Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale stars as Moses, a loud, tactically astute and ready-made leader, victorious in an opening battle that seems to exist for the sake of an exciting trailer. He gradually becomes aware of his Hebrew heritage, kills some guards for no apparent reason – not out of a sense of injustice anyway – and he eventually ends up hanging out with some nomads and marries one who happens to be good looking but criminally underwritten. Nine (not 40) years later, he gets trapped in a mudslide, sees a burning bush and a bald 11 year old boy claiming to be God gives him a mission to free his people from slavery. Some guerilla warfare, several plagues and a collapsing cliff later on, and - SPOILERS - the people of Israel are free to wander the desert for forty years.
Anyone who loves the Bible and the incredible, redemptive, Jesus-foreshadowing story of Exodus may have already begun to bristle when reading that précis. Indeed, the permanent problem with Biblical adaptations is that many characters just aren’t that obviously cinematic as they rely on God to do the hard work. Getting God to rescue the protagonists is seen as lazy screenwriting, a very literal expression of the deus ex machina trope. So screenwriters tend to give Bible characters more independence and less humility, subtly changing the power dynamics. Moses is no exception, and where the Bible portrays him as deeply under confident, to the extent that he has to get his brother to speak on his behalf, Bale’s Moses actually yells at God ‘DO YOU THINK THIS WILL HUMBLE ME?? BECAUSE IT WILL NOT WORK!’
Gods and Kings does recognise the conflict between who really has the power to save, making divine intervention necessary after Moses tries guerilla warfare against Egypt’s citizens. Scott is almost certainly drawing parallels with more contemporary conflicts that Israel has been involved in, but if you can look past the politics, the point remains that it actually takes God, not militia, to make change happen. Even so, in Bale’s hands Moses becomes almost unrecognisable from the Bible character, reducing Aaron to a two line bit part while Moses rallies the Hebrew troops, forms a little army and generally shouts a lot unless the script tells him to ‘look conflicted.’ It’s a shame, because it would be far more interesting to watch an Exodus story with a shy, reluctant old man leading the people out of Egypt, not a bearded Batman.
God is nevertheless present and correct in Gods and Kings, even if the treatment of Him is a little strange. It does get a few things right, however. The gods of Egypt find themselves either absent or inadequate when faced with Yahweh, and the plagues are realised with suitable horror. The film doesn’t shy away from the violence of His rescue plan, and the death of the firstborn in particular is a difficult, upsetting scene to watch, as it should be. Christians can often dismiss the horror of something like the flood or the plagues because ‘God can do what He want.’ Without questioning that He can, it is important to confront the fact that people died - children died - in order for God to save His people. It’s impossible to know why God chose such a specific and horrible form of vengeance on Israel’s enslavers, but we can only remember that actually freedom does come with a cost, and in the end God gave up His firstborn for an even bigger salvation plan. Be ready for questions from your non-Christian friends: did God really do that? How can you worship Him if He did? Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t have a ready answer, and is at its best when acknowledging the tension of these questions.
Yet Exodus does change a whole lot of the Biblical narrative, too, and not always for the better. Most noticeable is the decision to depict God as a creepy bald child. Now put away your heresy horns for a second and think about how a cinematic vision of God could be done instead. The booming voice from the sky has been done before, and would be tricky for secular audiences to swallow in a gritty, serious film like this. Scott and the four (yep, four) writers’ way of dealing with this drama dilemma is to cast him as an 11 year old boy. The principle of finding a new way to depict God is fine, it’s just that it doesn’t work. Not only does it seem as if Richard Dawkins occasionally took over writing duties when it comes to portraying the great I Am, depicting a petulant, sulky whiner where there should be the creator of heaven and earth, but it also saps the film of any sense of awe and beauty. It’s hard to feel any reverence for someone who looks like an extra from The Maze Runner. Other, much smaller details are changed, again to make it real and different, such as arming the Israelites, Moses carrying a sword not a staff, and entirely changing Moses’ motivations for killing the Egyptian guards, and none of them work. Every time Scott changes something from the Bible you can’t help but think that God did it better.
It’s not necessarily a terrible thing for a Biblical epic to stray from the source text. In fact, this year I praised the far more controversial Noah even though the deviations there were more insane than anything in Gods and Kings. If you are going to add or subtract from the Bible, however, make sure you do it for the sake of making an interesting, inventive or thematically rich film. Gods and Kings is none of these. There’s a curiously muted tone to the drama, as flatly edited scenes go by with all the right things in place to suggest a scene worth watching - action, conflict, tense dialogue - yet without once raising your heartbeat or causing you to invest in the story. It’s unforgivably dry in its retelling, checking off the familiar story beats without making the new stuff interesting enough to forgive, or the old stuff lively enough to help you see a great story in a new way. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, a gritty reimagining or a traditional adaptation, and it works as neither. There is something undeniably appealing about the giant, detailed sets in an industry where most film makers would have shot it on a green screen, but save for the production design there is very little to recommend Gods and Kings as a piece of cinema.
For all the controversy surrounding the race of the lead actors, the more pressing issue when watching Gods and Kings is that they simply aren’t very good. It’s difficult to know when the world will get fed up of Christian Bale but his stare-filled, muttery schtick is certainly getting tired and with the double direness of this and American Hustle, we can hope that soon even his most ardent fans will realise that he’s not very interesting. But hey, he grows a beard here. Joel Edgerton as Rameses is barely worthy of comment, while Sigourney Weaver is carelessly wasted in a tiny role, which is especially disappointing from Ridley Scott who once cast her in Alien and thus created one of cinema’s great action heroines. Other famous faces flit in and out: all white, none good. They are hamstrung either by a weak script that tries to make the dialogue contemporary but instead makes it fall flat, or by a more general lack of acting talent. Ben Kingsley, meanwhile, continues his quest to play as many races as possible.
In 1998, Dreamworks Animation released The Prince of Egypt and told the story in 99 minutes with far more efficacy and power than Gods and Kings manages in 150. It features stunning animation, great voice performances, has tangible themes and is pacy without ever feeling rushed. It remains one of the best Bible adaptations for the big screen ever and shows up Scott’s film for its shortcomings, especially when the two films have such similar structures. A solid half hour could be trimmed off Gods and Kings and nothing would be lost. The Prince of Egypt’s other great success, and Gods and Kings’ biggest failure, is that the former inspired awe and wonder where the latter does not – which is particularly galling given the inherent power of the story. The Exodus is a nation-defining, faith-building narrative, one of the biggest, greatest rescues in history, yet this film is so dramatically inert and just plain boring that the only thing you will be awed by is a tidal wave created on computers and a once great director’s ability to utterly mangle such a great story.