by Philip Price
What can you say about a film that is fine for what it is and nothing more? “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a movie, it has entertaining moments, looks fantastic and while I obviously didn't love it, there is certainly no reason to hate it either. The real problem is the fact there's no vision or passion behind the project. Director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”) is nearing eighty and in his aging state seems intent on pumping out films at a quicker rate than ever before. Since the massive success of “Gladiator” at the dawn of the millennium, the director has not gone more than two years without making a film and more times than not he delivers one on an annual basis. With a project on the scale of ‘Exodus’ though, one might imagine he'd have to take more time for prep and the development of visual effects at the least, but moreso for the necessity of trying to really make something substantial. Scott hardly seems interested in making anything of note these days though and instead is a misguided storyteller somewhat fascinated by history, more interested in spectacle and with no sense of impassioned faith, not even in his own work. I can only imagine what might come of an elder Scott picture were he to really take the process step by step and first develop the script he is given, this one patched together by four different screenwriters, then move on to planning a visual representation of that story that might actually allow the audience to become invested or feel a part of the action that is unfolding in front of them. Scott clearly has no problem getting budgets to secure the epic scope of his films nor is there an issue with attracting top talent to headline his movies, but instead of using these advantages to his advantage they are wasted on mediocre products that have consistently ended up feeling more like cogs in the machine than any type of exception to the rule. One might expect a Biblical epic in the vein of Cecil B. DeMille with a more contemporary approach to serve as fascinating for the generations that find Charlton Heston's version dated, but instead we receive more of what we are conditioned to. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is less an inspired retelling of a story we all know and more another attempt by Hollywood to cash in on a pre-established brand.
I can remember reading an interview with director Woflgang Petersen around the time Troy came out in 2004 where he discussed the absence of the Homeric gods in his film. Before Christopher Nolan grounded the world of super heroes in reality, Petersen was trying to do very much the same thing with ancient Greek epics. In omitting the admittance that actual Gods stood above his characters in the clouds, dictating their every move, Petersen simply positioned his characters belief systems as a guiding force in their lives and with ‘Exodus’ Scott does something of a similar nature. While it is impossible to tell the story from the book of Exodus without incorporating the hand of God, this is the one aspect of the film where Scott and no doubt his team of hundreds decided to get inventive. In having to convey the idea of this almighty God who found it necessary to subject not only the Egyptian Pharoahs, who considered themselves Gods, to pain and heartbreak but countless other, possibly innocent victims to the same pain and agony is a tough line to walk when discussing the relevance and need for God in a modern society. In Scott's version, God is presented as (Spoiler!) a young boy (Isaac Andrews). It is an interesting way to go and it allows the hard truths of what has to be done to get to where God wants to be accepted with more sympathy than were he portrayed as a raving dictator drunk on his power and embodied by a 40-year-old man. The innocence of young Andrews interpretation allows for the tough choices to be made while instilling a kind of hope in the chosen one that is Moses. Of course, as time passes people envision who God might be in different forms and as someone existing in this period of the Earth’s existence I imagine God as something more ethereal and abstract than that of a wholly defined person, but long ago might he have possessed the wonder of a child with the knowledge to foresee what was best for his inhabitants? It is a line of thinking that allows Scott's choice to feel inspired and one of the only elements that keeps this familiar tale worthy of your time.
There is inherent drama in the story of Moses and his exile out of Egypt where he eventually comes to terms with his Hebrew roots and allows his once skeptic self to become a man driven by the need to atone for his brothers sins. The problem with Scott's rendition of these events is that we're never compelled by what is happening and thus never feel the push to really dig in and have some fun with the film. Scott places all his eggs in the basket of scope, hoping that our fascination will be born from the sweeping shots of Memphis to the same sweeping shots that document the city as the ten plagues come down upon it. Not to be completely disregarded in his visual splendor though, Scott does employ some pretty fantastic filmmaking in the last twenty minutes or so of the film as Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and his army race around the narrow curves of a mountain chasing Moses (Christian Bale) who's already led his people to the edge of the red sea. The visuals, while still maintaining an over-reliance on special effects, are indeed awe-inspiring and ironically offer a moment of respite from the more unevenly paced, dialogue-heavy scenes that trudge along in between those aforementioned sweeping shots. Still, no matter the scope we as an audience must feel an investment in the story we're being told and while the actors, especially Bale, do what they can to generate sympathy for these characters under their extreme circumstances. It is the conveyance of the story and the actions occurring that couldn't feel more distant from one another. There was a moment, probably half-way through the two and half hour film, where I thought to myself that were this actually a good movie I would be completely sold on it and be completely into the modern representation of this story I've heard orally countless times before. I should love seeing the Egyptian extravagance brought to life I thought and that I shouldn't be concerned there is no natural progression from Moses leaving his family to rallying his troops, but then I thought if I were really into the movie I wouldn't be having these thoughts at all, I'd just be enjoying it, but I wasn't.
Unfortunately, I don't think it's possible to necessarily enjoy “Exodus: Gods and Kings” on any kind of deeper level than simply what you see on the surface of the screen. There is one scene in particular that occurs early on in the film as the exposition is still being dolled out that stands above the rest, that gave me hope for something interesting and complex before it devolved into step after step of story beat obligations. It is the confrontational, interrogation scene where Ramses, after being informed by Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn camping it up) that Moses is in fact a Hebrew, threatens the life of Moses' sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) and that of his own sister Bithia (Hiam Abbass). The scene is one mounted on pure tension and one of the few scenes in the film that allows the actors to actually act. In the scene, not only do we feel the full effect of Edgerton's turn as the power hungry Ramses with his naive and spoiled mentality only encouraged by that of his own mother, Tuya (Sigourney Weaver in a thankless role), but we also see the first signs of real compassion in Bale's Moses. Bale is as white and British as ever, but his charisma seeps through these unforgiving factors and allows him to create a more than convincing hero. Much has been made of the fact Scott cast white actors in roles that should have been played by those of the same heritage as history denotes, but I'm not one to dwell or even care as long as the performances are in line with the bigger vision. It doesn't help that were it not for Scott casting bigger names in the leads he wouldn't have received the budget he was granted for this epic, but that would only bring us back to the question of who was asking for this movie in the first place and the answer to that is no doubt a resounding nobody. Quarrels aside, the acting is serviceable enough in a film that feels fine with simply being competent. The likes of John Turturro, Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul also show up throughout as one supporting role or another, none with so much to do as to help them make an impression. By the time the denouement rolled around I wondered what themes or meaning I was meant to elicit from this version and all I heard was God telling Moses he may not agree with everything he does and all I could think was how the same could be said for Scott, but we continue to let him do it anyway.