If I were able to talk to Ridley Scott, who directed Exodus: Gods and Kings — a 3-D rendering of one of the best-known Bible stories — I’d ask him what on Earth (or under the heavens) attracted him to the material.
It’s a question the movie itself never entirely answers.
Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments combined gaudy spectacle with an Americanized freedom agenda as the benighted children of Israel — with a snarling Edward G. Robinson in tow — fled 400 years of bondage in Egypt.
PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Scott downplays the story’s religious/spiritual aspects, but doesn’t find enough by way of replacement. I’m no literalist when it comes to Bible stories so I have no problem with an artist using the Bible’s rich and venerable stories as a springboard for an interpretive statement. But in skipping some of the key ingredients of the story — serial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, for example — Scott not only makes an interpretive choice: He abandons some of the story’s most fertile dramatic ground.
Gods and Kings makes masterful use of CGI to create great battles (Egyptians vs. Hittites), the fabled plagues — frogs, boils, rivers turned to blood, etc. — and, of course, the parting of the Red Sea. It would be shocking if a 21st Century filmmaker couldn’t outdo DeMille in the effects department. Scott clearly does.
But then there’s the rest of the movie....
I suppose the movie’s most controversial element involves Scott’s depiction of God, the prime mover in the Exodus narrative. Turns out that Moses sees God as a shepherd boy (Isaac Andrews) with a close-cropped hair, a British accent and a confrontational attitude. This vision — it should be noted — may be a hallucination, an image resulting from a rock slide that beans Moses and leaves him buried under a ton of mud.
Hallucination or not, the relationship between God and Moses sometimes gets testy. They argue about such details as whether God has gone too far over the top with the plagues, particularly the final one which takes the lives of the first born of all the Egyptians, including Pharaoh’s son.
Are we supposed to find irony in the fact that mighty Pharaoh is undone by a child whose voice has yet to change?
Then there’s Moses himself. Poor Christian Bale. Any actor who tackles this kind of iconic role must pit himself against the cumulative weight of centuries of western art and kitsch — from Michelangelo to Charlton Heston.
Bale opts for a contemporary interpretation, aided by language in a script by a quartet of credited writers (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) that does its best to avoid any trace of poetry. The movie treats Moses as a warrior/general and early action hero.
Moses’s greatest internal struggle seems to revolve around his initial inability to accept his ethnic origins as a Hebrew, but even that conflict lacks much by way of urgency.
Joel Edgerton plays the movie’s other key figure: Ramses. With a bulbous shaved head, Edgerton more resembles Kojack than a king.
Perhaps in an effort to give Ramses a bit of shading, he’s presented as a cruel man, but one who loves his son and who sometimes seems confounded, particularly when his own priests and priestesses are unable to stem the tide of so many vicious plagues.
What’s a Pharaoh to do? Grumble and, on at least one occasion, play with his pet snakes.
The rest of the cast largely is reduced to non-entity status. That would include Aaron Paul as Joshua, and Andrew Tarbet as Aaron, key figures in the story who are reduced to... well... almost nothing.
John Turturro makes an interesting Seti, Ramses’ father, a god/king who prefers Moses to his own son. Blink and you’ll miss Sigourney Weaver as Seti’s duplicitous wife.
Ben Kingsley makes a bit of an impression as Nun, a wise old Hebrew slave who knows Moses’s true identity.
The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn brings a seamy twist to the role of Hegep, a conniving Egyptian who exposes Moses as a Hebrew, the development that pushes Moses into exile where he meets his wife (Maria Valverde), a woman made to look like a Bedouin princess.
Beset by structural flaws, including a tendency not to build toward the story’s key events, Scott’s Exodus shortchanges both the spiritual and political relevancies of a story that still resonates on many levels. The movie doesn’t exactly break new ground as an action/adventure, either.
Most memorable shot: An upward look at the corpses of Egyptian soldiers floating in the Red Sea after the Hebrews have reached safety.
So what are we left with? At times, Moses seems like an actor who can’t quite find a center for his portrayal — or maybe that’s Bale. Ramses can come off as a bit of a schlub, and God seems like a cosmic spoilsport.
When Moses reunites with his wife after his Egyptian exploits, she quite reasonably asks about the throngs who are traveling with him.
Who are they?
My people, says Moses, demonstrating that he finally has accepted his true identity.
What else to say but, “Mazel tov, Moses.” Or maybe, where’s Mel Brooks when we need him?