Ridley Scott may indeed still be a legitimate Director’s Director. Let’s face it: very few operating in the studio system today can compose a shot that, divorced entirely from the encompassing story being told, remains a thrilling work of art on its own. Let’s also face the harder reality: Scott’s thorough inattention—or perhaps reading-comprehension deficiency?—to the screenplays that find their way to his desk is absolutely killing his movie legacy. His latest, the Old Testament redux Exodus: Gods and Kings, is yet another unmistakable example of the former disastrously undone by the latter.
Moses Begins, sorry, Exodus joins the future Deliverer (Christian Bale) as “brother” to Ramses (Joel Edgerton) while they wage preemptive war on the Hittites, with Moses humiliating Ramses by saving his life in battle. Ramses also has a Cairo-sized chip on his shoulder because his father, Seti (John Turturro, seemingly the only actor allowed to revel in the extravagance of the overblown production), demonstrates greater admiration for his adopted Hebrew son. Ramses is more than ready to believe the accusation that Moses is a secret Member of the Tribe who survived the culling of all firstborn Hebrews decades prior. Following the death of Pharaoh Seti, Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver, thanklessly marginalized) moves to have Moses executed. Ramses overrules, and instead has him banished. (Credit where it’s due to Edgerton, delivering a tyrannical Pharaoh who’s far more sympathetic and conflicted than he might be otherwise, given the majority of the script’s characters are cardboard cutouts.)
Moses finally arrives at a small village, settles into a rural shepherding life, takes a wife (María Valverde) and fathers a boy. Finally! Bale’s Bruce Wayne accent makes a pinch more sense here than it did among the Egyptian royalty—who all, of course, speak with such crisp Britishness. (Is it even worth mentioning how blindingly all-white the cast is of a story set in Northeast Africa? No? Is it at least worth mentioning how many of the actors appear in bronze-face, only to lose and regain their faux pigmentation in subsequent scenes?)
But if the accrued silliness en route to Moses finally hearing God’s decree hasn’t persuaded the audience the movie may very well have been meant as Biblical satire or even black comedy, the sight of the Almighty as a grim- (and grime-) faced 10-year-old boy will at least leave them confused over the intent. After all, everyone in front of the camera plays it deadly straight, and the grand spectacle of the sets and breathtaking wide shots is certainly meant to evoke epic storytelling. It’s almost as if the writers and producers couldn’t successfully explain to Scott—or possibly didn’t dare correct—that what was originally intended wasn’t a lavish, overreaching Oscar bid, because should they really have to?
Even with exhilarating plague montages and stomach-dropping illusions of scale amid the many battles, the characteristically brilliant shots for which the famed director is known can’t compensate for the completely tone-deaf overall result—so far removed from the days in which the filmmaker brought us Alien. It’s doubtful the cinematic world will ever see a return to form that dramatic, but just because Scott isn’t terribly interested in vetting the screenplays any more doesn’t mean we should have to suffer another overlong project that’s barely a shade superior to Prometheus.
Director: Ridley Scott?
Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, María Valverde, Indira Varma
Release Date: Dec. 12, 2014
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.