by Gabriel Valdez
The Biblical tale of Moses leading the Hebrew tribes out of Egypt has been told countless times on film. Charlton Heston most famously parted the Red Sea. Val Kilmer voiced Moses in the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. Ben Kingsley did it for TV. Now, Christian Bale takes on the mantle in the very serious-minded adaptation Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott.
Raised with his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) as a son of the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), Bale’s Moses is a leader and tactician who hides a secret – he was really born among the Hebrew tribes as a slave to the Egyptians he now helps rule. Exodus is the story of his exile and the mission he’s later given by God – to free the Hebrew tribes from Egyptian rule.
Exodus has some glaring flaws. It treats Moses’ story as a series of spectacles, roaring ahead during times of action, yet practically falling asleep in between them. Scott is respectful to the story and its characters while taking liberties with the narrative, but he fails to find any breathing space in between the film’s largest moments. We never get to see our characters, say, look at the stars or sit down to dinner or even take a deep breath before a sentence.
Focusing only on the famous moments, the whole effort begins to feel like the slowest highlight reel ever created. You can feel the film wanting to take some chances and get philosophical, but it just won’t pull the trigger, perhaps because it’s too afraid of upsetting part of its audience. We have a narrative that takes chances with the character Moses, but then shies away and fails to give us any reason for taking them. We have moments of rare cinematic beauty, but the beauty is never used for any storytelling purpose.
The tone is so serious throughout that we’re left with only one emotionally resonant moment, and this belongs to the villain, Ramses. Not all movies need emotion or a greater meaning, but this is the story of Moses and it feels like anything but a spiritual journey. At times, you even begin to wonder if it’s Moses’ highlight reel we’re watching, or Ridley Scott’s.
Exodus can also begin to feel a little like play-acting at times. I won’t delve into the ethics of casting so many Caucasian actors in Egyptian roles. Instead, I’ll just point out that it can make the biggest movie feel quite small: when accents briefly slip, you can quickly find yourself watching Welsh Moses talking to the Pharaoh from Brooklyn while his brother Ramses is trying so hard to not sound Australian that he doesn’t sound like he’s from much of anywhere.
The performances are good, but even the best performers aren’t immune to moments like this. When these actors face off, relatively small inconsistencies build off each other and create much larger problems that can sabotage whole scenes. Exodus isn’t rife with this, but its slow pace and emotional distance create too much room to avoid noticing.
I do need to highlight the 3-D. There are grand vistas, cityscapes, and thousand-foot views of battlefields. The sequence showing Egypt’s plagues is energetic and captivating. That’s expected. What’s not is the unparalleled use of subtle “before the window” effects: floating embers, glittering flecks of sand, flies, sun glare, dust and smoke. The 3-D here is exquisite. It is beyond good. It is sumptuous. This whole review could have been 700 synonyms for how good the 3-D is.
Exodus itself isn’t good or bad. It’s occasionally great and occasionally terrible. This is a middle of the road film filled with absolutely visionary moments and some very good acting sabotaged by a cold, remote, and homogenized approach to storytelling.
Religious audiences will like how respectfully it’s told, even if they will want to discuss the number of details that are changed. Audiences looking for spectacle will definitely find it, but they’ll have to be immensely patient for long stretches in order to earn it. Film buffs will love the technical elements – costuming, cinematography, sumptuous 3D – but won’t have much tolerance for its lackluster storytelling and stop-and-go pace. For every moment of Exodus that stuns, there’s a longer moment that grinds you down as a viewer. It evokes surprisingly little thought and emotion for its subject matter.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Exodus: Gods and Kings have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Sigourney Weaver plays Moses’ adoptive mother Tuya, while Hiam Abbass plays Bithia. Maria Valverde plays Moses’ wife Zipporah. Indira Varma plays the Pharaoh’s High Priestess.
2. Do they talk to each other?
No. There’s a charged scene involving Tuya and Bithia, but they don’t talk to each other – they talk to the men instead. Even when Moses is saying his goodbyes to family, women may stand next to each other but they only speak to him.
3. About something other than a man?
Well, they don’t talk to each other, so the film doesn’t even get this far. When women speak to men in the film, it’s usually about a man, though they briefly speak of war and plagues.
Final verdict: Ugh. The narrative treatment of women in this film is awful. I could, perhaps, understand women having very little agency in the narrative because the Bible doesn’t give women very much agency in its narratives. That said, film history is full of female characters who still get up to interesting things despite a lack of agency.
In part, this is due to the highlight reel nature of the film. If it doesn’t have to do with Moses or Ramses, it’s not in the film. I understand that approach, but again, Exodus has very little reason for this approach. Look to other epics that didn’t give women much to do – from Lawrence of Arabia to Steven Soderbergh’s pair of Che biopics – at least they had a reason for their restricted narratives. Hell, I don’t believe even Luc Besson’s underrated The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, which almost never leaves its female protagonist’s side, passes the Bechdel Test. But these all used restricted narratives to create a psychological portrait of their characters – at least there’s a reason they do what they do.
Exodus wants to focus on its pair of brothers – that’s fine – but because their story is so grand and epic, and involves women at key points in the film, it seems a complete waste that they have absolutely nothing to do. Women are more often shown standing by, hands folded and saying nothing, than doing anything or speaking a word.
I’ll write more on how ugly a film Exodus is later in the week. I was willing to give Ridley Scott the benefit of the doubt until I’d seen it, but its scripting is sexist, its casting (and arguably its make-up) is racist, and one character is blatantly homophobic.