In two crucial regards, Ridley Scott’s Old Testament epic Exodus: Gods and Kings could have strode down the center of a cultural divide and straight into the promised land of Mount Zeitgeist. Two thousand fourteen wasn’t only a banner year for the racist marginalization of black human beings, but also a stronger-than-average year for unrepentant Red State cinema making inroads into the mainstream. Not only did the converted turn out in droves for Heaven Is for Real and God’s Not Dead (the pair itself resembling, respectively, an angel and a devil sitting on the shoulders of some dubiously pious Warner Bros. cartoon character), but the major studios started coveting a piece of their indie neighbors’ oxen, donkeys, and box-office receipts, ultimately green-lighting only fleetingly revisionist Noah and, now, this.
Taking a rip from the scroll of Cecil B. DeMille, Exodus sets the sibling rivalry between Egyptian pharaoh and part-time eyeliner model Ramses and his stoic adoptive brother, Moses, against a vast canvas of Kemetic vistas by way of Time Life, thousands of bronzer-baring anorectic extras, and goats. Lots and lots of goats. Only this Moses (Christian Bale, speaking here with more intelligible English than he managed throughout the entire Dark Knight trilogy) is no Chuck Heston-esque stentorian tent revivalist with a gnarled staff and stout calves. He doesn’t even wear Birkenstocks. As the film opens, he’s the General George S. Patton of Goshen, flanking the suitable ferocious but otherwise seemingly inept Ramses (Joel Edgerton) in conquest under Seti (John Turturro). Ramses knows that his father has more respect and love for the foster child than his own flesh and blood, and it takes exactly one heated evening after Seti’s death for Moses to find himself cast out into exile on a rumor that his family tree leads directly into the den of Hebrew slavery.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Scott’s adaptation is only aiming for certain forms of credibility, and callously eschewing others. While it’s true that Exodus is about as far removed from the smell of “potluck crock-pots simmering away in the church kitchenette” as possible, emphasizing instead the thick redolence of sandy armpits and mummified halitosis, Scott’s casting strategy remains retrograde, deliberately. Already a trending topic is Scott’s own defense in the pages of Variety for casting the likes of Bale, Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and baby blue-eyed Aaron Paul as residents within life’s cradle, instead of “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.” That there’s some level of sad truth in Scott’s explanation that you simply can’t fund a nine-figure blockbuster-elect without some passive ethnic cleansing doesn’t excuse his practice. Especially not when he indulges in so many of the other lamentably traditional customs of the genre (e.g. egregiously coding one of Ramses’s devious henchman as gay for mere efficiency).
Which is all bound to make Scott’s insistently rational depictions of Yahweh’s variety show of plagues within Ramses’s kingdom seem even more alienating to some of the movie’s core audience. Here, Moses neither sanctions nor particularly approves of what God unleashes, events that all seem to interlock into a natural progression of woe: Alligator attacks turn the Nile red with blood, which kills all the fish, which spurs millions of frogs into their own ill-advised exodus, which brings the swarm of flies, and so on. (Scott’s strategy paints him into an embarrassing corner, though, when he can’t work up an even remotely plausible explanation for the deaths of every first-born child in the kingdom.) Between the notion that the parting of the Red Sea was a tsunami and Bale’s positioning of Moses as less of a prophet than a shell-shocked war veteran with blood-stained hands and visions of a prissy preteen boy claiming, “I Am,” Exodus approaches Noah’s strongest moments of secularized sacred content. But Scott lacks Darren Aronofsky’s even just momentary commitment to queering the canon. Be those tornadoes or be they fingers of God, Exodus remains hopelessly lost on the fringes of a cinematic Canaan.