A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Exodus: Gods and Kings is yet another entry into the year of Biblical filmmaking and for all of its splendor and extravagant set pieces, it falls remarkably short of reasonable expectations. Director Ridley Scott tries to make this film a sort of competition between two brothers, a reasonable attempt to anyone who knows anything about the tale of Moses. Yet their relationship in the film is given about as much weight as a nonchalant side glance. What plagues the film (pun intended) is a complete lack of understanding as to where the narrative thrust lies. As it turns out, his controversial casting decisions of having white royalty with secondary characters, soldiers, and slaves being played by actors of color needn’t have existed. Christian Bale manages to bring something to the role of Moses, but the character is so horribly written that it doesn’t manage to leave behind any impression whatsoever. Joel Edgerton basically is a cipher on screen with more bronzer than half of L.A. Sigourney Weaver is basically there to look villainous and deliver the three lines she’s been given. The film’s ultimate sin is how it puts spectacle clearly ahead of characters. Battles only work when you care about the characters in it and in Exodus as it is is so grand in scope that it completely forgets the characters that populate it. Four writers that share Oscar pedigree write the script, which may have ultimately been a problem, considering the film never actually bothers to coalesce into something resembling coherent storytelling. As a result, when you leave the theater because you have way too much money on your hands, more than likely you’re going to forget about what you just saw in about three seconds. More than likely, you’ll stare sadly at your wallet and perhaps even your watch, wondering what else you might have been able to accomplish in three hours.
The most controversial aspect about the movie (outside of its very existence), is it’s casting. Having basically the entirety of the leads be white while they’re supposed to be Egyptian is bad enough, considering that is the twenty-first century and ethnically appropriate casting really ought not to be that difficult. What was controversial from the very beginning only became worse as time went on. To begin with, Ridley Scott essentially said that he hired white actors because the film wouldn’t get funding with “a Mohammed or whatever”, which in and of itself is a patently offensive statement. But moreover, in the age when still the overwhelming majority of lead actors are white, it’s simply a horrifying practice to accept. You’re Ridley Scott, for the love of… it’s no as if he doesn’t actually have clout in Hollywood. To hear the director of Alien and Gladiator say something so patently gruesome is just mind boggling. To acknowledge the existence of discrimination in Hollywood is one thing, to patently become a part of it and then trying to justify it is simply ridiculous. To top it off, Bale gave a bizarre interview in which he discussed the difficulty of playing the role with his skin (which, what?). I like Bale quite a bit as an actor and he brought a significant sense of gravitas to Batman, but a sunburn isn’t comparable to minority actors who missed out on this role because of the color of their own skin. Outside of casting, their use within the film only makes it worse. The makeup and design for these characters is beyond offensive, akin to blackface that was used through so much of Hollywood history – seriously, just how much bronzer was used in the making of this film? And it’s not even consistent – Edgerton’s Pharaoh Ramses at times seems like he made a trip to his local tanning salon and in some other scenes it looks like he was born in a pool of caramel.
As it make up for the leads being inappropriately cast, Scott fills secondary roles with minority actors yet they’re given such little to do it mostly comes off as an empty gesture. Talented actors such as Indira Varma and María Valverde are given extremely little to do. The couple of scenes they’re given are beyond fleeting. Yet minority actors aren’t the only ones who get the grift. Sigourney Weaver’s Tuya is there to simply sulk in the background and look mildly irritated, as if Starbucks ran out of her favorite sandwich and she’s allergic to every other variety. Aaron Paul, whose performance in Breaking Bad clearly is demonstrative of his acting chops, is heavily prevalent throughout the film but is given no challenging material and garners a total of about five lines of dialogue. And he manages to cast a child as God, which is perhaps the most original thing about the movie, even though as a result the deity sounds more like a pissed off boarding school student than anything else. With just Weaver and Paul, one wonders why Scott took so much flak for his casting if they were going to be given such little work to do. That question is only compounded by the performances given by Edgerton and Bale as the main duo. Neither is given material that rises above mediocrity and it seems as if the actors themselves are understanding of that fact, so flat are they on screen. Bale is basically a saint. Edgerton is an arrogant ass. That is the extent to which Scott tries to understand them and that complete lack of critical thinking shows in every frame of the movie where this torment between two brothers is supposed to show. The scenes that suffer the most from this are the ones where you ought to feel cathartic over these two brothers fighting against each other, but then you realize that you have no idea why anyone in this film is doing anything at all outside of basic plot mechanics. So it all falls flat.
The trailers for Exodus on a visual spectacle scale seemed pretty great. As it is, it seems that the budget went into the trailer and not the actual film, which is a shame. The CGI is so overpowering that it’s mind-numbing. Certainly in big budget filmmaking, CGI and its occasional overuse has become rudimentary. For example, in the much superior The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there’s a shot of the goblin king dying that is simply overdone. But it’s enjoyable and fun because the story is there and the characters are largely so richly drawn out. On the other end of the spectrum, even in the awful Attack of the Clones, where the CGI was actively far more annoyingly nauseating, there was something happening on screen that was remotely interesting. Here the visual effects are thrown constantly at your face, with Scott wasting an enormous amount of time on shots of the sweeping Egyptian vistas instead of actually working on his characters. And the thing is, all those sweeping shots that looked so impressive in the trailer somehow manage to look abominable in the context of the film itself, made worse because there’s simply far too much attention being paid to them. A plethora of CGI can be a little annoying, but if the script and director had worked on its narrative properly, that wouldn’t matter as much in the end. When it is this prevalent in a film where the story is given so little attention, it’s perhaps more than distracting. It’s patently offensive. Nor does Scott feel comfortable in 3-D, where the camera just focuses on the least engaging parts of the action and expects the audience to be wowed by it.
The action sequences in and of themselves may be spectacular, but ring remarkably superfluous. There isn’t a dearth of spectacle here, yet it doesn’t feel consequential (not just because the film is rated PG-13 and there’s little blood in the battles). It’s because you simply don’t care. Who lives, who dies, it’s largely devoid of any legitimate emotional heft. A smarter film would lay the groundwork for the friendship between Ramses and Moses before the prophecy began to delve a wedge between the two. The wedge is there from the very beginning and thusly the entire experience is sapped of any catharsis. There are two sequences in the film that largely work. The aforementioned battle against the Hittites largely works on the scale of spectacle and the horror of each first-born Egyptian being killed is easily Scott’s best work in the film and he manages to imbue a dark sense of melancholia in it. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which certainly had its flaws, was at the very least ambitious and driven by a desire to produce a biblical epic that was bold and questioned some of the darkest material present in the Bible. Noah felt revolutionary and the debate around it proved that the film actually had something to say, something to add into the cultural zeitgeist, regardless of how much you liked it. Exodus is completely flat, rudimentary, an overblown extravaganza of hideously, obviously cheap CGI with no characters at its core, nor a decent script. It seems content to merely ride on the name of a director who, once upon a time, actually made decent, often great films and now is stuck in the make-believe land where the hubris of his past somehow can salvage the sheer mediocrity of his present. All I felt throughout the film was that the studio had $140 million lying around and had to do something with it. There may be one image that remains in your head, however faint it may be. It is of three white men parting a poorly constructed wave, leading an entire culture made up of minority extras to their freedom because only the fairest of them all are able to exert any type of independent will. Everyone else just remains sad at their fates because and instead follow new leaders without personal conviction of any sort. It’s hollow, despite all of the grandeur around it struggling to convince otherwise. Come to think of it, that can describe the entirety of this $140 million backfire from the mann who directed Gladiator, lest the marketing material forget to remind you of the director’s greatest hit.
Title: Exodus: Gods and Kings
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Produced by: Peter Chernin, Ridley Scott, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaefer, Mark Huffam
Written by: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Based On: The Book of Exodus
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Indira Varma, María Valverde
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Editing: Billy Rich
Production Company: Chernin Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, Babieka, Volcano Films
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 150 minutes
Release Dates: December 12, 2014 (United States)
December 26, 2014 (United Kingdom)
Image Courtesy: HD Wallpapers