If you watched Darren Aronofsky’s bombastic and fantastical Noah last year and found yourself frequently exclaiming in frustration that “this wasn’t what I learned in Sunday School”, then you may find Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings more palatable. But this Biblical tale is both “down the valley” and “up the mountain,” as unimaginative storytelling often mute its epic aspirations.
Exodus may be technically flawless but it is almost completely inert in its rendition of one of the Christianity’s most famous stories – that of reluctant leader Moses and how he had to guide the Hebrew nation out from under the boot heel of Egyptian slavery and into their Promised Land. It may boast the big budget bluster associated with a modern blockbuster – high-fidelity visual effects, sweeping cinematography and even a deft use of 3D to display eerily convincing visual depth – but its ambitions end at the technical level, as Steve Zaillian’s script is content to merely skim along the surface of these admittedly morally intriguing characters and events for the most part. It occasionally attempts to delve deeper, but rarely shows the strength of conviction to truly tear into any meaty issues it may have brought up for anything more than fleeting moments.
As Moses, a man raised as the so-to-say adopted brother of Pharaoh Ramesses II who discovers his true lineage as a Hebrew foundling and his purpose as a religious leader, Christian Bale turns in a solid showing with enough emotional turmoil to be believable. The same can also be said for the ever reliable Joel Edgerton as Ramesses, the Egyptian Prince whose lust for power sets him at odds against his former comrade-in-arms. Although it must be said that Edgerton’s performance is not as crack-free as his co-star’s as he ever so occasionally hams it up as if he’s in a Church Hall pantomime.
Surrounding these two is a veritable who’s who of top-tier actors. Usually, this is a good thing. In Exodus though, this just further highlights Ridley Scott’s inability to truly realize the potential of what he has, whether it be the highly-dissectable source material or his cast. John Turturro as Ramesses’ father Seti I and Ben Kingsley as Hebrew leader Nun at least can be said to turn in an honest day’s work, but Aaron Paul as Moses’ second, Joshua, and Sigourney Weaver as Ramesses’ mother, Tuya, are criminally wasted, with the latter uttering no more than about 3 lines of dialogue in a smattering of scenes.
The cast’s controversial whitewashing – there’s a marked lack of pigment for a tale set in North Africa/Middle East – has also landed Scott in the hot seat, and while he defended his decisions as purely the cost of doing business (audiences want to see Christian Bale not some unknown actor), his defence starts looking very shaky when the big name actors literally end up with nothing to do in the movie. Why couldn’t these minor roles have been played by more culturally appropriate actors instead? I always try to avoid mixing politics and entertainment, but here it stands out too painfully obvious to avoid – especially when a menagerie of modern Western accents are the order of the day.
But it’s not all lazy efforts and thoughtless creative decisions though. Where Exodus excels is in creating an epic sense of scale to this world… and then nearly destroying it through those most infamous aspects of Moses’ tale: The Ten Plagues. And yes, that capitalization is intentional. Scott shows us these infamous biblical catastrophes in ways we’ve never seen them before – and I’m not just talking about the heightened visual benefits of modern technology flawlessly bringing to life tidal waves of frogs or suffocating swarms of flies. Instead of laying them out as clearly segregated, purely supernatural events, interspersed with Moses showing up to demand of Ramesses to “Let my people go!,” Zaillian and Scott instead spin a plausible, rather inspired scenario consisting of interconnected bouts of naturalistic horror. Most impressively, they spin these more realistic plagues in a way that doesn’t deny a theological influence either.
It’s also here where the movie plumbs the most of its moral depths, even if it’s findings are frustratingly discarded far too hastily to make any lasting impact. One aspect though that will more than likely be remembered is Scott’s decision to portray his representation of the Hebrew God as a boy-child, who waffles between bouts of fortune cookie wisdom and petulant cruelty. It may not be wholly successful in execution, but at least it’s a brave idea, which is something that this movie is sorely in need of.
Despite his once-impressive envelope pushing credentials, Scott is instead content to mostly coast from one plot point to another, very seldomly saying anything of substance about any of them. Even the film’s large battle sequences has a “been there, stabbed that” feel to it. But if you are looking for no more than an $140 million Sunday School lesson recap, complete with superlative visual spectacle and inoffensive acting, then you’ve come to the right place. For anybody questing for a more intense and in-depth examination of one of the Bible’s most famous personalities though, you may find a few good distractions here and there but ultimately you will have to keep searching for that promised land.
Last Updated: January 6, 2015