Only a third of the way into Ridley Scott’s 150-minute Exodus: Gods and Kings, I was already feeling like Mort Sahl who, legend has it, impatiently stood up in the middle of the 1960 premiere of Otto Preminger’s 208-minute Exodus and shouted, “Let my people go!” Gods and Kings takes one of the most vital enduring stories in all of world history and literature and tells it in a manner that’s dull beyond belief. It hits familiar beats – Moses’ secret identity, exile, encounter with a burning bush, plagues of Egypt, and parting the Red Sea. But the telling is drained of passion, wonder, or intrigue. The flavorless screenplay is depressingly literal minded, and the characters are flat and thin. Nothing makes an impact, or follows an inner drive. It’s simply one boring sequence after another, not even rising to the level of kitsch DeMille’s Ten Commandments musters at its worst.
Scott is often associated with period epics, but he’s rarely made good ones. When you get right down to it, his best films are either sci-fi pictures (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus) or thrillers (American Gangster, Matchstick Men, The Counselor). For some reason, the canvas of historical sweep makes his usually striking set design go flat, even ugly. Worse, he often takes our interest in the main character for granted, as if content with the knowledge most will arrive well aware of who he is and what he did. Scott’s Christopher Columbus and Robin Hood movies suffer the same problem, and Gods and Kings follows suit. It provides cold shots of CGI crowds and crane shots devoid of personality, filling in ancient Egypt without stopping to make us care about what’s happening in it. Every bit of this film is perfunctory, almost apologetically shrugging about its source material’s familiarity.
Playing dress up amidst this boredom is a cast that’s to a person ill suited for what’s asked of them. As Moses we have Christian Bale, who behaves constipated throughout, gritting his teeth and staring in mock awe at the enormity of his situation. Pharaoh Ramses, the man raised with Moses and is now the stubborn ruler who won’t free the slaves at his former brother’s request, is played by a shaved, heavily made-up Joel Edgerton, who appears visibly uncomfortable most of the time. The supporting players are familiar faces (John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Sigourney Weaver) who pose in Egyptian dress and speak maybe two or three dozen lines combined. Funniest is Ben Mendelsohn, whose look here appears vaguely inspired by Michael Palin in Life of Brian. I just felt bad for everyone involved as I felt the pull of sleep tug me lower in my seat.
The screenplay, credited to four writers who’ve done good work in the past, clunks along with dismaying thuds where the drama, the emotion, the excitement, and rooting interest should be. Dialogue is painfully surface level exposition. There’s no “let my people go!” But its equivalent is met by Ramses saying, “From an economic standpoint what you’re asking is problematic.” See what I mean about the boredom? The film attempts to put new spins on old moments and iconography. Instead of talking to a burning bush, Moses gets knocked on the head in an avalanche, and then sits in the mud hallucinating a little boy speaking on the bush’s behalf. It’s certainly different, but I hesitate to call it an improvement. Also reimagined are the gross plagues, now presented in a moderately more realistic manner. Crocodiles attack, filling the Nile with blood, which drives out the frogs, who die and attract flies, which draw the locusts, and so on and so forth.
Scott and his writers get too tangled up in wanting to make gritty origin story detail out of broad archetypes and oft told legend, a blend of modern 3D pyrotechnics and reverent Bible Movie earnestness. What they end up with is neither here nor there, a big waste of time with no sense of character, pace, or atmosphere. There’s just no sense of perspective. They didn’t find a great new angle with which to tell the old story, or have a good handle on some point of view or clear throughline. Character relationships remain half-formed, setpieces are on auto-pilot, and the plot develops for no clear reason other than that’s the way it’s supposed to go. The Bible told them so, except for the parts where the swords and arrows come out and goose the action elements. It’s one big, phony faux-gravitas machine whirring away at one droning pitch for so long it simply sounds like white (very white) noise after awhile. I struggled to pay attention, stay awake, and keep my eyes from glazing over. It doesn’t work as drama. It doesn’t work as spectacle. It just doesn’t work.