s no cause and effect, just an outline Scott has to get through. Moses and a chick smile at each other — they’re married with kids in the next scene. Christian Bale has a throwaway, two-word conversation with Aaron Paul — two cuts later they’re best friends. Moses just sort of shows up at the Israelite’s doorstep one day and in the next scene he’s their absolute leader. Did they take a vote? Did God tell them? Did a scene get cut out? There’s an assumption of Jewish hive-mind capabilities here that’s quasi-Learned Elders of Zion-esque.
People do things because they were destined to do them, Moses leads the Israelites because the Bible said so, and the chosen people are the chosen people because God chose them. Ridley Scott and his four screenwriters seem to have borrowed their storytelling style from the original Burning Bush, who famously, helpfully explained, “I AM that I AM.” I guess I should’ve known that a bible movie would be full of Deus Ex Machinas.
Oh, and about that burning bush… Did I mention God is represented here by a small British boy? I guess a talking bush seemed a little “out there,” so Ridley Scott replaces him with an emo child. Amazingly, this may be the only narrative choice in this entire movie that actually works. The Old Testament God seems to be ruled by capricious whims, filling rivers with blood and throwing frogs one minute and murdering the first born the next, when he seemingly could’ve just saved all the trouble and teleported the Israelites back to the holy land in the first place (God wastes more time in Egypt than Gandalf did with those giant eagles). That God was actually a child just learning to understand his powers is actually one of the best explanations I’ve heard.
It’s unfortunately the only one. Early in Exodus, Moses corrects Ben Mendelsohn’s translation of the Hebrew word for Israelite, saying it means “one who wrestles with God.” It would’ve been nice to see Ridley Scott wrestle with God instead of just fiddle with CGI. Crashing tsunami waves and massive locust plagues seem to be Exodus: Gods And Kings‘ only reason for being. Why did he make this movie? Because he hates horses? His only real contribution to this story is special fx, which weren’t really that good, and when Joel Edgerton starts yelling “I AM THE GOD!”, I could see his lips moving, but all I heard was the sound of Ridley Scott’s paycheck clearing.
South Park did it better.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.