In 2000, Ridley Scott proved a Sword and Sandal movie could be popular again with Gladiator. Thanks to an intelligent script, a stellar cast, and Russell Crowe’s best performance, it breathed life into a genre that had died in the 1960s. Now, with Exodus: Gods and Kings, he’s set his sights on a genre that’s pretty much been gone for 55 years – the Biblical Epic. (I’ll ignore Darren Aronofsky’s Noah; if you’re wise, you’ll ignore it, too.) While it has its problems and doesn’t come close to Gladiator in power, Exodus: Gods and Kings does in the end manage to be a thrilling experience.
Scott has an uphill battle from the start simply because of the familiarity of the story. Gladiator dealt with a time and characters with which only history buffs were familiar, but the story of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is familiar to millions of people. It’s also been filmed multiple times, most famously by the man whose name is synonymous with biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille. For a couple of generations, The Ten Commandments set in their brains how God interacts with people: the finger of flame writing the commandments while a voice solemnly intones them, the plagues of the Egyptians, and of course Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. You could say that after that film, the images were engraved in stone.
Scott and the four screenwriters who worked on the script (Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian) do their best to shatter those images. They start the film with Moses (Christian Bale) already an adult and serving as a captain to his cousin Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The current pharaoh, Seti (John Turturro), sends them into battle against the Hittites, though before they leave the High Priestess (Indira Varma) prophesizes that the one who leads will be saved by another, and that other with then lead. Sure enough, in the course of the battle Moses saves Ramses, though they decide to keep it a secret from Seti.
When complaints arise about the viceroy in charge of the stone quarries and brick-making operations for the constant construction projects, Seti orders Ramses to investigate, but Moses offers to go instead. There he finds Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) living like a king while brutalizing the Israelite slaves. Moses meets both Nun (Ben Kingsley) and his son Joshua (Aaron Paul) and, in a secret meeting, is told the story of his birth.
A weakness of the film is that Scott has assembled an incredible cast, but then doesn’t give them much to do. Along with those previously named, you have Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mother, but she only gets one short scene. Paul’s introduction gives Joshua a slightly psychotic bent, but it’s not paid off. Better served is Maria Valverde as Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and her scenes with Bale sparkle.
Christian Bale is an intense actor, and he imbues Moses with dynamic power. He’s hamstrung, though, by the greatest weakness of the film, which is the character of Ramses. Edgerton is physically imposing, but overall the character comes off as mushy. The fireworks that exploded between Heston and Yul Brynner in DeMille’s film are lacking here, and it comes close to being a fatal flaw in the film.
Strangely enough, what saves the film is imagery. The personification of God in the film is fascinating, and gives Bale a strong character to play against in place of Ramses. Some may object to the depiction of the plagues as not being miraculous enough, though they are shown on a much more epic scale than in The Ten Commandments. However, the final plague is chilling in how it’s shown on the screen.
And then there’s the crossing of the Red Sea, the climax of the film. Scott gives it a rational explanation, though it doesn’t lessen the miraculous nature of the scene. The ending of the sequence makes Cecil B. DeMille’s work seem quaint and staid, though one aspect of it does strain belief to the breaking point.
Many reviews of Exodus: Gods and Kings have been brutal. Scott has been raked over the coals for his casting choices, especially a Welshman and an Aussie for the two main roles. In response, Scott has correctly pointed out he needed star power to get investors to pony up the 9-figure budget of the movie. For myself, I went into the theater anticipating I’d be disappointed, a leftover from having sat through Noah. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the film, but I give it credit for portraying the story in a realistic way rather than the stained glass sanctimony of The Ten Commandments