Exodus: Gods & Kings Review
RIDLEY SCOTT’S BIBLICAL EPIC
GETS LOST IN ITS OWN DESERT
Over the years, film director Ridley Scott has cultivated several feature films that would be categorized as “Epics”. These film, expansively vast in both scope and grandeur, have taken viewers to memorable places throughout history from Ancient Rome (Gladiator), to the Crusades (Kingdom of Heaven), and to medieval England (Robin Hood). Now, Ridley Scott returns to the epic foray with Exodus: Gods & Kings, a biblical retelling of the Mosses and the Ten Commandments. Does Scott’s newest epic shine with radiance or dulls with obscurity?
Raised together as brothers, Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and the adopted Moses (Christian Bale) have form a bond, faithfully serving Ramses’s father Pharaoh Seti (John Tuturro) in building the empire of Egypt with the Hebrew slaves laboring underfoot for 400 years. Informed by a Hebrew elder named Nun (Ben Kingsley) of his true origins as a Hebrew, Moses is soon challenged by his adopted brother, who has ascended Egypt’s throne as Pharaoh, and sent into desert to live in exile. As the years pass, Moses settles down and becomes sheepherder in the desert outskirts of Egypt’s dominion, taking a wife (Maria Valverde) and fathering a son. One night, through a head injury, Moses comes face-to-face with god (in the form of a ten year old boy), conversing with the deity and ultimately given the task of freeing the Hebrews from Egypt’s harsh servitude. Committed and setting aside his family life, Moses returns to Egypt and brings with him the promise of freedom to the Hebrews and the full wrath of god to Pharaoh Ramses, forcing titular events to unfold that will change the fate of the two men that were once close brothers.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
The story of Moses, Ramses, and of the Ten Commandments has been presented and adapted in multiple media outlets via books, films, and TV; always highlighting the great events that take place in this biblical tale (i.e. the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the sea, etc). Of course, the most famous retelling of this story is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic The Ten Commandments. This film, while dated compared to the films of today, has cemented itself in cinema history as a hallmark feature. Even today, The Ten Commencements still stands tall and proud as a true timeless classic in Hollywood’s golden age. So, from the get go, Exodus: Gods & Kings has a lot to measure up to, going up against one of the most iconic and legendary films of all movie history. The result is what you would expect it to be; an up-to-date film that has its moments, but still stands in the shadow of a giant.
While the thoughts of DeMille’s work are always on your mind, Ridley Scott interjects his own mark on this tale from the Old Testament. Instead of opening the film with Mosses as an infant, traveling down the Nile River in a basket, Scott opens with a battle sequence with an adult Moses and Ramses charging against their enemies with swords, chariots, and a lot of big action flair. Unfortunately, after the beginning battle is over, things slow down and become problematic. A bunch of characters are swiftly introduced in the film’s first act (with little time devoted to them) and, by the time Moses gets exiled into the desert, Exodus’s pace comes to a crawl (I actually found myself closing my eyes and started to doze off a little bit during this part). Things start to pick up later, but not until a large amount of time has passed as building momentum seem like a strenuous task for the film to do and for its viewers.
Exodus’s two main characters (Moses and Ramses) are the feature’s main focal points for viewers. Scott and the screenwriters for the film seem to forgo the classic stalwart herald of Moses, choosing to create a more “human” Moses for this particular adaptation. He’s practical, mortally conflicted, and even expresses questionable doubts in God’s action of what he’s doing is divinity right. Christian Bale, most notable for his past role as Batman in The Dark Knight Trilogy, plays Moses in a favorable light with this somewhat “new” persona for this character. While he can’t out shine Charlton Heston’s role, Bale’s Moses is both engaging and relatable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the character of Ramses. In comparison to a more complex Moses, Ramses seems generically flat with an ambiguous characterization as you (the viewer) never get a good pulse on him. Should he be loathed? Feared? Pitied? It’s clear that the Exodus wants to show a more “human” side to Ramses, but, in the end, you just feel indifferent about him. Even Joel Edgerton, who plays Ramses, can’t seem to create a wholesome identity for the character, thus becoming a miscast for the feature.
The rest of the supporting cast is, for the most part, overtly wasted and never fully utilized to achieve emotional impact. Aaron Paul’s Joshua is meant to be seeing, not heard with only a handful of spoken dialogue lines. Sigourney Weaver’s Tuya (Ramses’s mother) has two scenes with a five or six dialogue lines to express her disdain for Moses. John Turturro’s Seti (Ramses’s Father) seems fine, but is only used for the first twenty minutes of the film. Ben Kingsley character Nun is an extremely minor role, delegated to simply informing Moses of his Hebrew lineage. The only minor character that draws impact is Isaac Andrew’s Malak (a little boy who is Exodus’s depiction of god), creating some of the best dialogue sequence between him and Moses.
Luckily, Exodus’s saving grace comes not from its narrative or its characters, but in its production nuances. To Scott’s credit, the film’s sets and location have a scope of grandeur to them, conveying an “epic” feel to the feature like in his previous works. What’s even more impressive is the movie’s depiction of the Ten Plague. Whether it’s a river of blood, a swarm of locust, a influx of frogs, or a tumultuous hail storm, the visual aspect is both horrifying and amazing to behold. Even the portrayal of death of the first born will send chills down your spine. Sadly, the parting of the Red Sea, a scene that’s iconic and memorable in this tale, seems disappointing and underwhelm in comparison.
Ridley Scott’s retelling of Moses is effective from a visual standpoint (both practical in its sets and locales as well as its CG effect) and in a more fleshed out character within its main hero. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is mildly adequate, failing to capture a strong response in its narrative pacing, its main antagonist, and its supporting characters. To me, it was vaguely disappointing, placing the movie as one of Ridley Scott’s weaker movies. In the end, Exodus: Gods & Kings wants to project the grandness of this biblical tale, but, for all its pomp and hefty production budget, can’t seem to find itself and left mostly astray to wander the desert in exile.