Note: Normally, I write a critique of a film in the standard way. After viewing Exodus: Gods and Kings, I felt a note to the director, screenwriters and producers of the film seemed more in order.
Dear Mr. Scott, Myriad Producers and Several Screenwriters:
I managed to see Exodus: Gods and Kings just before it slipped out of town. Obviously, I wasn’t in a hurry, but due to the duel role of Christian pastor and film professor, I felt obligated to see it. I know the film didn’t succeed on the level you hoped, and I believe there are some good reasons for that. First, what’s good about the film, which is a lot:
The film is gorgeous, even in standard 2D, which is how I saw it. You, Mr. Scott, are a master of the visual, and that is perhaps the strongest part of the film. It’s difficult to make a classic epic in our cynical age, and your images are striking and sometimes breathtaking. You created a world that I believed in, a major challenge in epics of such scope.
You chose good actors for the main roles. Though I thought Moses looked particularly great for 80 (!)—which he was in the Biblical account—it was a wise decision to cast the intense and talented Christian Bale in the role. Perhaps you were following in DeMille’s footsteps with Charlton Heston from back in 1956 in casting a younger man. But whatever the reason, Bale is a solid choice. He brought a great deal of commitment to the character, and can handle both the broadest action sequence and the most tender intimate one.
Joel Edgerton is an underrated, talented actor, and he fit the part of Ramses well. His character wasn’t always clearly defined, but Edgerton’s screen presence more than makes up for that. Any film is improved by the presence and abilities of Ben Kingsley. His authority and acting talent were close to a perfect match for the part of Nun. That couldn’t have been done better.
But Bale was hobbled by an unsure focus on the character of Moses, and this is where the film began to break down. Is it a must nowadays to so severely deviate from the stories in the Bible and how they are presented? The average moviegoer understands that conversations need to be created and context needs to be given to famous events. You brought a strong sense of reality to scenes of life in the desert, for example, as well as personal conversations and the before-and-after scenes of the parting of the Red Sea.
But what you all did with the character of Moses was the strand that undid the whole film. And this is where two elements of missing the mark come in: You missed gaining the audience of Jewish and Christian believers and you tore the dramatic heart out of the story at the same time. This weakened the film immeasurably and took away your chance to be the huge hit (and classic) it could have been.
Following the same tortured logic that crippled Noah, you’ve added the wrong kind of psychological complexity to your main character. What the Noah team did so wrong (aside from the ancient Transformers that ruined the film for so many), was to take an incident that any common Bible reader knows happened later (Noah’s drunkenness) and attach it to the ark ride, using the future incident to give Noah an edge of cray-cray that wasn’t justified and made the whole film careen out of control from that point on.
What you did here is bonk Moses on the head, and therefore turn all his conversations with “God” into a possible set of hallucinations. That wasn’t bad enough, but then you validate “God’s” presence and reality through all the plagues. So is your “God” real, or not?
Then there is the most confusing and offensive artistic decision, and that is to present God as a petulant boy. I understand that visualizing God isn’t the easiest thing in film, and I applaud your attempt to forego the usual deep baritone voice with reverb and search for some kind of visual expression in a visual medium. But seriously, this was a huge misstep that kept too many folks from enjoying and therefore recommending the film. You might have gone the “angel of the Lord” route (ask your religious advisor), and that might have been some kind of justification for creating a more human-like being. But you have the boy say, “I am,” and that puts him right in the God camp. Then “God” gets touchy and begins to deviate from the Biblical account, and just like that you’ve lost your audience.
Then the worst decision of all was made. You shot an arrow through the dramatic heart of your story and simultaneously alienated the audience that knew something of the story: You took Moses completely out of the plagues. Check your Bible again. Moses and his staff were an integral part of the plagues.
Then you compounded that error by losing any chance of retaining the core of the drama, which would have been the Moses vs. Pharaoh confrontations. Seriously, a version of the Exodus without the phrase “Let my people go!”? Were you so loathe to stay away from anything in The Ten Commandments that you let that central line slip? And then you made the real confrontation the unsubstantiated and truly unbelievable one between the two men just as the final huge wave engulfs them—as if pulling out the “this time it’s personal” dynamic? What could have been a powerful dramatic series of clashes gets cut out and replaced by a silly, unsupported face-off that’s dwarfed visually and dramatically by a big wave.
Now I must stop for a compliment. We certainly didn’t need to see all the many Biblical accounts of the direct conflicts between Moses and Ramses, and you presented the plagues (mostly) so well. We will forgive the crocodile thing, which was unbiblical and didn’t make sense; and really, were those sharks I saw, in a river, or what I just dreaming I saw them?
But moving from one plague to another was creative and beautifully done. The momentum you created in doing that helped bring some energy to those scenes, and unfortunately, that was the only energy they got. They could have been incredibly intense if you had connected them to the Moses/Ramses conflict; then they would have been full of suspense and real drama. Instead, you gave the agency to “God,” which made the whole thing unconnected from anything to do with Moses or Ramses. And doing all that took the tension out of the whole “Let my people go!” dramatic arc. So not only did you alienate anyone who believed in the Biblical account of the Exodus by doing this, you gutted the dramatic heart of the film. Huge mistake all around.
I understand that the new gold standard for films about faith is The Passion of the Christ, and everyone has been looking to re-create that lighting in the bottle ever since that film’s success. Yes, all his faults aside, Mel Gibson has a good eye (and hired a great cinematographer), and is a rough-and-tumble director, just the thing to add some energy to his Biblical epic. But there is something else Gibson brought to the table that none of the other epics have done: genuine faith in the story and the material. Clearly the final decision-makers for Noah and Exodus didn’t have faith in the original accounts, and it shows. Gibson did, and that is the single biggest difference between his film and these others. If you had simply done a straightforward account of Moses actually hearing from God without questioning his mental state, and of Moses being involved in the plagues, running into Pharaoh’s pride and stubbornness, you’ve have created a new classic.
There are other quibbles to be had, of course. The film has an uneven pace, characters are given short shrift (why bring in Sigourney Weaver if you’re not going to use her character or is her performance is left on the cutting room floor—to use an outmoded expression?), and there is little relation between the soft, intimate, tender scenes and the big long shots and epic battles? (See any of the Lord of the Rings films to see how to do that.)
Also, as good as most of the effect were, The Good Earth did a better job with the locusts, and the birds in the background of one of the beautiful long shots seemed a bit large for supposedly being so far away.
What a lost opportunity this film is! Such beauty, such talent, such an epic scope. Here’s an idea. You don’t have to believe the Biblical accounts yourself. But trying following it with sincerity, letting that challenge be your greatest artistic hurdle. The results have to be better than what we’re seeing now. And if you had, this film coulda been a contenda.