Sometimes, there are warning signs. Sometimes, all it takes is a few minutes into a film to let you know you’re in trouble.
In Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, that warning sign came less than five minutes into the film, when the pharaoh asks one of his advisers the soon-to-be-immortal question: “What do the entrails say?”
Yup. That line came less than five minutes into a 150-minute long film. I had to rewind it to make sure I had heard it correctly, which I had. And, just as the pharaoh’s adviser tells him, the entrails are unclear, but some stuff might happen that you won’t like very much. At this point (again, less than five minutes into a two and a half hour movie) I figured that that was a pretty good prediction as to what my feelings would be like about the movie as a whole: unclear, but definitely leaning towards the negative.
Urgh. Exodus had all the ingredients to be good, so how did it go so spectacularly bad? Ridley Scott has been in a bit of a rut post-Gladiator, but he’s still an important filmmaker, and he has proven success directing historical epics. Christian Bale is widely acknowledged to be one of the best actors around. The movie tells a well-known Biblical story that most people, regardless of their religious views, are pretty familiar with. The cast also included Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver.
And yet, almost nothing in the movie works.
The story is a confusing mess.
The relationships between the characters are thin to nonexistent.
Sigourney Weaver has maybe three lines, all of which are delivered in a flat American accent, which sound totally out of place.
And, worst of all, the movie has no idea what so freaking ever what to do with God.
I just…it just…urgh. Look, the filmmakers made some choices in this film that were utterly baffling to me.
Why, for example, would they choose to portray God as a, like, eight-year-old-child? Every time Moses (played by Bale, if you didn’t already know that) talks to God, he’s talking to a freaking little kid. I cannot fathom why the filmmakers thought this was a good idea. Literally anything would have been better. Have him talking to a disembodied voice. Have him talking to a ghostly figure of some sort. Have him talking to, I don’t know, a grown-up human being for crying out loud. But why in pluperfect hell would have him arguing with a child? And, even more inexplicably, why would you make it so that Moses is the only one who can see him, which results in scenes where Moses’ brother Aaron is spying on Moses, and it looks like Moses is just arguing with himself?
AND TO TOP IT ALL OFF, why would you make Moses and God have an antagonistic relationship with each other? I always thought that God worked through Moses, the movie makes them practically look like enemies. I get that people’s relationships with God are complicated. I get that. But making Moses and God enemies (maybe frenemies? I don’t even know) just makes no sense from a storytelling perspective.
Moses starts training the Israelites to become like this guerrilla army, and then Kid-God shows up and tells him he’s not doing enough, and that’s what starts the ten plagues. So all those scenes of Moses training his guerrilla army (which were meant to be all inspirational) add up to a whole lot of NOTHING.
The relationships between the characters are also incredibly poorly developed. Moses has almost no connection to anyone else in the movie. He has no reason to want to return to Egypt after his exile, aside from a few vague hints from Kid-God, and every time Moses says something about helping his “people,” or entreating them repeatedly that “God is with us,” it just rings absolutely hollow. The Israelites have no reason to follow him, and he has no reason to want them to.
And he has almost no relationship with either Joshua or Aaron, both important Biblical figures. It’s only even mentioned in passing that Moses and Aaron are brothers. I didn’t even know which person was Aaron and which was Joshua! There were these two guys I knew were Aaron and Joshua, but I could never tell which was which, and with the miniscule amount of character development either of them had they might as well have been the same person anyway.
None of this, in my opinion, is the fault of Christian Bale. Bale is an extremely expressive actor, capable of conveying worlds of meaning with just a look from his eyes. He does what he can with an extremely underwritten character, and while I did like Moses individually, it was not enough for me to care about the rest of the characters in the movie, since he has so little connection to any of them.
The movie looks great, I can give it that. The sets, costumes, and special effects are all top-notch, and I especially liked the very cool-looking swords that Moses and Ramses use. You can tell that some serious money went into making this film, and, visually at least, it shows. The movie looks fantastic, and the scenes depicting the ten plagues are intense and frightening, and kinda gross. Oddly, by my count the movie only showed nine plagues, though I looked that up and the only one the movie leaves out is lice, and to be honest I forgot that lice were one of the ten plagues, so I guess I can kind of give them a pass for that.
Then again, no. No, I can’t. There were ten plagues of Egypt and the movie only shows nine. No pass for you, movie. The movie has four (credited) screenwriters, and apparently none of them can count.
Look, Hollywood. I appreciate the gesture, but seriously: you’re doing it wrong. For further proof, look at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was also released last year. In addition to being the year of Scarlett Johansson, 2014 was also supposed to be the Year of the Biblical Epic. But after having seen both Exodus and Noah, I can officially say that it was the Year of the Severely Underwhelming Biblical Epic.
I disliked Noah even more than I disliked Exodus, which as you can probably tell is really saying something. I don’t really have all that much to say about Noah, except it suffered from a lot of the same problems as Exodus: weak characterization, muddled story, baffling storytelling decisions.
Oh, and for some reason, it was full of Rock Transformers.
Wait, what? I didn’t think this Biblical epic was directed by Michael Bay. Noah is full of these weird creatures called Watchers that were supposed to be fallen angels, but I kept thinking of them as Rock Transformers because they looked like Transformers made out of rocks. One of them is even voiced by Nick Nolte of all people, and let me just say that Nick freaking Nolte is the absolute last person in the universe that I would ever expect to play an angel in a movie. A demon, sure (he certainly sounds like one), but an angel? Hell no!
Tellingly, the Rock Transformers did not appear in ANY of the trailers or marketing for the movie. The marketing team must have thought, “Hey, what the hell are these Michael Bay rejects doing in this Biblical movie? Eh, I dunno, just leave them out of the trailers, nobody will notice.”
The main problem with the movie Noah is that the Biblical story of Noah is pretty straightforward. The Biblical story of Exodus is more detailed, but Noah’s story really isn’t. God tells Noah to build the ark and put two of every animal on it. Noah does so, God destroys the world with a flood, the animals on the ark and Noah and his family survive. That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. But, of course, that’s not enough for a full-length movie, so the filmmakers embellished quite a bit. And all of their embellishments, to me, felt like really weak attempts to add drama to the story, and half of them just don’t make any sense.
How else do you explain Noah’s behavior in the last hour of the movie? For some utterly inexplicable reason, Noah spends most of the movie thinking that mankind is supposed to die off, so he spends most of the last hour of the movie trying to murder pregnant Emma Watson.
I, it, just, WHAT??? Why is Noah a slasher-movie villain for the whole third act of the movie??? It’s just baffling. And then at the end of the movie, Noah gets blackout drunk and his kids find him passed out naked on the beach. And this guy is supposed to be the hero of this story?
Both Noah and Exodus do have a couple of specific scenes that I liked. The parting of the Red Sea sequence in Exodus is an exciting setpiece, and I liked the scenes in Noah that showed the animals coming on to the ark.
They’re both great-looking movies, but the visuals aren’t enough to hide the emptiness that lies within both of these big-budget films. One of the reviews I read online said that Exodus was like a chocolate cake filled with sawdust, which I thought was a perfect metaphor: looks great, empty on the inside.
Look, I’m not a person who bases their system of beliefs on Hollywood movies. I don’t dislike these movies because they don’t exactly align with my own beliefs. I dislike them because their storytelling is muddled, the characterizations range from thin to nonexistent to downright baffling, and neither one of them has the slightest idea what to do with God.
What do the entrails say? It’s unclear, but it’s not looking good.