Set aside biblical accuracy and historical accuracy. Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t need to be a chapter-and-verse retelling of the Book of Exodus nor does the movie need to back everything up with empirical evidence. It just needs to tell a compelling story, and it fails miserably. The Exodus story is a rich narrative filled with betrayal, discovery, destiny, and freedom. All of these aspects technically exist in Scott’s film, but in the most perfunctory manner possible. The director couldn’t care less about exploring these emotions and themes in a meaningful way, and it’s only in his desire for big set pieces that he inadvertently stumbles upon the curious viewpoint of seeing the Exodus story as one driven primarily by violence. The movie is a “biblical epic” not in that it reaches for some grand theme or is willing to consider the role of the divine. It’s a biblical epic because it’s based off a Bible story and cost a lot of money, and it’s more enthusiastic about letting you know the latter than the former.
In Egypt in 1300 BCE, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are generals in the army of Ramses’ father, Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). Moses was adopted and raised in the palace, and grew up with Ramses, and so the two are ostensibly as close as brothers even though Ramses is clearly insecure since Moses is a better person in every conceivable way. When Moses discovers he’s a Jew destined to lead the slaves out of Egypt, he tries to ignore this revelation until he’s forced to expose this secret to Ramses, and consequently thrown into exile. Moses builds a nice, quiet life with a new family, but he must give up his peaceful existence when God commands him to fulfill his destiny and free the enslaved Hebrews.
This is the standard Exodus story, and for Scott, he’s not particularly interested in challenging it or even playing into its more difficult aspects. For the director, Exodus is nothing more than a template upon which he can rain down visual effects and let the story’s importance originate from the source material rather than anything he brought to it. Almost everything that’s dramatic in the story comes from broad strokes, and if anything requires even a modicum of specificity, Scott couldn’t be more disinterested. Even though Moses and Ramses are supposed to be as close as brothers, they may as well be amicable co-workers since Scott doesn’t want to spend any energy on emotions or complex characters since that would take us away from the all-important spectacle.
So eager to provide the most “polished” blockbuster possible, Scott actively avoids anything that would make Moses even remotely flawed. Since Exodus: Gods and Kings casts Moses as Action Hero, he’s handsome, smart, confident, compassionate, insightful, wise, and has nothing to learn other than he needs to step up and lead the Jewish people because God told him to. Then you have an easy villain in Ramses, who is incompetent, vain, petty, and foolish. We’re going through all the familiar beats done in the laziest manner possible outside of the lavish production value, and Scott’s only twist is moving Moses from a shepherd to a warrior.
And that’s an interesting idea that could have provided rich exploration. What does it mean when we shift our religious figures into a framework of violence? When God—depicted briefly as the traditional burning bush before spending the rest of the movie in the form of a young boy—tells Moses, “I need a general,” that’s a big statement. It’s a rethinking of our traditional view a biblical figure; we usually envision Moses with a shepherd’s staff as he shepherded his people out of slavery. To give him a sword repositions the character’s journey—and therefore his people’s journey—as one of combat, where freedom is accomplished not by God’s will, but by violently defeating one’s oppressors.
Scott ignores this politically and historically charged idea in favor of following his true muse: mindless destruction. If you’re wondering why God needs a general to carry out acts of guerilla warfare when the Lord has a bevy of plagues at his disposal, it’s because Scott wants some brief battle scenes before unleashing the full force of CGI upon the Egyptians. God doesn’t even give Ramses a little breathing room between plagues to consider that letting the Hebrews might be a good idea. Again, Scott had the opportunity to explore something deeper by repositioning this God as one motivated by vengeance, but that would take thought and complexity, and the director has patience for neither even though the movie is two and a half hours long.
A long sermon or a dry history lesson would be preferable to Exodus because at least the speaker presumably cares about the context. Does it really matter how high the waves were when God parted the Red Sea? Does watching eight hundred chariots fall off the side of a mountain qualify as anything more than an unintentionally comic tribute to Ramses’ stunningly incompetent leadership? I understand that some people go to the movies for mindless entertainment, but this story comes with weight, and Scott doesn’t want to do the heavy lifting. He wants an excuse to make Gladiator again where the wise, handsome general gets revenge by rallying slaves to his cause. Religion and history are meaningless in Exodus: Gods and Kings as is everything else that doesn’t involve the swinging of a sword, the clash of a chariot, the burning of a city, or the parting of a sea.