Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Moviegoer

Reel To Reel: Exodus: Gods And Kings

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Indira Varma, Ben Kingsley
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Battle violence and plagues of Biblical proportions

The Ten Commandments is the Bible of your Sunday School class, where GOD is awesome and powerful, and Charlton Heston's Moses has more charisma per square inch than just about anybody in Hollywood (especially the executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment right now). Yul Brenner's Pharaoh's heart isn't just hardened by GOD, it's encased in concrete by that slimy queen Nefretiri. It has that unforgettable parting of the Red Sea. It has GOD as a Pillar of Fire. It's an epic treatment of a epic subject, and its yearly broadcast on ABC testifies to its enduring epicness.

Now let's talk about Exodus: Gods And Kings, that film which aspires to humanize both Moses and Pharaoh. We have a spurned member of Egypt's royal family who just learned a family scandal and a Pharaoh who's a walking Blue Star Ointment commercial for half the film -- both spiritually and morally ambiguous. We have a lavishly effeminate viceroy. We have a Red Sea parting, or falling, or maybe just at low tide. And we have GOD... only it's a peevish, creepy little god-boy of whom I will not give the dignity of capitalization.

The film picks up the story in 1300 B.C., with Egyptian general Moses (Bale) and soon-to-be Pharaoh Ramesses II (Edgerton) routing a Hittite army, establishing them as friends, brothers and warriors. Then comes the grunt work of dealing with problems among the Hebrew slaves. Moses goes to see the aforementioned viceroy and meet with the slaves, where he learns the awful truth about his real family. Even though he tries to hide the truth, it gets back to Ramesses. Moses is banished to the desert, and his former brother in arms ascends to the throne.

You probably know the rest, or you should know it, because this film reduces Exodus to a bad trip. When Moses ventures up the forbidden mountain and first encounters GOD, he gets a bonk on the head and a blue burning bush accompanied by that creepy god-boy. This would be a huge stretch on its own, but we keep seeing god-boy throughout this movie making god-boy pensive statements staged in such a way to suggest Moses still hasn't recovered from that bump on the head. Moses is not a charismatic leader but a reluctant warrior. Pharaoh is not a hard-heartened bully, despite his orders putting slaves to death, but a monarch who seems lost in it all. And wait till you see how god-boy handles the golden calf and the Ten Commandments.

At least the plagues are epic: CGI-enhanced storms, yucky skin lesions, and attacks of locusts, flies, frogs and crocodiles. Crocodiles? Wait, that isn't in the Bible. A lot of this film isn't in the Bible either, as devout Christians and Jews will notice, and as Biblical archeologist Ellen White points out. She doesn't even bother to list all of them, telling you, yes, it really is that bad. The parting of the Red Sea, while it does get some things right, also leaves a lot of room for doubts. Director Ridley Scott leaves open the possibility that it could have been natural rather than supernatural.

Hollywood was going to remake this film eventually, and you can argue it needed a remake. For everything I like about The Ten Commandments, it's also full of cheesy dialogue that's rife for riffing in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But Cecil B. DeMille had a lot more respect for his source material, and he turned to the ancient historians Philo and Josephus for help filling in the gaps.

Exodus: Gods And Kings suffers from the same problem as another historically-inspired Ridley Scott film, Kingdom Of Heaven. I noted that film lacked passion. This one does too... and a whole lot more. You may want to see it just to note all its deficiencies. So let it be written.