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Exodus: Gods and Kings is one of the year’s worst movies

Christian Bale plays a more modern Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Hollywood's latest attempt to revive the Biblical epic.
Christian Bale plays a more modern Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Hollywood's latest attempt to revive the Biblical epic.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Imagine if the story of Moses was written by a committee consisting of an atheism subreddit, the congregation of a small evangelical Christian church, and a particularly excitable high school model UN team and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it's like to sit through Ridley Scott's truly terrible Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The movie has three movies vying for supremacy between the title screen and the credits. The first is a "realistic" retelling of the story of Moses that attempts to tell a non-divine explanation of the events in the Biblical book of Exodus. The second is a more or less straightforward retelling of the Biblical book of Exodus. And the third is an action movie filled with political intrigue.

What's maddening about the film is that it doesn't settle on any one approach. Instead, it alternates, clumsily, among the three approaches, every scene seemingly imported from a different movie. The film was obviously written by committee, with four screenwriters sharing actual credit on the script.

And yet, for all the committee work, it's not even a pandering crowdpleaser. This is a movie about Moses (played here by Christian Bale), where Moses never once gets to break out the phrase "Let my people go." (The closest the film gets is when Moses paints something on the side of a horse about reopening negotiations with the Pharaoh. I wish I was kidding about this.) That's like going to a Skynrd concert and not getting to hear "Free Bird."

Reverse-engineering Exodus

My bet is that everybody involved in this movie initially wanted to make the "true story" of Moses, focused less on the miracles than the palace soap opera. This is a movie, like The Ten Commandments, that's just as interested in the idea of Moses growing up among the Egyptian royal family — and subsequently becoming said royal family's nemesis — as anything else. But it largely assumes we'll fill in the emotional beats in that soapy material ourselves, which leaves things feeling strained.

That's not the only place where the script lets the story down. There are many places in the film where it seems like director Ridley Scott and his platoon of screenwriters want to focus on some series of events that don't require divine intervention to make sense, only to abruptly veer back into miracles.

For an example of this, look no further than the 10 plagues of Egypt, which the film attempts to turn into something ambiguous in origin, only to keep lurching back toward the hand of God. The Nile turning to blood, for instance, has nothing to do Jehovah and everything to do with crocodiles going on a spontaneous feeding frenzy and chomping great gashes into the men boating up and down the river. Except ... there are so many crocodiles. Who could have put all of them there but God?

There was probably a way to make this work, to constantly toy with the question of whether Moses' leadership skills are divinely inspired or merely delusions, but the film has a large enough budget that it doesn't want to suggest a key figure in three of the world's largest faiths was, y'know, a crazy person kept aloft by coincidence. So it keeps trying to find some less miraculous version of this story, but it will always, always shriek in terror at the last minute and shout to the audience, "No! God is here! Look! He's right there! Right there!"

Of course, this film's interpretation of God is literally a sociopathic, angry child who yells at Moses about wanting everybody to kneel before him, trembling. Exodus is a movie that desperately wants to be complex and nuanced, but is terrified by the possible consequences of being complex and nuanced.

Why Hollywood can't do religion

As Hollywood has tentatively stuck its toe back in the waters of Biblical epics, there's been a general hue and cry from many in religious circles that movie studios diverge too much from the stories in the Bible, presumably because Hollywood is either godless or too worshipful of money. But in watching Exodus, it's not hard to see that much of the problem with Hollywood's approach to filmed Bible stories is that the way modern movies tell stories and the way mythic stories are told are so different.

The characters in the Bible are rarely active characters as we might understand them in a movie. Instead, they're conduits for the divine, people who wait around for God to do something through them. Moses, who endlessly whines about how he'd rather Aaron do the hard things God asks of him, fits this description perfectly. He's a man of inaction, until God forces him to be otherwise. And then God is the one who makes everything happen anyway.

But that's anathema to modern Hollywood, which needs active characters, who are always doing something, always pushing forward with their goals, always saving cats (in the parlance of the industry's most beloved "how to write a screenplay" tome). Thus, Moses has to be a guy who's always charging ahead into something, even if that misses much of the larger point of his story. Maybe what Hollywood has lost faith in isn't God. Maybe it's good storytelling.

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