Oh Ridley Scott. Gladiator it shall be, huh? I suppose, in all honesty, who am I to neglect a director from returning to the well of his most critically and commercially viable film in some time, even if it is something of an insipid, soporific film totally divested in any form of storytelling that didn’t advance the general theme of “look how important I am”. Still, he’s returned to the well quite a bit over the past decade and a half, indiscriminately tossing out a supposed sci-fi “return to form” or a political thriller from time to time in order to paint the facade of variety.
Kingdom of Heaven I’ll grant him. It was a truncated mess on screen, but this had as much to do with the producers as it did Scott, and the restored cut that purportedly represents Scott’s vision is the high watermark of the early 2000s obsession with sword and sandal pics. Robin Hood is just about the least interesting version of itself possible though, a carbon-copy of a plethora and a half of pseudo-revolutionary epics, mired by its idiotic variant on grungy, solemn “realism” that sacrifices any dream of looking like anything other than dirt. And this is not to mention its tired old trotting out of the classic “see how the legend became the legend” nonsense, as though anyone thought that Robin Hood was actually interesting as a human being, as opposed to the wonderful myth that he is, brought to life not through reality but storytelling and human energy.
And then we arrive at Exodus, which is saved from Robin Hood levels of boredom only by its greater incompetence. While Robin Hood was an entirely functional film, Exodus sometimes dips into true awfulness in some offhandedly amusing ways. Sadly, these occasional flights of Pythonesque silliness do not save Exodus: Gods and Kings (what an awful title, that?) from itself. This is a dismal, dreary, boring motion picture that serves up a tired old Gladiator reconstruction, and even then it doesn’t have the good graces to at least look nice. Sure, there is a little dazzle, but it’s sprinkled onto a corpse already suffering from external maladies that no amount of glitter can cover up.
Even worse, the good stuff is held off until the very end of the film, after two hours of endlessly turgid screenwriting and shockingly half-assed directing recounting a loose approximation of Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) torn apart by the realization that Moses is a Hebrew by birth. Naturally, the Egyptians, now under rule of Ramses, do not take to Hebrews as anything other than slaves, and Moses, by virtue of his newfound identity, grows increasingly familiar with the horrors of slave life, and increasingly primed to lead the slaves to freedom (since we really need another “privileged person becomes an “other” and saves the other “others” when they can’t do it themselves” story, and because we still continue to believe this is actually a progressive tale for the modern age…)
Yet until the parting of the Red Sea arrives, Scott seems generally disinterested in the picture he is making, waking up for an occasional aerial shot and some mildly gnarly plague scenes that don’t even do a whole lot (pg-13 ratings really ought to go; they’re almost entirely useless). There is admittedly a pretty great series of shots coating the river Nile in red (although the red should pop more, admittedly), the high-grass in the river segmenting the water off into parsimonious little geometric shapes that run red one by one so that the blue and red seem to be battling out in square liquid territories. That’s about it though. Say what you will about old Biblical epics, but they had style, and they had panache. Even the golden chariots make only a minor, muted impression, as if Scott was afraid that staring at them head-on would too openly court the chintzier qualities of the olden films he mimics.
The problem is that he does mimic these films and refuses to admit that he does. Scott has not fashioned a narrative that earns the solemn spirit of his modernist desires, and a more earnest bid for old-school theatrical grandness would be, at the least, more honest, and probably far more entertaining. As it is, Scott’s frankly annoying attempt at pseudo-realism contrasts maniacally with his inability to fulfill any of his ambitions. On one hand we have oddly amusing gestures like God in a child’s body that openly defy realism in any sense of the word, but these instances are stranded around more grounded, earthly storytelling like the rampant and unearned focus on political turmoil and economics (which, in this film, essentially boils down to throwing out the word “economic” from time to time for people who think that a film that uses the word “economic” must be smart). The contrast, frankly, makes the realism seem clinical and unforgiving and the over-zealous non-realism aloof and comical.
So it’s a mess of a film, neither grand enough to work as old-timey entertainment nor prescient enough to function as hard-hitting drama, and it ends up just sort of stranded in between without a sense of identity, trying to tick all the boxes without its own personal vision and lustrous commitment to form. Which is to say nothing of its more generic failings, like how the acting is generally awful and non-committal or how the story jumps forward in fits and spurts and manages to completely avoid the central narrative tension it thinks it stakes its identity on: the Ramses/Moses interplay and the fundamental tragedy between them. Sure, there are scenes that take place between the two of them, and one could technically call this a relationship, but the two never much like each other to begin with and they don’t so much fall apart as vaguely exist around one another without concern.
That basically describes the entire film, in fact. The whole idea of turning Exodus into a realist narrative is somewhat lame to begin with, for it really isn’t a story that lends itself to deep considerations of politicking. But even then it can’t commit to its already questionable vision, completely avoiding the question of the slaves themselves or the Hebrews at large after the first twenty minutes, and during that opening it seems only interested in that side of the story. The whole thing just moves around from sideline to sideline never quite understanding what its version of the tale is or what it would prefer to emphasize, leaving the larger questions of human rights and mass-scale revolution almost untouched, sacrificing the family drama for a pure focus on Moses’ personal tragedy, and then wholly forgetting this tragedy too until it remembers it probably ought to mention Moses’ wife and child again in the last minute of the film for form’s sake. It is a relentlessly confused movie, desperately in need of either focus or a serious amount of added time to expand the central thrust of the characters to complicate rather than confuse. It honestly leaves someone befuddled as to what the intent for Exodus was beyond “well Gladiator something something something”. That is not a basis for a feature length film, and nothing Exodus does argues otherwise.