Ridley Scott cannot be accused of presenting Exodus: Gods and Kings as merely a 21st-century update of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. But I really wish he had given that a try. Sure, on occasion, in this or that sequence, Scott’s film does display some sense of the spectacular, the passionate, the dreadful, the grand. So this film has epic moments, but it lacks any sense of a sweeping epic vision – or even an epic visual design. This film is disappointingly monochromatic and monocultural – lots of dirt, and lots of dudes.
A more thorough review – and some spoilers – after the jump.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with dirt and dudes. Indeed, they are hallmarks of Hollywood historical epics, Biblical or otherwise. Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s previous foray into the world of antiquity, has plenty of both. But it also has something that Scott’s Exodus noticeably lacks: warmth and women.
When I say “warmth,” I mean visual warmth, a warm palette with saturated colors, a brightness, a feeling of sunlight – that sensual “Mediterranean” heat that Andrew Seal discussed, a heat conveyed in the details of set design, costuming, lighting, effects. On the whole, Ridley Scott’s Exodus lacks that warmth and color. The first plague – when the Nile is turned to blood – is colorful. The rest are mostly CGI fantasia in varying shades of gray. Even Pharaoh’s palace, where one might expect (or expect to get away with) a luxuriant palette – lapis, ruby, sapphire, jade inlays, brightly pigmented wall murals, richly dyed linens – is a markedly monochromatic place. Of course the slave quarries and slave quarters of the Hebrews are even less colorful – all various shades of dirt, from tan to brown to grey — and most of the action that takes place there happens at night. And the desert through which Moses wanders once he is sent into exile is almost the least colorful place of all – a barren waste of rock, miserably dry (maybe even hot), but not visually warm. On a wide screen, in 3D, the world of Moses looks barren and cold.
Coldest and most monochromatic of all, as it turns out, is Mount Horeb, where Moses has his first vision of God. I don’t want to give away the details of the encounter, but the scene is litereally chilling for Moses, and the set design and effects play a big part in that: on a slate-colored mountainside against a slate-colored sky pouring rain, in the dark cold of night Moses sees a bush barely glowing with a feeble blue flame. The fiery bush has an icy look. There is nothing warm about this (or any subsequent) meeting between Moses and God. These encounters happen in near-darkness, in the evening chill, in barren places.
The one place in this movie that does not ever feel or look austere and barren and visually cold is the oasis in Midian where Moses meets and marries his wife Zipporah. And of course that’s no accident. This romance, such as it is, between Moses and Zipporah is the only hint of warm desire between two people in the whole film. Now, perhaps it is for the best that Ridley Scott has given us a rather chaste vision of the milieu of Exodus compared to Cecil B. DeMille’s steamy Technicolor objectification of well-oiled bare-chested men and diaphanously-attired, campily-Orientalized alluring ladies. There are no dancing girls, gratuitous or otherwise, in Exodus, no scandalous debauchery around a Golden Calf. But in breaking with the conventions of the genre – conventions that Scott was quite happy to exploit in Gladiator – he has not then situated the influence of women elsewhere in the narrative. He has mostly made it disappear. Sigourney Weaver – a champ of an actress for Ridley Scott in the Alien franchise — plays a “powerful” woman in Pharaoh’s palace, and she has maybe six lines in the whole film. Maybe six.
There is one female role in this film that represents a fascinating casting choice: a woman is the augur and high priest(ess) of the Egyptians. This is a remarkable choice, but Scott does almost nothing to exploit the oddity of it – the oddity within the genre of Biblical epics, or the oddity in terms of its contrast to the Exodus account in the Bible or popular conceptions thereof. In that connection, it should be noted, this intriguing casting choice is a clear sign that the limited roles of women in this film have nothing to do with an interest in “historical” accuracy. Instead, these narrative choices have everything to do with how this film frames and explores dramatic conflict: as a battle of egos between status-anxious men-children, human and divine.
There is a petulant pettiness, an egotistical one-upsmanship, that characterizes not only the resentment between Ramses and Moses, but also the rivalry between the gods of the Egyptians and the God of Moses, as well as the combative conversations between Moses and God. It is a coldly masculinized world, a world in which the only drama that matters is the ego competition between dudes who fight in the dirt, roll around in the dirt, move stuff around in the dirt, build stuff in the dirt — do every damn thing in the dirt short of having an actual pissing contest.
This dude-drama is so pronounced that the broader relational ties toward which movies like DeMille’s (not to mention the Biblical stories themselves) have gestured – a sense of tribe, a sense of family, a sense of unity through shared religious practice, a sense of camaraderie through shared trials – are almost utterly absent. Very little, to the very end, connects Moses to his people. The only exception is the extended sequence in which Moses, once a general in Pharaoh’s army, is training the Hebrews in various military and tactical skills. But for the most part, in this film, Moses lives in relationship with almost no one. Aaron plays no significant role – three lines? four lines? Miriam – beyond revealing her identity as Moses’s sister – plays no significant role. In leading the people after they have left the Egyptians, Moses takes no counsel, seeks no help from others. It is a peculiarly isolated and disconnected Moses that we see in this film, which in the end is less about the Exodus or even the self-revelation of God to a people than it is about Moses figuring out who he is as a man. Way, way too much of this film could be characterized as “Christian Bale Is Doing Manly Things Alone.”
Now, were there parts of this movie that I really enjoyed? Absolutely. Heck, within the first ten minutes of the film there’s a fantastic display of Pharaonic pageantry, military charioteering, and hand-to-hand combat. It is a promising start – a gesture toward the conventions of a genre that Scott would have done well, I think, to exploit. Instead, this film in many ways turns its back on one of the most dramatically and visually exciting conventions of the Biblical epic: the portrayal of the miraculous. Now, that’s because the film plays with the practice of demythologization – plays with it in the film, and plays with it as a film. The show-stopping miracle of DeMille’s Ten Commandments – the parting of the Red Sea so that the Hebrews can cross on dry ground – is extraordinarily underwhelming in Scott’s film. And that is the case for many other miraculous incidents, major and minor, mentioned in the accounts of the Exodus. If they are portrayed at all in Exodus: Gods and Kings, they are portrayed in very unmiraculous ways.
Not only did Scott move away from the kind of spectacle presented by Cecil B. DeMille; he moved away from both the supernatural spectacle and the all-too-human interpersonal drama of the Biblical narrative itself.
If you’re making a mainstream movie that’s going to stray from a story everybody knows and lots of people love, you’ve got to come up with something better, something richer, something more exciting – for pity’s sake, something warmer and more lively and more colorful and more infused with passion and desire – than dudes and dirt.