Ridley Scott's 'Exodus': Let the Audience Go!

The spectacle in Scott’s retelling of the Exodus from Egypt cannot make up for its lack of compelling characters.

Exodus: Gods and Kings Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian; with Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, , Sigourney Weaver, Tara Fitzgerald, Hiam Abbass

Each generation is called upon to remember anew the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, and retaining that memory is not too difficult where the movies are concerned. More than one generation has passed since Cecil B. DeMille directed his last film, “The Ten Commandments,” but the vivid, entertaining images of his 1956 picture have proved immensely memorable – so much so that we don’t really need another film to tells us about Moses and show us the burning bush, the 10 plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and even the law being brought down from Mount Sinai (DeMille, incidentally, had already in 1923 made a movie called “The Ten Commandments,” whose first half followed the Exodus and the delivery of the divine law, while its second half looked at the questionable way in which those commandments are applied in modern life). And even without DeMille, most Jews gather every year to celebrate the Seder – not always eagerly or with a great deal of religious conviction, but they do; so that we are not likely to forget the story of the Exodus anytime soon.

And yet, here comes director Ridley Scott presenting his take on the biblical tale in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” While Scott does seem to follow the demand that each generation remember the story anew, his movie is not likely to replace the images of DeMille’s 58-year-old film, which remain inscribed in our minds. Scott made two of the most important films of recent decades, “Blade Runner” in 1982 and “Thelma & Louise” in 1991; in 1979 he directed “Alien,” a landmark in the history of futuristic horror; in 2000 his “Gladiator” won an Oscar. But the rest of his work has hardly measured up to those achievements – a statement that certainly applies to “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which contains a great deal of spectacle and very little substance.

In making his biblical extravaganzas, DeMille allowed his imagination to soar freely, and his movies were a pleasurable kind of self-satisfied kitsch. But Scott, with the help of no less than four screenwriters (who I really, really hope do not represent the four sons mentioned in the Passover Haggadah), tries to give us a more serious version of the story. Seriousness, however, eludes him. His movie does not show us a baby being placed by his mother on the Nile in a basket made of bulrushes to save his life; it begins when Moses (Christian Bale) is already a young man living in the court of King Pharaoh (John Turturro), who favors him over his biological son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton).

Moses, who regards Ramses as his brother in every way, does not know anything about his Israelite origins; he only finds out after Pharaoh dies and his son succeeds him on the throne. Instantly transformed, he leaves the palace and goes off to wander through the desert, where he meets a tribe of Hebrew slaves that have escaped from Egypt, marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde), and has a son with her. It all might have continued just that way if not for his encounter with the burning bush, and we all know what happens next.

In the burning bush scene and onward, Scott makes his most controversial decision, which is to show God’s word through the figure of a fair, stern-faced child. I don’t quite understand this image, but it certainly resonates with the New Testament vision of God as a child who is God himself, his emissary or his son. This would not bother me if the movie had done something with the image, but it just sits there, demonstrating how little “Exodus” has to offer in the way of a new, consistent or original interpretation – or even an interpretation at all.

There is spectacle in “Exodus.” The 10 plagues are a fairly impressive display of computerized filmmaking – the screenwriters added a plague of crocodiles, but what the hell – while the parting of the Red Sea, which Scott tries to make realistic, is disappointing (that same scene in DeMille’s film was once considered a tour de force of special effects; nowadays it looks wonderfully amateurish, and is therefore very amusing). In general, the movie’s crowd scenes are a disappointment. We never really get the sense of a mass of people, not even when the Jews depart from Egypt, looking more like a group of individuals setting out on a hike than a people that has thrown off the shackles of slavery. And Scott more generally seems to have developed no real emotions toward the Israelites and their leader; perhaps he simply did not know what to do with this story and in which allegorical direction to take it, if any, in today’s political reality.

As a result, the movie has spectacle, but no characters. Charlton Heston, with his Mount Rushmore face, turned DeMille’s Moses into an immediately mythic figure; Christian Bale tries to make Moses more “human” and simple, but using what the screenplay gives him, he cannot help but drain all the interest from one of the most compelling, complex characters in the Bible. Other important figures – including Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) and Joshua (Aaron Paul) – are swallowed up by the background and instantly forgotten. As for the women, they are even worse off, despite being played by such talented actresses as Sigourney Weaver, Tara Fitzgerald and Hiam Abbass, who have almost nothing to do. Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Ramses with a single sulky expression. The portrayal of the relationship between Moses and Ramses is one of the movie’s most unfortunate fumbles: Scott and his writing team are unable to make it a convincing private drama, and so the brothers’ struggle lacks all emotional depth.

But that’s true of the movie as a whole: while interesting as yet another Hollywood biblical/historical epic (and we seem to be in a new age of them: the year started with Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre “Noah,” and in 2016 we can expect a new version of “Ben-Hur”), it is disappointing, even meager, in every other way.