Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a lavish old fashioned Biblical epic whose sweeping scope, dazzling production values and arresting effects will have you gasping in awe. It’s a visual spectacular that’s more Gladiator than Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Even the 3D, a feature that I usually find uncomfortable and frivolous at best is used to great effect here. This was a film designed for and intended to be experienced on the largest theatrical screen possible.
But crafting a handsome epic with stunning visual effects is a given for a filmmaker like Ridley Scott. The telling of the tale is what matters, even if the tale itself is one that’s familiar to nearly everyone who will see this movie. Unfortunately, it’s the one arena where he falls short. All the visual splendors of Exodus: Gods and Kings are merely window dressing for what is essentially a bloated, emotionally distant and—save for a couple of creative decisions—a by-the-numbers retelling. In layman’s terms, it’s all style, no substance.
Unlike previous cinematic iterations of the Biblical story of Moses and the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, Scott sidesteps the traditional “baby-in-the-basket” introduction, instead opening with Moses (Christian Bale) as an adult—a general in Ramses’ (Joel Edgerton) army. When a high priestess’ prophecy proclaims that Moses will save Ramses life in battle and will eventually become “a leader of men,” Ramses’ brotherly relationship with Moses turns into one of paranoia and resentment. On a visit to a slave camp, Moses is approached by an elderly slave (Ben Kingsley) who informs him of his Hebrew heritage. Moses scoffs at the old man (“It’s not even a good story”) but it plants a seed of doubt in his mind that eventually leads to him being exiled from Egypt by Ramses. After roaming the wild for a decade and marrying Zipporah (Maria Valverde), he is approached by God who orders him to return to Egypt to free the Hebrews. The rest of the film, which is credited to four screenwriters (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) play events by the Book.
Of all the Biblical events portrayed in the film, Scott’s most notable creative license is his depiction of God as a petulant 11-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews). While conservative Christian viewers may find this choice uncomfortable, to say the least, it’s the one startling, albeit fascinating, decision in a movie that is defined by its conventionality. These conversations with Moses and God are intriguing because Moses doesn’t blindly bow down to God. He debates and even argues with the Almighty about the reasoning behind these demands. Why kill innocent Egyptians when the only person to destroy is Ramses? Where were you for the past 400 years? Some of these questions may be Scott, a noted non-believer, projecting his doubts on audiences but these questions make for enjoyable discussion among the faithful and non-faithful alike.
Exodus: Gods and Kings has rightly come under fire for its racially insensitive casting choices. Yes, Scott fills out a lot of the supporting cast with diverse actors but his above-the-fold ensemble is still as white as milk. That being said, Christian Bale’s take on Moses as a thoughtful, deeply intelligent yet insecure man is a respectable one. His Moses begins the film as a ruthless military general without an ounce of faith but gradually develops into a quiet and introspective leader—qualities the actor is very adept at bringing to life. Although there are moments in which Bale succumbs to his trademark histrionics, those are far and few between. On the other hand, Edgerton, woefully miscast as Ramses, is all histrionics. Decked from head to toe in a comical orange spray tan, with distracting black eyeliner, the Australian actor does his best to make Ramses a menacing yet sympathetic villain but only succeeds at turning him into a bald Snidely Whiplash. Other actors like Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul and Ben Kingsley hardly make an impression in supporting roles because the script offers them next to nothing to work with. Weaver appears in literally two scenes. One has to wonder why Scott cast them when they are barely in the film in the first place. There are four credited screenwriters on this film but it’s not clear why because all the heavy lifting is done by the audience and the Book of Exodus.
Scott doesn’t need Biblical assistance when it comes to the spectacle. Over his long career, the British-born filmmaker has built an enormous reputation for being a skilled visual stylist. Even his worst films look and sound fantastic. It’s where his strengths lie, and Exodus is no exception. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, which exaggerates hues of gold and gritty blues to emphasize the opulence of the Egyptians and the horrid conditions in the Jewish camps, is exquisite. The production design by Arthur Max is so impressive that it looks as if Scott and camp traveled back in time to ancient Egypt. Alberto Iglesias’ somber score sets the mood. And when Scott gets down to the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea i.e. the aspects of the story he’s obviously most interested in telling, the movie comes alive!
The plagues of Egypt sequence—which the filmmaker dedicates at least 20 minutes to—is a mesmerizing reminder for how powerful a tool visual effects can be when assisting, or in this case telling a story of this scale. Scott’s vision of the plagues simultaneously elicits terror, disgust, awe and glee. From the blood across the Nile to the disgusting epidemic of boils to the locusts devouring crops, the plagues are a vivid cocktail of disaster movie showmanship. The famous Red Sea sequence is an even more impressive feat of technical filmmaking. If only the same attention were paid to the development of the characters, we may have had something truly special.
As a strong admirer of Scott’s body of work, it’s disheartening to see him continuously fall-short of expectations, even when those expectations aren’t very high to begin with. After four successive disappointments (Body of Lies, Robin Hood, Prometheus and The Counselor), all which sounded promising on paper but were botched in execution, I was cautiously optimistic about Scott’s return to his historical epic comfort zone. Although Exodus doesn’t work as a whole, it’s nevertheless a minor step up. The long middle section, which runs from Moses’ return from exile through the parting of the Red Sea, is too much fun to completely sour the experience. But it’s time to call it how it is: While Scott’s penchant for spectacle and showmanship remains strong as ever, the filmmaker who brought us classics like Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator and even Kingdom of Heaven (the Director’s Cut) is long gone.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver
Producer: Peter Chernin, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Jenno Topping
Running time: 150 minutes
Companies: Twentieth Century Fox
Rating: PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images