Exodus: Gods and Kings
As it turns out, “Mohammad So-and-So” dodged a bullet the size of Joel Edgerton’s tanned, bald dome.
Edgerton is a white Welsh guy playing an Egyptian in Exodus: Gods and Kings, just as his co-stars Sigourney Weaver (American), John Turturro (American), and Ben Mendelsohn (Australian) are bronzed Caucasians portraying Semites.
This is the controversy that's surrounded director Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Blade Runner, American Gangster) big-screen translation of the Biblical tale of Moses (a dour, very English Christian Bale is more John Connor than Bruce Wayne here) leading the Hebrews through the Red Sea and away from malicious Egyptian ruler Ramses (Edgerton). Instead of casting Middle Eastern actors, Scott loaded the Exodus frontline with white people, placing real Middle Easterners in the background like props. This inspired numerous Twitter rants and angry think-pieces, which 77-year-old Scott responded to in a very get-off-my-lawn fashion by telling critics to, simply, “get a life.”
It isn't hard to see why the recent controversy has dominated talk of the film. What happens in between Exodus' opening and final credits is forgettable drab. To cheekily call it a “disaster of Biblical proportions” would imply that it’s even recommendable for trainwreck viewing. It isn’t. It’s paint-by-numbers Hollywood epic filmmaking. Scott’s ability to stage visually impressive and financially robust set-pieces is still there, but the aged director has tuned-out.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is narratively lifeless. As you learned in Catholic grade school, brothers Moses and Ramses grew up in Ancient Egypt, and Ramses replaces Pharaoh Seti (Turturro) on the throne. When news leaks that Moses was actually born a Hebrew, he’s exiled out of Egypt and Ramses enslaves more than 4,000 people. That makes God—curiously represented as a little kid (11-year-old Isaac Andrews) with a pissy attitude—unhappy. The Snot-Nosed Almighty One demands the death of all first-borns and unleashes locust swarms, frog infestations, rivers of blood, and widespread darkness upon all of Egypt.
Both Scott and the film briefly come to life during the scenes depicting the plagues' devastation. One of the highlights is a massive attack featuring scores of alligators that plays out like Jaws on CGI steroids. Scott employs comparable skill in the Red Sea’s parting, the climactic scene when Moses and his liberated Hebrew followers flee Ramses and his army as a mountain of water topples down on them. It reminds you that Scott is the same guy whose otherworldly set designs and far-reaching scopes in films like Alien and Blade Runner have defined decades of eye-candy cinema. You’d think that if anyone’s qualified to turn Moses’ adventure into an eye-popping spectacle, it’d be him. As 2012’s Prometheus showed, Scott’s still able to wow audiences even if he’s working with an overcooked script.
Too bad Exodus: Gods and Kings came in undercooked. It’s the half-nuked Lean Cuisine version of Scott’s past blockbusters. This goes from the acting to the dialogue. There's no urgency in the dialogue; in the heat of a tense argument, Ramses—speaking with the authority you'd use to order lunch—says to Moses, "What you're asking for is problematic, to say the least." Aaron Paul, an explosive actor who could kill the role of a battle-ready slave, says no more than ten words and makes the same stern face about 27 times. As Exodus trudges along, and your own face will resemble Paul's frozen expressions, the unspeakable will most likely happen—you'll long for the cheesy swords-and-sandals epics like Pompei. At least those movies have pulses.
There is one (accidental) silver lining, though. With nothing to get excited about story wise, Exodus will turn bored viewers into Mystery Science Theater 3000 wannabes. At a recent press screening, laughter from the audience dominated any ooh’s and ahh’s. One small group of critics/friends acted like they were watching Top Five when John Turturro—who’s naturally funny, peculiar-looking, and completely wrong for movies like the humorless Exodus—appeared on screen wearing Egyptian pharaoh’s garb while trying to be serious. It’s a Halloween costume store nightmare. Other attendees howled when, midway into the film, Scott cut to a shot of an extra-bronzed Edgerton staring pensively at the ground while shirtless and holding an enormous python. It’s an emo album cover waiting to happen.
Ridley Scott and Co. treated this material as, well, scripture. Inadvertently, they’ve made 2014’s most unintentionally funny movie.