EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
2014, PG-13, 150 mins.
2014, PG-13, 150 mins.
Christian Bale as Moses / Joel Edgerton as Ramses / Aaron Paul as Joshua / Ben Kingsley as Nun / Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep / John Turturro as Seti / Sigourney Weaver as Tuya / Indira Varma as Miriam / María Valverde as Séfora / Golshifteh Farahani as Nefertari
Directed by Ridley Scott / Written by Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, and Steven Zaillian
With visionary director Ridley Scott at the helm returning to the sword and sandal epic genre (which he re-popularized with his Oscar winning GLADIATOR and the underrated KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), you’d think that him taking on the Biblical story of Moses’ journey from Egyptian prince to Hebrew leader and liberator would have been a relative win-win proposition for all involved.
is no doubt that EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, on paper, has the right director
at the helm in Scott, whom has the tools in his directorial
arsenal to lovingly envision an Egyptian saga of the highest order.
To be fair, there are legitimate moments in the film when the veteran
filmmaker does elicit a strong
evocation of awe and wonder. Yet,
at a mostly brisk 150 minutes, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS feels far too padded
for its own good. There’s simply too much that the narrative has to
adequately tell in its relatively short running time, which leaves the
larger-than-life story here feeling largely skimped down.
there’s the other issue with EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS and that’s the rather large
shadow that Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic 1956's film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
casts on it, not to mention the litany of other numerous Biblical film
adaptations that have seen the light of day over the last several decades.
The overall story of Moses rising up and freeing his people versus
the tyranny of Pharaoh Ramses is one of the most recognizable Bible
narratives, which leaves Scott in the daunting position of trying to stay
true to the essence of it while simultaneously making the material feel
fresh and relevant for modern day consumption.
Despite the fact that Scott and his screenwriters – one including
Steven Zaillian (an Oscar winner for writing SCHINDLER’S LIST) – find
some ways to revitalize Moses’ tale, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS feels a
bit too pedestrian and safe for its own good.
It’s an unrelentingly solemn and humor-free film that also
happens to lack…edge.
film does has a grand and rousing opening sequence that plays up to
Scott’s inherent strengths at delivering gladiatorial battlefield
mayhem. It’s 1300 BC as
we see Egyptian Prince Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and his closest ally and
friend Moses (Christian Bale) leading their army to battle the enemy.
It’s a surprising way to introduce us to these personas, in full
swords-swinging, testosterone-induced, and teeth-clenched battle mode, which
helps immerse us in the film’s period right from the get-go.
Even though Moses and Ramses are victorious in the battle, the
former was almost killed if it were not for Moses’ heroics.
Back at home Egyptian Pharaoh Seti (the oddly cast John Turturro)
is making plans to anoint his son Ramses as his rightful blood heir, even
though both he and Moses have their doubts about his worthiness of such a
life changes during one fateful visit to Pithom, where he is able to
witness the savagery of Egypt in full swing as he sees the Israelite
slaves being barbarically whipped and tortured into submission.
While there he meets a Jewish elder (Ben Kingsley, refined and
dignified as always, but in an underwritten role) that matter-of-factly
tells Moses that he is, in fact, a Hebrew that was secretly adopted by the
Egyptians and raised as one of their own.
After being told this – as well as being informed that it is he
that is prophesized to lead the Israelites out of bondage – the
initially conflicted Moses comes to accept his true lineage, which is
revealed in a hostile confrontation with Ramses.
With Ramses becoming the new Pharaoh after Seti’s death, he is
forced to exile his once loved sibling, but while Moses tries to
acclimatize himself to being alone he’s given visions of his true
destiny and calling. The rest
of the film will hardly be a surprise to anyone that's went to Sunday
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS looks stupendous despite some of its more obtrusive
CG visual flourishes. Scott
has made a career of making films with a transformative power and allure
that ground us in their otherworldly spectacle, and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
is no exception. It’s
abundantly clear that Scott and his art designers have pain-stakingly
crafted the ancient Egyptian world for maximum gritty verisimilitude; the
film was shot in Spain and, in many instance, thousands of human extras
were used instead of pixelized ones to give the film a sense of palpable
scale. When the multiple
plagues do ravage Egypt – involving locusts, frogs, flies, sandstorms,
rivers of blood, etc. – EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS has a sweeping and
majestically intimidating grandeur. The
film is ripe with set pieces that allow Scott to fully showcase his
penchant for breathtaking visual majesty.
this is part of the very problem with the film, though.
I was won over by it on an aesthetic level, but the film’s
widescreen pageantry at times seems to drown out its human element. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
is filled with brilliant actors – some cast resoundingly well,
others…not so much – that seem reticent with their respective
performances, unsure of how they're coming off on screen.
Bale (one of our most committed and ferociously
empowered actors) as Moses seems like an ideal fit for his larger-than-life
Hebrew savoir. He certainly
gives an unexpectedly dialed-down performance (way, way
less so than, say, Charlton Heston’s legendary turn playing the same
character) and he certainly has the requisite presence to make Moses a
worthy figure of rooting interest. Yet,
Bale comes off as emotionally distant in the film and seems to lack
intensity when the film requires it.
He’s, no doubt, one of our greatest living thespians, but here Bale seems oddly and uncharacteristically aloof.
not helped much by his supporting cast either.
Edgerton – such a criminally underrated actor – is good at
playing up to both Ramses’ internally self-doubting nature and his more
disquieting sociopathic tendencies. Unfortunately,
he’s not given much thorough embellishment as an antagonist beyond
bullet point traits. Then
there’s other characters that wander in and out of the film and seem all
but adrift and lost in the story altogether.
Turturro is rarely convincing as Seti, and Sigourney Weaver –
whom appears as Ramses' mother – has such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her
level of involvement in the story that you have to wonder why an
actress of her caliber was cast in the first place.
Kingsley, as mentioned, brings gravitas to his role that, frankly,
is too marginalized for its own good.
And Aaron Paul – six ways to Sunday miscast as Moses’ right
hand man Joshua – looks mostly confused throughout.
much-cited controversy of having a largely white cast playing Middle Eastern
characters looms over the film as well (which is fair, especially seeing a
Brooklynite playing Pharaoh Seti). I
think the white washing of the cast was arguably more forgivable during
the historical context and time of DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but a
bit less excusable now. The larger controversy, though, might be how Scott and
company handles the Biblical miracles that are such an indelible part of
Moses’ story. God in the
film is presented as an ethereal apparition of a young British boy (which is either a fascinating or
laughable conceit, depending on your frame of mind), which may or may not
be a figment of Moses’ imagination.
Then there is the possible inference that monumental events –
like the God’s parting of the Red Sea – may – just may – have a
natural cause. The Red Sea in
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is not so much parted as it is…I dunno…drained.
Alas, odd casting, apathetic performances, and Biblical faithfulness are the least of EXODUS’ woes. The tale of Moses leading thousands of slaves out of Egypt to freedom is an undeniable powerful and dramatic one. Yet, Scott’s take on it seems distractingly impersonal at times. There is no doubt that EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is an ambitious and sometimes thrilling Biblical epic on a lavish scale that we simply don’t see at the multiplex every week, but its storytelling and character dynamics feel weakly engineered and largely empty on a pure emotional level. More disappointingly, Scott rarely rises to the occasion of fully and audaciously transcending the material beyond our expectations of it. It’s rather fitting that Bale’s Moses - at the conclusion of the film - looks old, withered, and spent. Audience members leaving EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS may feel the same way.