This is one of those moments when a movie comes along that is so repugnant, and so bland, and so pretentious, that it's almost impossible to believe. And yet, like a voice from a burning bush, Exodus is an unbelievable event that will nevertheless lead thousands of people on a terrifying quest — to movie theaters.
Light spoilers ahead.
I will admit right up front that I am a die-hard fan of the original story that Exodus is based on. Don't get me wrong — I think Kings I and II and Judges are pretty badass books of the Old Testament. But Exodus has always been my favorite. I'm not religious, but I always observe Passover, the Jewish holiday devoted to recalling the events of Exodus. So I went into this movie a little biased. I wanted to see those deadly plagues visited on Egypt in full CGI glory, and I wanted to feel the righteous wrath of the Jews as they fought slavery. It should have been the ultimate holiday action flick.
Instead, it was a muddled, dissonant mess. The biggest mistake that director Ridley Scott made was that he didn't seem to understand that Moses is the hero of the story. Instead of watching Moses grow up, and gaining sympathy for him as a (semi) outsider among the Egyptian royalty, we meet him as an adult fighting beside his adoptive brother Ramses on the battlefield. And Ramses, who has a complex, conflicted relationship with the more talented leader Moses, comes across as a vastly more interesting and sympathetic character.
This problem extends to the plight of Moses' people, the Hebrews, whose lives we glimpse only out of the corners of our eyes as Scott's cameras eat up the vast palaces and statues of Rameses' growing empire. For the Exodus story to work, we need to feel Moses' plight keenly, as he's torn between loyalty to his adoptive family and his growing awareness of his connection to the enslaved Hebrews. We need to feel outrage, injustice, and horror as the Jews are mistreated and abused at the hands of their Egyptian captors. Instead, we just hear Egyptian minsters ticking off numbers of slaves, which actually dehumanizes and distances them from us. When we do finally meet some Jews, they look and act more like angry villagers than people desperate for freedom.
In fact, the only true horror we see are the plagues that God visits on the Egyptians. As we watch their animals and crops die, and the faces of so many innocents erupt with boils, we wind up feeling far more sympathy for them than the people they have enslaved. It's peculiar to watch a story about a slave uprising where there are no emotional beats devoted to the horrors of servitude and the triumphant battle cries of the newly-liberated.
I'm not saying the Egyptians shouldn't be shown suffering — a crucial part of the Exodus story is that God forces the (mostly innocent) Egyptian people to suffer more plagues because he "hardens" Pharaoh's heart. But without any sense of who the Hebrews are, and what their lives are like, there's no feeling of justice behind these horrific acts. And there's no urgency to the Jews' struggle for freedom. I have never witnessed a more lackluster rendition of "let my people go."
Maybe part of the problem is that this movie profoundly misunderstands the God of the Old Testament. In the original book, we're dealing with a God who cannot be embodied — he even forbids the creation of "graven images" as blasphemy. He speaks to Moses from a burning bush as nothing but a voice because he is abstract righteousness, totally unrepresentable as anything other than the words "I am." But in the movie Exodus? He comes to Moses in the form of a little boy. It's like some kind of new age Christian interpretation of God.
Tonally, nothing could be more wrong. God in the Old Testament is like an invisible, heavy metal version of Smaug — all fire, all power, all violent badass stormbringing. He is anything but humble and childlike. The Old Testament God of brutality and might is exactly the kind of entity that the humbled, degraded, shackled Hebrews need on their side. Who else could help them defeat the greatest empire on Earth at the time?
Scott has watered down his protagonists, giving us almost no insight into their suffering and burning need for liberation. And he's made the people of Egypt so fascinating and realistic that we can't help but wonder why the whole situation couldn't have been resolved diplomatically rather than with the angel of death killing every firstborn son in Egypt. It's a bizarre and unconvincing interpretation of one of the most powerful stories we have about why slavery isn't just doomed to fail — it's doomed to destroy the civilizations that depend on it. And don't even get me started on the fact that the Ten Commandments are treated like a footnote.
Look, I knew there would be problems. I mean, Scott cast a dude named Christian as Moses, the greatest Jewish superhero in history (well, other than Superman). In fact, he cast a bunch of white people in roles that belonged to black and brown people in the book that Exodus is based on.
When fans of the book asked Scott about his choice, he gave an answer that was clueless at best and racist at worst. Speaking to Variety, Scott said he couldn't get financing for the film if he didn't cast white actors. "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. "I'm just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn't even come up." As science fiction author Saladin Ahmed noted, this kind of unapologetic racism is "probably accurate" when it comes to Hollywood.
So maybe the casting couldn't have gone any other way in Hollywood. But even if we accept that that's true, as Ahmed does, this movie is still a complete disaster. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is a weird moment when Ramses is playing with giant snakes, milking them for poison that he wants to drink in order to be strong. Sounds cool, right? But shouldn't Moses have all the memorable scenes of over-the-top strength? And shouldn't we believe in the righteousness and power of his mission? I mean, that's kind of the whole point of the book that Exodus is based on.
What I'm trying to say is that Exodus misses the point. It's not just that I wish it were more like the original book. It's that I wish the main arc of the movie — freeing the slaves — felt vital and intense. Instead it feels like everybody is just going through the motions. Yes, the effects are great. But your heart will never pound in sympathy with our supposed heroes. Instead, you'll feel like you're sitting through a boring sermon, delivered by somebody who had too much to drink the night before and just wants to go back to bed.