Exodus: Gods and Kings updates the story of Moses in every way except the one that would actually be gutsy: race.
Ridley Scott's latest film attempts to do for Moses what Batman Begins did for its title superhero — give its saga a grim, brawny overhaul and place it in a more realistic world. In place of a revamped Batmobile and other comic book trappings, it has a revamped parting of the Red Sea, with men confronting each other as the tide rushes back in in the form of massive waves. Its version of ancient Egypt has been lightly dredged in mud and dust, the royal spaces airy and spacious, and slave quarters cramped and dark. Moses starts the film not by being fished out of the Nile as a baby but all grown-up as Christian Bale, strapping on armor and accompanying his brother Ramses (Australian actor Joel Edgerton) into an arrow-, chariot-, and sword-filled fight with the Hittites.
While Moses has been cast as an action hero, later training the Israelites in the ways of guerrilla warfare, the religious aspect to his story has been softened, leaving open the possibility that his communications with God are simply delusions, and that there are scientific explanations for the plagues. And the language has been stripped of biblical floweriness, and modernized in ways that yield some inadvertent laugh lines — "From an economic standpoint alone, what you're asking is problematic, to say the least," Ramses tells Moses in response to his demands that the Israelites be treated as citizens or released.
It's The Ten Commandments for our modern blockbuster age — darker, more humorless, and more macho, with plenty of grit to pick out of its clenched teeth. The female characters have less of a place in this testosteroned-out tale of rival siblings than in Cecil B. DeMille's florid 1956 classic. Hiam Abbass, as Moses' adoptive mother Bithiah, has a few lines, while Sigourney Weaver, as Ramses' ruthless mother Tuya, gets only a few more. The tragic Nefertari (Golshifteh Farahani) is barely a presence, though Zipporah (María Valverde), the woman whom Moses marries, registers a little more.
But the focus is on Moses, whom Scott and screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian present as this slightly frightening, off-kilter figure, speaking for a God who is represented on screen as a petulant child (Isaac Andrews), and whose agenda is more brutal than that of his prophet. Moses is played by Bale, who actually was Batman not so long ago, and, like most of the main actors, is white.
Scott has been dismissive of complaints about the casting choices of Exodus: Gods and Kings, in the wince-inducing way of someone to whom the issue never occurred. "I can't mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such," he said to Variety. "I'm just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn't even come up." At the premiere, he told the AP that those threatening a boycott should "get a life."
According to Scott, it's just business, though his argument would hold more water if Bale's co-star Edgerton (who is fine in a role that seems written for camp) were anywhere near as big a draw, or if Scott's movie didn't seem to be going in the opposite direction of other giant productions that are incorporating more multicultural casting for broader global appeal. Scott represents a decades-old attitude that white actors are neutral, that they have the broadest appeal and the widest castability, a creaky assumption that doesn't align with the times we live in today. If in theory Exodus: Gods and Kings finds a powerful filmmaker shrugging and giving in without a fight to his assumptions about the industry's race problem, in practice it looks embarrassing, presenting an intricately realized Egypt filled with various characters of color until you get to the main ones, who are all played by white actors in bronzer.
Because it's not like race doesn't exist in Exodus: Gods and Kings, which peoples its background extras and minor roles with actors of various shades of non-whiteness, including Indira Varma as a meddlesome high priestess and Dar Salim as Ramses' chief commander. But then you have John Turturro in eyeliner as the pharaoh Seti, and Aaron Paul as the future Israelite leader Joshua, and Ben Mendelsohn as the abusive viceroy (and evil homosexual) Hegep, because a spritz of spray tan is apparently enough to make someone fit seamlessly in with these people of of color. It may not be intentional, but the film nevertheless designates the characters you're supposed to pay attention to by their skin tone, and gives in to the long tradition of making biblical stories "universal" by pretending the characters in them fit into the confines of contemporary whiteness.
Exodus: Gods and Kings feels too dreary to be offensive. It's just a movie that attempts to contemporize an ancient story, but, thanks to its casting, it was destined to feel discomfiting and dated before it even finished shooting. Like Noah, which generated its own heated discussions about race when it premiered earlier this year, but which at least took place in a mythological, unreal realm, Exodus: Gods and Kings is at its most interesting when it unflinchingly depicts an Old Testament God. Its angry boy angelic spokesperson is impatient and not at all comforting, which is a provocative way to get at a divine force who, among other things, kills a whole slew of Egyptian children in order to make a point.
That plague and the others that precede it, including the Nile turning to blood, frogs, boils, and storms, are depicted in lovingly gruesome detail in the film from the moment a group of giant crocodiles devours a ship and then each other. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott shows himself to be much better at reinventing destruction than bringing a new vision to an old tale.