Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian.
Starring: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), María Valverde (Zipporah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun), Hiam Abbass (Bithia), Isaac Andrews (Malak), Ewen Bremner (Expert), Indira Varma (High Priestess), Golshifteh Farahani (Nefertari), Ghassan Massoud (Ramses' Grand Vizier), Tara Fitzgerald (Miriam), Dar Salim (Commander Khyan), Andrew Tarbet (Aaron).
Ridley Scott has done his best over the past 14 years to keep the old school epic alive. In the past 14 years, Scott has made films like Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010) and now Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was never a fan of Gladiator – I know many love it, but to me it was overlong and over dour, and I didn’t think his attempt to make Robin Hood into Braveheart really worked very well either. The Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven however is one of the best epics in recent years – bland lead Orlando Bloom aside. Exodus: Gods and Kings is his attempt, along with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, to bring back the Biblical epic to the big screen. This is, inarguably, an attempt by the studios to tap into the Christian audience that feels underserved by Hollywood studios (because they are). What Exodus shares in common with Noah are that both attempt a more serious, less preachy Biblical epic than we are used to seeing. As with Russell Crowe’s Noah, Christian Bale’s Moses has more doubts, is more flawed, more human than we are used to seeing in movies of this nature – or at least that is the attempt here. But Scott isn’t very good with this human side of his Biblical figures. While he uses special effects effectively, and gets many of the “big” moments in the film right, he gets almost all the quieter, more human, more introspective moments wrong. There are moments in Exodus that are almost laughable – and it becomes impossible to take it seriously. If you believe Howard Hawks’ definition of a great movie serious – three great scenes, no bad ones – than Exodus is perhaps half a great movie – it certainly does have three great scenes. The problem is most of what surrounds them is bad – really, really bad.
The movie opens when Moses (Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are already adults – and it quickly establishes their character – Moses is strong, brave and principled, Ramses is vain, egotistical and rather petty. Although Ramses’ father, Seti (John Turturro), says the two are as close as brothers, there is no real evidence of that in the film – Moses clearly likes Ramses, and does save his life, but from the get go, Ramses seems to view Moses with suspicion – as if he knows that one day they will come into conflict. Moses doesn’t know his real life story – how he can to be raised in the royal family, even if he’s outside of it. It isn’t until he goes to see the Viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn), who is charge of the Hebrew slaves, and finds him to be corrupt. He also talks to some of the Hebrew elders – one of whom, Nun (Ben Kingsley), tells him his true origin story. Of course, this gets back to Ramses, who banishes Moses – who goes off and lives his life, still keeping his origin secret, marrying and having a son. He doesn’t return until God – oddly in the form of a British child – speaks to him, and tells him to lead his people. This sets off the part of the story we all know – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.
It is in these big moments where the movie works quite well. Scott uses CGI well, and the Red Sea sequence is quite thrilling, if completely unbelievable. Even better is actually a quieter sequence – when the plague of the first born dying, which is done in darkness, and features the only moment of Edgerton’s performance that is effective – when he comes in to find his infant son dead. It is a masterful moment. The problem is, even though much of the CGI and action work is well done, that quiet moment is the only quiet one that actually works.
Part of the problem is the performances. Bale has a tendency to be a little too serious in his roles – sometimes it works, but here, his Moses is, like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, a downer for most of the movie. You cannot say he’s a whiner, because he never whines, but his yelling sounds a lot like whining. The movie hints at some of the same things that Aronofsky’s Noah does – that perhaps Moses wasn’t chosen by God, but is just insane, but Bale doesn’t go as far as Crowe did in that movie. Edgerton is given a pretty much unplayable role – his Ramses is so poorly conceived on the page, that I don’t think he ever really had a chance to deliver a good performance. The same could be said of Aaron Paul as Joshua – whose role seems to be to walk in on Moses every time he’s talking to God, and then slowly backing away. The two best performances are by Turturro and Mendelsohn – and for the same reason. They seem to understand how ridiculous the movie is, and how even more ridiculous their characters are, and rather than try to sell that, they play it to the hilt Yes, they go over the top – but that’s precisely what the roles need.
In the end, I think what sinks Exodus: Gods and Kings is that it never really decides what it wants to be. It’s stuck between being an old school epic – which presents everything as given, and something more complex, and thought provoking. The film swings back and forth, and never really finds it footing. Yes, there are some good moments sprinkled throughout – but Exodus makes the case as to why Hollywood doesn’t make these movies very often anymore – they’ve forgotten how.