There is a strange phenomenon that occurs in films where something can seem both drawn out and rushed at the same time. This usually happens when filmmakers try to do too much at once. For example: when one is attempting to tell a long, epic story in a normal cinematic run-time. Or when one is trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to the theistic, supernatural, or miraculous aspects of a particular story.
It appears to me that screenwriters and filmmakers of Exodus: Gods and Kings wanted to have it both ways, so to speak, when it came to the religious and theistic aspects of their story. It seemed to me that they took a benevolently agnostic approach to the narrative, whereas “God” was a reality to their protagonist to a certain point, but events (at least some events) occurring within the narrative could be interpreted as happening by natural or random causes. If indeed they took an agnostic approach on purpose, they completely compromised this position by asserting “God” as a reality in a title card appearing before the action of the story even began. Throughout the film, neither “God” himself or Moses acting as his vessel can ever be seen waving their arms and directly causing plagues or miracles to occur, but on the other hand it is clear that the “God” Moses communicates with has willed or caused them to happen. It must also be said that “God” as a physical or spiritual presence never manifests for anyone but Moses in this film. Therefore, minus the title card at the beginning of the film, one can possibly interpret the events of this film as being free of the hand of a all-powerful being and Moses’s communion with said being as a figment of his mind. On the other hand, if one is inclined to interpret events as having the direct hands of a deity behind them, that reading is also supported by the narrative. Furthermore, this approach seems to have been taken intentionally, in what can only be described as a attempt to “have it both ways” as mentioned above.
Having it both ways like this, however, creates a problem cinematically. Moses is the protagonist of Exodus: Gods and Kings. Moses is a human being, imbued with no superpowers or supernatural abilities. Yet, strange, seemingly supernatural events occur within the narrative, events central to the narrative that Moses clearly has no control over. This presents a huge problem from a storytelling perspective, because it resulted in an entire large chunk of the film (the plagues) where Moses had absolutely nothing to do with the events unfolding. The film effectively shelved its protagonist for over twenty minutes of screen time. And even besides that section of the film, one could argue that Moses is a passive protagonist throughout the film, reacting to events instead of driving them. While this could have been a story about Moses struggling with and discovering aspects of his identity, it ended up being a film about special effects.
Regardless of the existence of “God” or not, the narrative of Exodus: Gods and Kings was extremely clumsy, cluttered, and rather stunted. When you extrapolate a biblical account such as the Exodus story to a cinematic format, there’s an extremely large amount of content and ground to cover if one’s goal is to tell the “whole” story. There are certain points one must hit lest you end up telling a compromised version of the story. Therefore, most adapters have attempted to condense the story and try to fit in every major point in the film rather than cutting things and focusing on specific areas or aspects of the narrative. The two main reasons I think that DeMille’s The Ten Commandments worked and Prince of Egypt and Exodus didn’t are that The Ten Commandments focused primarily on Moses and his journey and it really took its time doing so. The Ten Commandments felt and is indeed very long, but it earned its length by focusing deeply on Moses’s character and arc and hitting the points they needed to hit without rushing through them to get to shorter runtime. The Ten Commandments was aware it was an epic film and it owned it, earning its epic status by the way they told the story. Prince of Egypt felt like a condensed “Cliffs Notes” version of the story and Exodus felt both rushed and boring, as if the film wanted to be epic without earning it. Even from a barebones storytelling perspective, it was almost as if they wanted each major moment to have minimal dramatic impact. The narrative and characters were undercooked to say they least.
For all its many insurmountable flaws, one thing I did appreciate about Exodus was that the political dimension of the story was much more astute than I expected and is usually depicted in biblical retellings. Before any of the supernatural occurrences started, Moses actually organized and led an insurrection against Rameses’ regime. This was about the only human action in the entire film and the only part that felt at all plausible or authentic in the context created. Because of course, from a human perspective, one would organize a slave rebellion in the face of tremendous oppression and try to extricate the slave class from their situation before merely sitting back and watching a deity take over. This was all compromised, however, when in the next section of the film, Moses and every other character took a backseat to the workings of what we were lead to believe was divine intervention. I can think of no more blatant “deus ex machina” than a supernatural godlike figure controlling the every event for an entire reel. It’s about as lazy as storytelling can get.
Yet another problem with attempting to depict the miracles as possibly natural phenomena is that they didn’t bother to come up with a non-theist explanation for the tenth plague, that being the death of the Egyptian first borns (the Passover story). Though it could have, the film offered no non-supernatural explanation for this event, merely depicting a dark cloud descending on Memphis and slaying the Egyptian children in their sleep and passing over the appropriately marked Hebrew doors. The result of all this is farce, taking an epic and potentially human story from rich source material and reducing it to an empty, sluggish, and stagnant narrative. As we’re accustomed to seeing from Mr. Scott, the spectacle was grand indeed but ultimately in service of nothing.
After all the controversy with the casting Ridley Scott and the writers gave their cast basically nothing to do at the end of the day. Christian Bale delivers the only stand out performance (being the only actor given the opportunity by the script) and his performance was compromised for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph as well as by a generally weak character arc. We got no real sense of who Moses was as a person (in this specific screen narrative), what his relationship is to Ramses, how he actually relates to Egyptians and Hebrews respectively, or even what he wants. The first act was a complete disaster narratively; everything just flew by without any story or character development. It really was as if the filmmakers were in a tremendous hurry to get the story over with. The rest of the cast performed completely thankless roles. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and John Turturro’s roles were reduced to mere cameos, none of them having much of an affect on anything substantive before disappearing seemingly as soon as they appeared. Aaron Paul, one of the most talented young actors working today, had a little more screen time than others but ultimately had zero impact on proceedings, merely reacting to Moses without actually contributing to the narrative or the conflict therein.
Joel Edgerton as Ramses was more prominent then the rest of the supporting cast, but even then his relationship with Moses with totally underdeveloped and paper-thin to the point of being non-existent. There was not rivalry between the two, making what should have been the most essential and primal human conflict in the entire picture a mere blip that had little to no dramatic impact. The human drama in this film was at a considerable low throughout. At the end of the day, all of this lack of connective tissue between characters and between characters and the narrative resulted in there being precious little dramatic tension or conflict within the narrative. One felt as though the characters were merely there because the story called for them to be, but this retelling didn’t bother to justify their presence in this specific interpretation.
I would be remiss of course, if I went without a further discussion of the racial and ethnic makeup of the cast. I commented in a previous post that the casting of an almost entirely white principal cast in Exodus was made all the more insulting by the presence of people of color on the periphery of the film. My sentiment was ratified upon viewing the film. With the exception of a few including Ben Kingsley and Indira Varma who had little to no significant impact on proceedings, people of color played no major role in the unfolding of this narrative. It was almost as if they hired extras of color as a concession that they were populating a world almost entirely with people from outside of the region where the narrative was taking place. While Christian Bale was otherwise well-suited for and rather good in what ended up being the thankless role of Moses (for reasons mentioned above), his casting turned Exodus into a “white savior” film of an order that has never before been reached, in my estimation. He was a white savior to such an extent that there weren’t even any non-white people for him to save, as if they were purged from the scene of events before events even began. With this drama unfolding in what is depicted to be historical North Africa, this film was nothing short of a colonial endeavor, if I can be so blunt.
Lest anyone think I exaggerate here, consider the implications of on the one hand acknowledging that black people in particular and people of color in general exist in this universe and in the region depicted, as well as acknowledging that proceedings take place on the continent of Africa by displaying zebra and leopard skins continually throughout the film, yet on the other hand relegating people of color to the sidelines to such an extent that they don’t even speak, while at the same time depicting people of and descendent from outside of the region in question driving the entirety of the narrative. Ridley Scott and company are effectively using a location on the continent of Africa to act out a fantasy. That fantasy involves white people being the protagonists of drama played out on African soil wherein they are the only players of importance in the scenario. They are using Africa as a playground to act out a fantasy wherein anything heroic or important that happens happens as a result of the actions of or even just due to the mere presence of white people.
The implications of such an act are even more sinister if one considers the agnostic approach I mention above that the filmmakers seem to have (at least partially) taken as their approach to this narrative. Even if one considers the Bible to be fantastical and a work of fiction, this film clearly took a more historical/realist approach to the telling of this particular biblical narrative. There could be nothing more historically absurd than a bunch of Europeans running around Egypt playing out this story. Part of the enduring legacy of Western Christianity is the fantasy that the protagonists of the Bible were “white” as we know the term today. These depictions of Biblical figures in the guise of and with the features of Europeans have been pervasive in western art for centuries. Exodus is but the latest entry in that tradition.
Even a cursory examination of our world as we know it reveals this practice to be at best absurd and at worst racist and colonialist. The practitioners of bad science and bad history have been rewriting world history for centuries to make it seem as though “white people” as we understand the term to be the protagonists of history and being entirely responsible for anything important to have ever happened. The perpetuation of this fiction is detrimental to our culture and our society and only metastasizes when we allow works such as Exodus: Gods and Kings to carry an kind of credibility as works of art. Even in the face of a strong box office opening, the negative response to the film by so many is perhaps encouraging on this front, but we have certainly not seen the last of this trope.