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Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

exodusDIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

CAST: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde

REVIEW:

Previously in his sometimes acclaimed but uneven career, Ridley Scott has directed two other lengthy historical epics in a desert setting.  The first, 2000’s Gladiator, was a rollicking throwback to the likes of Spartacus and other sword-and-sandal epics from Hollywood’s glory days.  The second, 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, did not live up to the same standards, likewise epically-mounted but narratively fragmented (apparently due to large chunks of the movie ending up on the cutting room floor, which Scott attempted to rectify in a reportedly superior director’s cut, but feeling so underwhelmed by what I saw gave me no motivation to seek out more).  Unfortunately, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott’s take on the Biblical story of Moses (with a healthy helping of “dramatic license”), bears more resemblance to Kingdom of Heaven than Gladiator.  In fact, 1998’s animated movie The Prince of Egypt is a better version.  Exodus is marred by some of the same flaws as Kingdom of Heaven; visually epic but narratively fragmented, sporting some stirring scenes but not enough to consistently maintain interest over its 2 1/2 hour runtime.  Considering this is actually too short to tell the whole Exodus story (various elements are truncated or left out here), that’s even more telling of Scott again showing his troubling recurring issues with narrative focus and cohesion.

Exodus skips the cliched prologue with a baby drifting down a river on a bed of reeds and starts straight out in the “present day”, with adult Moses (Christian Bale) as an adopted member of the Egyptian royal family, looked on as a son by the dying Pharaoh (John Turturro) and the “brother” of heir apparent Ramses (Joel Edgerton).  We jump right into an opening battle scene against the Hittites, where Moses saves Ramses’ life, but in the process inadvertently fulfills a prophecy that he who saves the leader’s life will someday endanger his throne.  Moses is a skeptic who scoffs at omens and prophecies, but Ramses stews suspiciously over this afterward.  A later visit to the construction site at Pithom, where Moses witnesses firsthand the brutal treatment of the Hebrew slaves, leads to a chance encounter with elder Nun (Ben Kingsley), who reveals Moses’ true background as a Hebrew hidden among Egyptian royalty.  When Moses provokes the venal governor of Pithom (Ben Mendelsohn), whose spies have overheard this conversation, Moses’ secret unravels, and he is banished from the kingdom.  After wandering in the desert and growing a beard, Moses stumbles across a Hebrew tribe and meets Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who becomes his wife.  For nine years, he is more-or-less content as a shepherd and family man…until he starts having possibly imaginary conversations with a young boy (Isaac Andrews) who may or may not be the embodiment of God, which may or may not be a delusional result of a blow to the head suffered while chasing sheep up a mountainside.  Suddenly gripped with religious fervor and unshakably convinced he’s on a mission from God to liberate the Hebrew slaves, Moses becomes a rebel leader, arming the Hebrews and teaching them guerilla warfare, striking supply trains and destroying crops and food stores in an attempt to drive the hungry Egyptian people to pressure Ramses to bow to Moses’ demands and set his people free.  But when Moses’ war of attrition tactics and Ramses’ defiance do not meet with the Almighty’s satisfaction, mysterious natural disasters befall Egypt in rapid succession, including fisherman being attacked by bloodthirsty crocodiles, fish dying in the river, water turning red, all of Memphis including Ramses’ palace being swamped by hordes of frogs, locusts razing fields of crops to the ground, hail and lightning and tornadoes raining down, and flies covering everything and everyone.  And God has yet to unveil his worst punishment.  Of course, even those casually familiar with the Biblical story know how this ends, with the parting of the Red Sea and Moses’ people fleeing between towering waves with Ramses’ army in hot pursuit, but it’s fair to say Scott puts his own spin on the particulars.

It’s possible that Exodus may at times be offensive to devout Christians.  Ridley Scott himself is an avowed atheist, and while the movie does not outright claim that God is imaginary and Moses is delusional, everything is steeped in ambiguity and open to interpretation.  Moses only starts talking to God after he receives a blow to the head.  The night before the famous sea parting, Moses sees a comet falling toward the horizon.  The parting itself is not depicted as the towering waves of water neatly parted as in The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, but as the tide going out, allowing Moses and band to cross the exposed sea bed before a towering wave surges back in.  Is this a supernatural assist from God, or did a meteor impact the ocean and cause a tsunami?  And if it was caused by a falling meteor, did God send the meteor?  The plagues and the simultaneous deaths of children across Egypt are a bit harder to explain away scientifically, but depending on one’s interpretation, Moses here is either a prophet of the Lord or a crazy ranting delusional man (for what it’s worth, Christian Bale himself generated some controversy with a perhaps overly candid interview where he expressed his opinion that Moses was “probably schizophrenic”, an interpretation that sometimes comes through in his slightly wild-eyed performance).  Scott also throws in some dramatic license apart from the ambiguity surrounding God’s existence, principally by changing Moses from the chief architect he was in the Bible into a sword-wielding warrior who kicks ass and takes names as much as Bale’s Batman.  Granted, I’m a little hazy on the story details, but I don’t remember any previous version of Moses being quite this bad-ass.  Perhaps most “blasphemous” to Bible purists is Moses himself carving the 10 Commandments into a stone in a cave (albeit with God’s supervision).  Speaking of God, the Almighty is not represented here through a disembodied booming voice, but a young boy played by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews.  I went into the concept with an open mind; after all, there’s nothing inherently more silly about God being embodied by an 11-year-old boy than the various other ways he communicates in the Bible, including animals and even inanimate objects, but the problem is the execution.  The “voice of God” being a pouty boy who seems on the verge of a fit when he doesn’t get his way only furthers the perception some have of the Old Testament God being a petulant deity throwing a temper tantrum.  Combined with the killing of Egypt’s first-born sons (a part of the story I’ve always found quite disturbing anyway), and one could say that if Exodus does portray God as real, it doesn’t make Him (or Moses) come across as all that admirable.  In fact, there are moments, especially after the death of his son, when our “villain” Ramses is almost more sympathetic.

exodus2In addition to offending some Christians with its deviations, the movie also generated substantial controversy over its “whitewashing” of its cast, with the lead roles of Moses and Ramses cast with British Christian Bale and Australian Joel Edgerton (the latter wearing bronze makeup apparently in an attempt to look “more Egyptian”) and smaller roles like the Nubian Queen Tuya cast with equally Caucasian Sigourney Weaver.  I don’t usually get too worked up about such nitpicks, but it’s made more problematic here partly by casting the significant Egyptian characters with thoroughly white actors and then slathering them in heavy bronze makeup, which some equate to playing blackface, and partly by casting smaller roles of soldiers, slaves, servants, etc. with African and Middle Eastern actors, giving the impression of a racial hierarchy among the cast, with the important roles going to white actors and anyone remotely ethnically accurate being relegated to insignificant bit parts.  Ridley Scott, perhaps with excessive candor, stated in an interview that the movie would not get funded if Moses was played by “Mohammad from Wherever”, and while there’s cold hard truth in that, it still leaves a slight distasteful tinge.  Of course, it’s worth pointing out that The Ten Commandments featured an all-white cast, but movies made in the ’50s and in the 2010s are rightfully held to different standards.

The biggest problem with Exodus, leaving aside the religious or racial controversy, is the same as Kingdom of Heaven (or Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus): narrative sloppiness.  There’s too much material to jam into a 2 1/2 hour film, and this results in a fragmented, disjointed feel.  The movie pays lip service to the same brothers-turned-enemies Moses/Ramses dynamic as The Prince of Egypt, but this was better-developed in a cartoon musical, while here we don’t get enough scenes of them together before Ramses turns on Moses.  This turn, like various other character motivations and plot points, feels insufficiently developed.  Every single character is extremely shortchanged in screentime and development aside from Moses and Ramses, and sometimes even them.  Things just happen sometimes, and we feel like there’s a missing scene between Point A and Point B, like Ramses letting Moses and his people go in one scene, and then rallying the troops to go after them the next, with no segue (in The Ten Commandments, for example, his mind is changed by his scheming sister, who is not in this version).  Moses meets Zipporah, has one conversation with her, and we jump to them getting married.  Characters like Joshua (Aaron Paul) and Moses’ brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) have small background roles, and Moses’ sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald), after a brief appearance, seems to drop off the face of the earth.  There were reports of significantly longer cuts of the movie, with much material being left on the cutting room floor, the same sloppiness that marred Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.  I assume such lost material explains some of the seeming missing scenes and disappearing characters, as well as explaining why a “big name” like Sigourney Weaver was cast as Ramses’ mother Tuya (who hates Moses for no apparent reason) and is probably onscreen for about two minutes.  Audiences have a right to expect higher standards from a director of Scott’s stature than the narrative sloppiness he has now put into theaters thrice.

The cast includes some respected “names”, but even apart from their skin color, hardly anyone seems a comfortable fit for their roles.  Christian Bale’s Moses can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s an ass-kicking warrior, a fervent prophet of the Lord, a hallucinating crazy man, or a Moses/Job amalgamation wallowing in self-doubt.  Bale never seems to have a good grasp on how he’s trying to play Moses, especially after his exile, when he turns into a scraggly-bearded, slightly wild-eyed mountain man who doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and spends time having one-sided conversations in the mountains or hollering overwrought speeches.  Joel Edgerton, who was solid in the MMA sports drama Warrior, is miscast as Ramses.  Edgerton lacks an authoritative presence, and his campy performance, swishing around in gold wardrobes and cuddling with his pet snakes, makes Ramses come across as a pouty man-child.  Like Moses, the movie tries to have its Ramses both ways, giving him a measure of humanity; he seems to genuinely love his wife and young son, and is even upset by the death of his favorite horse, but he cares nothing for the cruel treatment of the slaves, turns on those around him for petty reasons, and is too prideful to let the Hebrews go.  The worse things get for Egypt, the harder Ramses digs in his heels.  I’m fine with a three-dimensional Ramses, but The Prince of Egypt did this better, while Exodus‘ poor character development just makes him seem wishy-washy.  In fact, Edgerton’s Ramses could have stood to be a little nastier.  He’s an antagonist but not really a full villain, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, Edgerton’s Ramses, like Bale’s Moses, doesn’t fully succeed in any direction, his “soft side” not developed enough to make him compellingly complex, and not mean enough to give us a villain we can get motivated about rooting against.  Both Bale and Edgerton also frequently come across as overly modern in their speech and manner, and neither ever seems completely at home in his role.  No one else gets much to do.  Ben Kingsley shows up to fulfill the role of the token “wise old elder” who conveniently provides some needed exposition.  Likewise, Aaron Paul (looking nothing like Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Pinkman) is kind of just “there”.  John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver are weird casting choices for Pharaoh Seti and Queen Tuya, but for what it’s worth, Turturro is credible in the five minutes of screentime he has, while Weaver shows up long enough to be totally unconvincing as an Egyptian queen before disappearing (presumably onto the cutting room floor).  Ben Mendelsohn takes his hammy secondary villain from The Dark Knight Rises and adds bronze makeup, sashaying around as a venal, effeminate Egyptian Viceroy who wears even more eyeliner than Edgerton’s Ramses.  As Moses’ wife Zipporah, Maria Valverde is gorgeous but, like everyone else, severely underused.  Characters like Andrew Tarbet’s Aaron and Tara Fitzgerald’s Miriam are so underused that, like Weaver’s Tuya, there’s no real point to them even being in the movie.

Like all Ridley Scott films, even the most flawed, Exodus is visually spectacular.  The rendering of ancient Egypt is impressively detailed (though sweeping landscape shots sometimes look overly CGI).  The montage of the plagues, while rushed through in rapid succession, is striking.  The killing of the first-born sons, with a montage of children’s breathing suddenly stopping as shadows fall across their windows, is effectively eerie.  Most notably, the climax, with the Hebrews desperately racing across the exposed sea bed pursued by Ramses’ chariots as looming waves grow in the background, is a visually spectacular and thunderously exciting sequence, even when Scott again throws in a pinch of artistic license to shoehorn in a cornily overdramatic final confrontation between Moses and Ramses.  Unfortunately, after building to a riveting high point, the movie can’t find a satisfactory epilogue.  Post-Exodus events like the golden bull are not included, and Exodus doesn’t so much end as just…stops.

Considering some of the talent involved (at first glance, one could reasonably expect Ridley Scott and Christian Bale to be a promising combination), Exodus‘ sloppiness is a significant disappointment, and unfortunately proves that Kingdom of Heaven was not a fluke, continuing the recent series of sporadically engaging but heavily-flawed films including Prometheus that lend credence to the argument that Scott’s best days are well behind him.  Exodus‘ deviations to the Biblical story will rankle devout Christians, while it’s narrative and casting/acting flaws will irritate others regardless of their religious affiliation.  Whether you’re a Christian, an atheist, or anything else, Exodus is unlikely to satisfy.

* * 1/2

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