Tell Me What For, by David Bax
Ridley Scott’s background as a director of commercials would appear to have aided him immensely in his career as a maker of enormous event films. For instance, he seems able to maintain a workmanlike efficiency even when corralling enormous casts through elaborate sets and set-pieces. Still, the most lasting effect of his career in advertising is his eye for visual design. Scott’s images, from the xenomorph unfurling behind Harry Dean Stanton’s head in Alien to a convertible rocketing off a cliff in Thelma & Louise to Orlando Bloom falling out of a helicopter into a cloud of swirling dust in Black Hawk Down, are indelible and often more brief than they seem in memory. Scott’s newest film, bearing the awkward title Exodus: Gods and Kings, is full of ambitious and memorable constructions. Thousands of slaves construct palaces and monuments; locust swarm into a city’s every crevice and corner; and, of course, the Red Sea rushes toward an army in a massive wave. But, just as he did in Prometheus, Scott seems to have forgotten that he’s meant to be imparting a narrative about human beings. Instead, he’s made a gargantuan commercial for the might and wrath of the God of the Old Testament.
We know the beats of the plot. Moses is raised as an aristocratic Egyptian, discovers he’s a Hebrew orphan and leads his people out of servitude. Obviously, more happens than that in this 150 minute movie but it’s not necessary to rehash it here. Mostly, what we have will be familiar to movie audiences who’ve seen this story before, right down to the so-called “whitewashing” of the characters. Casting a Welshman (Christian Bale) and an Australian (Joel Edgerton) as Moses and Ramesses, respectively, has courted controversy. The film’s many fantasticalities (plus the fact that the source material is not exactly an undisputed historical document) would seem to make this a minor issue but it does ultimately feel at odds with Scott’s apparent mission to depict these events as they truly might have unfolded.
Scott is on the record as an atheist and even posited to the New York Times that his status as a nonbeliever makes him an ideal choice to tell a biblical story, because, as he says, “I’ve got to convince myself the story works.” Unfortunately, he would seem to have extended that directive solely to the practical hows and whys of the well-worn tale and not to the characters and their struggles. Scott sets up some intriguing parallel conflicts between the Egyptians and Hebrews and between Moses and God. He endeavors to locate a sympathetic and realistic Ramesses whose initial objection to freeing slaves is the economic effect it would have on his kingdom. But after getting these themes and characters on their feet, he heads off to the visual effects workroom and leaves the actors to fend for themselves.
Exodus has, as it must, a lengthy sequence (or series of sequences) devoted to the ten plagues. When the Nile turns to blood or the sky swirls with hail and fire, it is breathtaking. But Scott indulges in the grandeur to the point that his characters, including ostensible protagonist Moses, are shunted to the sidelines for far too long. When the film returns to being about human beings, it gives over a few minutes to one of the richest possible veins of the tale – even the pious Moses is horrified by God’s vengeance – and then abandons it without resolution. Bale, Edgerton and the rest of the fine cast (including Ben Kingsley and Game of Thrones’ Indira Varma) are doing their best to nourish their characters but they’re feeding on scraps.
It’s not that Scott is intentionally dismissive of the anthropological or psychological elements in Exodus. He can’t even be specifically blamed for the retrograde homophobia in the depiction of the villains as preening men in make-up. It’s just that he was too busy laboring over his design work to notice.