I’m “biast” (con): …but not so much lately
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I think I’ve finally figured out what Exodus: Gods and Kings is all about. I don’t mean how it’s a painfully boring, too-literal adaptation of a Biblical fantasy that’s been told plenty often before, and was not calling out to be told again. I mean how it’s possible that Ridley Scott could have made such a stodgy flick, and one that’s utterly tone-deaf to modern sensibilities. Cuz Scott used to be ahead of the curve, not decades behind it: This is the guy who made the groundbreaking Alien and Blade Runner back to back, fer pity’s sake, and then — 15 years ago! — reinvented the sword-and-sandal epic with the spectacular and very moving Gladiator.
Too bad the genre didn’t stay reinvented, but that’s not Scott’s fault. Until now. Why did Scott rewind to the 1950s with his absurd Hollywood-clichéd all-white cast and apparent insistence that his Exodus look and feel like something that wouldn’t upset delicate conservative sensibilities? Darren Aronofsky showed us how to make a Biblical epic fresh for the 21st century with his wonderfully bonkers Noah, in which fallen-angel rock monsters wander a desolate postapocalyptic landscape that serves as a metaphor for anthropogenic environmental degradation. Ridley Scott has a vengeful little-boy Yahweh pushing for war and engaging in murder and mayhem, and it has Jon Turturro (God’s Pocket, Fading Gigolo) as an Egyptian pharaoh.
I say this again: Jon Turturro as an Egyptian pharaoh. You simply can’t do this anymore. Even grading on Hollywood’s horrendous track record in representing anyone not white, it’s like Scott hung a No Coloreds sign on the movie’s front window. (Unless they’re playing mute domestics. The only actors with a darker than medium beige skintone who appear here play slaves and servants, and barely say a word.) And Scott’s excuse — about how he simply couldn’t get funding for his film unless it starred the likes of Christian Bale, so what else could he do but cast as he did — is clearly complete bullshit. Scott may be right in that he needed a couple of big names to get the film made, but even if we pretend that there are no movie stars in the world who aren’t white, very few of Scott’s appallingly all-white cast qualifies as a major Movie Star, or even a minor one. Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), who plays Ramses, adopted brother to Bale’s (American Hustle, Out of the Furnace ) Moses, is hardly a household name. Aaron Paul (Need for Speed, A Long Way Down) and Ben Mendelsohn (Black Sea, Starred Up) and Ewen Bremner (Get Santa, Snowpiercer), in other roles, are barely beyond the “Oh, hey, it’s that guy” stages of their careers. (Ben Kingsley [The Boxtrolls, Ender’s Game], here portraying a Jewish leader, is at least half Indian, and slightly better able to pass for Middle Eastern. And he’s a Name!) What they are is white. And with each new white face attached to a non-movie-star name that shows up onscreen, it becomes increasingly apparent that their whiteness is what mattered to their casting, not their fame.
(Please note that I am not putting down any of these actors. They’re all really cool and I’ve enjoyed their other work. It’s just that they totally don’t belong in this movie.)
Then there’s this, too: If you cannot make a reasonably plausible film set in a supposedly realistic ancient Egypt with a cast that looks believable, maybe don’t make the movie at all. (Or go the Aronofsky route and make it completely, unambiguously fantastical, not faux historical.)
So we’re back to why Exodus made at all? I figure there’s gotta be a Springtime for Hitler scenario happening. Maybe 20th Century Fox needed some sort of tax writeoff and figured a huge bomb was the way to go? (Alas for Fox, the film is actually doing okay globally, so it may not be quite as a big a writeoff as it deserves to be.) I’m not sure how else to explain, beside deliberately deployed incompetence and a conscious decision to be terrible, the very bad 3D CGI throughout the film, or why even should-be cool things like man-eating crocodiles and rivers of blood fail to be ever minimally compelling onscreen. They’re not even accidentally fun in a so-bad-it’s-good way. How else to explain performances that veer from wooden to hammy from actors we know are capable of better? No one here believes a word of the histrionic crap they’re spouting, and no one here appears capable of a genuine emotion in connection to it.
If only it all managed to be campy, that’d be something. But no. Why, it’s almost as if Scott and Fox didn’t want to take the chance of an unintended hit, like Springtime for Hitler turned out to be, and did their damnedest to ensure that Exodus was simultaneously the dullest and the most insulting version of itself it could possibly be. In this, at least, they succeeded.