Gods & Kings – Oy Gevalt! This Exodus Really Misses the Mark

Film reviewers who do not get invited to pre-screenings for critics have to guard themselves carefully to avoid becoming contaminated by others’ opinions about the films they are about to review, but that is well nigh impossible these days, with film grosses being reported throughout the media. Nevertheless, having successfully avoided overt contamination from those other opinions, my summary conclusion about Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s version of Exodus, is that it misses the mark so badly that the film can be summed up thus: Oy Gevalt! (Yiddish for “Oh my God!”)

Cecil B. DeMille can rest in peace, because there is no way this knock-off will ever replace The Ten Commandments. It is bad enough that the lead – Moses – is being played by someone named Christian Bale, but the newly-muscled Bale simply doesn’t have the presence that Charlton Heston brought to the same role, and there’s no comparison between the incomparable Yul Brynner as Ramesses and the perplexed, bothered and bewildered Joel Edgerton, who should have known better than to essay a role trademarked by Brynner. (Scott wisely avoids Brynner’s famous trademark line, “So let it be written. So let it be done,” which was reportedly a jibe at DeMille’s dictatorial style as a director.)

The rest of the cast truly do not matter because they are given such short shrift by the director that their presence was hardly noticeable, but it must be noted that Scott wasted some marquee performers in minor roles. Sigourney Weaver was almost invisible as Tuya, the Pharoh’s daughter who mothered Ramses, and Sir Ben Kingsley was unfortunately all too visible in a role that had no beginning, no end, and no middle to it. John Turturro, as excellent as ever, turns in the only credible performance in the entire film as the aging and ill Seti, father to Ramses and stepfather to Moses. (Neither Seti nor Ramses are so named in the original Torah scrolls.)

The wooden performances are heralded by a total lack of character development. When introduced to his brother, Aaron, for the first time, this Moses merely nods to him. Joshua, who will eventually become Moses’ successor as the leader of the Jewish people, fades into the background, with only a few words of dialogue with which to work. Ben Kingsley’s character, Nun, has no historical precedent in either the book or the previous film which somehow makes sense for a character named after the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet with a numerical value of 50, which means absolutely nothing in this context.

In Ridley Scott’s version of Exodus, Moses is a rebel leader who is organizing a guerilla campaign against the Egyptians and yet seems to wander around Egypt with impunity, despite the fact that he is (a) very well known as the Pharaoh’s stepson and (b) wanted dead or alive by his cousin, Ramses II. Far from demanding “Let My People Go,” Christian Bale’s Moses pleads with Ramses to treat the Egyptian slaves as Egyptian citizens by giving them equal pay for equal work. (To be fair about it, DeMille did the same thing in his version, ascribing a political consciousness to his Moses that echoes the original Moses’ reluctance to give up the perks of a royal life for the rags of a slave.)

Everyone – Christian, Jew, or Muslim – who is familiar with the story of Exodus, and that means just about everyone who is ever likely to see this film, has to be offended by this version of the story, not because it is sacrilegious (which it is, by the way) but because it is just so incredibly bad. In this Exodus, Moses kills a would-be assassin in self-defense, crosses vast deserts without the necessary supplies, and converses with a annoyingly precocious eight year-old tyke stand-in for the Supreme Deity rather than the industry-standard Burning Bush.

In addition to taking extreme liberties with the original story, Ridley’s Exodus fails because it doesn’t live up to the expectations generated by the hype around the film. It is neither spectacular, nor epic. The special effects were pedestrian in the post-Avatar motion picture industry, and the 3-D effects turned out to be either tame or lame, depending upon how much charity you can muster toward the film. Ridley Scott’s Memphis looked rather shabby, lacking the spit and polish one expects from an imperial city. To give Scott his due, he was attempting to depict the perennially unfinished atmosphere of a capital city always under re-construction, but that’s not the Ancient Egypt we want to see.

In the final analysis, this Exodus will never achieve the status of the original Ten Commandments as one of the most revered films of all time, despite its fair share of wooden performances. (Heston had presence, but that doesn’t mean he could act, despite his Academy Award for Ben Hur.) It will never be mistaken for that other Exodus, you know, the one with Paul Newman about the founding of the modern state of Israel, but it will live on….because bad movies never really go away. It’s the really good ones that seem to disappear.