Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Steven Zaillian, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine
Stars: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley
Release date: December 4th, 2014
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Countries: USA, UK, Spain
Running time: 150 minutes
Best part: Bale and Edgerton.
Worst part: The sluggish pace.
A man named Christian plays Judaism’s greatest prophet – now that’s irony! Over the past few months, Ridley Scott’s latest behemoth, Exodus: Gods & Kings, has caused significant controversy. Its casting decisions sent internet comment sections into overdrive, with Caucasian thespians – including Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Aaron Paul – embodying ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and Hebrew slaves via spray tans, wigs, costumes, and eye-liner. Sure, there may have been some ‘Hollywood pretty’ people running around this period. However, the production’s checkered history and questionable choices severely damage the immersion effect.
In a press junket, Scott inappropriately claimed the casting of middle-eastern actors would fundamentally stall the project. Yes, this is how Hollywood works today. However, this, coming from one of Tinseltown’s most prestigious filmmakers, is unprofessional. So, forgetting about ethical quarrels for a moment, how does Exodus: Gods & Kings fare? Short answer: Exodus? More like Meh-xodus (too damn easy)! On paper, this project has several alluring qualities befitting of big-budget entertainment. Ambitiously, the movie hopes to draw people back to the big screen and the Book of Exodus. Indeed, the story of Moses leading 600, 000 Israelite slaves to the promised land from Egyptian rulers warrants significant discussion. The story, known by many as: “that ‘parting the Red Sea’ one”, deserves many adaptations. After all, religion and entertainment mean different things to different people. Scott’s version hurls us directly into the action, for better or worse. We meet Moses (Bale), in 1300 B.C., as a war-crushing, peace-welding general. Moses, fighting the Hittite army, saves his brother/Prince Rameses(Edgerton)’s life (as prophesied) whilst crafting a flawless battle strategy. Moses, favoured by King Seti I (John Turturro), is sent to Pithom to resolve issues between Hebrew slaves and their masters. Rubbing Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) the wrong way, Moses is closely monitored. grizzly slave Joshua (Paul) and elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) inform Moses of his true origins. He, banished from Memphis by the royal family, marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and conceives Gershom. God – appearing as a boy (Isaac Andrews) – and the burning bush demand Moses’ cooperation.
Famed director Cecil B. DeMille adapted this tale in 1923 and 1956, calling both The Ten Commandments. Obviously, Charlton Heston is no less Anglo than Bale. However, that version was, literally and figuratively, bigger than Ben-Hur. The sweeping majesty of DeMille’s second shot overshadowed said troubling elements. Sadly, Scott’s slick yet shallow remake/adaptation pales in comparison. His gold-and-chrome-covered extravaganza delivers everything you’d expect from the master historical-epic filmmaker. However, Exodus: Gods & Kings has no idea what it’s doing, saying, or even thinking. It suffers similar issues as his polarising 2010 Robin Hood. Both historical-epics muddy the waters between reasonable explanation and divine intervention/deus ex machina. Invested in every detail, he wants us to dive headlong into the narrative. Convinced 110% of this gargantuan story’s worth, Scott constructs meticulous analyses of each chapter. Pulling his people through the mud, Moses is more reasonable, complicated man than well-meaning saviour. However, before you can say: “Let my people go!”, It lifelessly charges from Moses/Rameses’ brotherhood to the Red Sea parting to Mount Sinai/Commandment carving section. Dedicating it to recently deceased filmmaker/younger brother Tony Scott, he becomes wowed by every grain of sand, speck of dust, and rule in the book. Discussing the physical, psychological, ethical, and religious ramifications, it bites off more than it can chew. Scott, obsessed with the visual aspects of Ancient Egypt, becomes lost in a (Red) sea of bright colours, flashy compositions, glorious scenic vistas, and full-on set pieces. His version – flipping from gritty character-drama to kooky sword-and-sandal-epic to pompous parable – becomes more narratively, tonally, and thematically barren than a North-African desert.
“You say that you didn’t… cause all this. You say this is not your fault. So let’s just see who’s more effective at killing: You or me.” (Rameses (Joel Edgerton), Exodus: Gods & Kings).
Despite the cast and crew’s best efforts, Exodus: Gods & Kings is more shiny than seminal. This Old testament walk-through delivers several gripping set-pieces and glorious compositions. It, attempting to please multiple audiences, valiantly re-creates the story’s most significant events. The banishment sequence reaffirms Scott and classic Hollywood’s ever-lingering glow. This sequence, drawing emotional weight from this lifeless slog, depicts a painstaking journey from emptiness to salvation. Scott and co. put a unique spin on this age-old tale of masculinity, heroism, and brotherhood. The ten plagues sequence delivers gripping moments bolstered by sumptuous visuals and intriguing concepts. The kingdom’s science expert (Ewen Bremner) breaks everything down logically, citing the link between a blood-red Nile, frogs, flies, and locusts. In addition, the visual effects and production design crews construct this 40-minute sequence vigorously. Fusing violence, stakes, and visual flourishes, this middle-third-spanning event is worth the admission cost. Scott’s scintillating world-building techniques help crack the whip. The first action sequence, though derivative of Gladiator‘s opening set-piece, establishes the movie’s scope and style. Developing Moses and Rameses as fearless warriors, this sequence separates the men – and kings – from the boys. Scott, unlike most action filmmakers, draws brilliant performances out of ensemble casts. Bale and Edgerton, matching one another in consistency and enthusiasm, excel despite the controversy. Paul, Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver – overcoming wholly underdeveloped characters – add to the grit-and-blood-stained aura.
Like preceding bible-sized flop Noah, Exodus: Gods & Kings is a bizarre, laughable, yet ambitious re-telling. Modernising one of religion’s most prescient and intriguing stories, Bale and Edgerton save this sword-and-sandal adventure. Despite its valiant attempts, this adaptation appeals to everyone and no one simultaneously. Extending an already expansive tale, Scott walks a shaky line between hyper-realism and full-blown fantasy. Like Moses himself, Scott shuffles from determination to obsession to degradation. It’s his best effort since American Gangster, but – given Robin Hood, Prometheus, The Counselor, Body of Lies, and A Good Year – that’s a low, jewel-encrusted hurdle.