Plenty has been written elsewhere about the nonsensical whitewashing of ancient Egypt in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, so let’s just set that aside and talk about the film strictly on its merits as a film.
It’s a shitty film.
There, that was easy enough.
The characters have no real development, highly decorated actors are wasted on pointless throwaway parts with a couple of lines, the writing is atrocious, and the film has no idea what it actually wants to be. It is a humorless wreck that thinks it’s saying something deep and nuanced when it couldn’t think its way out of a paper bag with a machete. Ridley Scott throws a bunch of interminable CGI battle and panoramic sequences at the screen, zooming way out so that the people are ants. It’s annoying enough when Jackson does it, but at least Middle Earth is more impressive looking than ancient Egypt. The film has this constant hushed impressed with itself tone, as if showing a pyramid with tiny little people working on it is a spiritual experience instead of just a cut scene from Civilization II.
The writing is basically a stitched together hodge podge of every other mediocre over blown Ridley Scott historical action movie of the last twenty years. Anything that isn’t in the Bible is basically cut and pasted scene by scene from Gladiator or that terrible Robin Hood one. There are repeatedly levels of historical anachronism that make your head melt if you were even awake during history class. The speeches about how the Hebrews deserve the same rights as other Egyptian citizens (literally those exact words are used), and that only the Egyptian people can rise up and force Ramsees to release the Hebrews. Bro, forget the white privilege of casting only white dudes in a movie about ancient Africa, let’s consider a bit about the historical privilege of thinking that all of human history is populated by literate middle class Americans with rights and constitutions. Historical privilege means not having to believe in peasants.
Dan Simmons tells a theological anecdote in Hyperion, which he might very well have gotten from somewhere else, but he gets the citation since I read it there first. So god tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham takes him up on a mountain, and sweeps his blade towards the boy, only to be stopped by the hand of god at the last possible second. Abraham wasn’t faking, this much is critical to understand, he was honestly going through with murdering his own son. The basic interpretation is that this was god testing Abraham, testing whether he was obedient. Simmons, through the voice of a character of course, argues a much more compelling interpretation: Abraham was testing god. In a world of a thousand murderous gods, Abraham was testing to see if his was any different, if his was actually worth the following.
Luckily Ridley Scott didn’t write the Bible back in the day, because otherwise I don’t think Judaism would have really gotten off the ground. Scott’s got the theological depth of a pool of condensation at the bottom of an abandoned septic tank. He literally makes god a petulant eight-year old sociopath. No, seriously, god is an angry little boy who shows up to be a dick to Moses and be all like “oh it’s cute that you’re trying to exercise human agency or whatever, but now I’m going to murder a bunch of people because this is taking too long”. I mean that kind of jives with a lot of the Old Testament on a casual reading, but it’s sort of hilarious that Scott literally thinks that god’s the fucking Squire of Gothos.
It’s bad enough that the film has no capacity for dealing with the fact that because god can do whatever he wants, the characters literally do not matter at all. And further, the fact that he’s all-powerful renders any struggles the characters do go through as being interpretable only as god being a dick. It also doesn’t help matters that in addition to god being portrayed as an all-powerful genocidal child, he’s also portrayed distinctly as a moron.
At one point Ramsees the Joel stands there in his most sad eyeliner, gestures to the entire army standing behind him, and points out that all of them lost their children too in that whole inaugural Passover thang. At this point, what little momentum the movie has just screeches to a halt in my head. This is the plan? I’m finding it hard to believe that Bieber God actually created the universe when he thinks that the way to get away from an angry momma bear is to bite its cub’s head off.
God might move in mysterious ways, but Ridley Scott just moves in ways that make no sense at all.
I swear, this movie was so bad, and the supposed protagonists so thoroughly unsympathetic - and do realize how much you have to fuck up to make a group of people who’ve been worked to death as slaves for 400 years unsympathetic - that at about the two-thirds point, I started to think that Scott was a genius. See, the only rational explanation by that point was that he was trying to make the point that as written this story is all sorts of fucked up. By that point, I was actively rooting for the Egyptians. Of course that was just a fever dream, because the music kept swelling and then Batman Moses had a poignant last conversation with Bieber God, and we were totally supposed to be awestruck by the awesome.
There are a lot of lousy movies, but even among the worst of them it’s rare to just have no idea what the filmmaker was trying to say. Because Scott was clearly making a movie that mattered to him, and taking it very seriously as he tried (and completely failed) to make deep points. So I’m sitting there in the theatre as the endless thing finally starts up the last bit of dramatic music, thinking “what in the world possessed Ridley Scott to make this movie?” Then the screen goes to black and the first text says “for my brother Tony Scott”. Well thanks for capping off the movie by making me feel like a dick, Ridley. Awkward.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.