With the release of Noah earlier this year and now Exodus: Gods and Kings, it seems that 2014 is a good year for biblical epics. Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) once again sets out to craft another swords-and-sandals film that plays to his distinctive strengths as a director. The name, as it suggests, is a retelling of the book of Exodus (minus the lengthy second half that involves nothing but establishing laws) that is beautifully produced in all of its mighty glory. It has ambition, scope, and Exodus manages to pull it off very well. I’ve been reading some other reviews prior to writing this one and I’m actually amazed at how scathing some of them are at Exodus. I was definitely not disappointed and was hooked from the beginning. It’s definitely Ridley Scott’s best movie since American Gangster.
I’m not particularly worried about spoiling anything for anyone because Exodus follows the story of the bible very closely. In that I mean it doesn’t deviate heavily from its source material but does make a few artistic licenses without going off on a tangent. Certainly, it’s a story the four credited writers shouldn’t have had trouble with. Yeah…when you have four writers, I immediately think of the last time that four writers were credited on a major project, the trainwreck that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 always comes up, but it seemed like all of them this time did good, cohesive work. That, or the assistance of Steven Zailian (Schindler’s List) saved this movie. So, unless you haven’t been caught up in your bible studies, the film should be very predictable. But that’s the whole point of the film, it expects that you know the story through and through but it just wants to give it a gritter and more realistic edge that the DeMille version lacked (Heston’s acting not helping any there.) You have the characters of Moses and Rameses and the conflict with letting the Hebrew slaves free in Egypt. All that good stuff. It’s a classic tale that has been ingrained in our memories, a fascinating tale of how one man can overthrow an entire nation (with a little help from the Almighty).
I can’t exactly say if this movie will offend people based on some artistic choices it makes (like Passion of the Christ or Noah). I’m not a deeply religious person nor do I remotely consider myself spiritual in any fashion, so I wasn’t bothered in the slightest. I despise political correctness and I’m welcome to change as long as it makes sense in moving the story forward. In this case, if you’re offended by…say, the portrayal of God or the casting of white guys as Egyptians in this movie, then I really can’t help you other than exchange a virtual sigh. As it is, I had no beef with whatever the writers and director changed, but there are some out there that have (giving you fair warning). It might just be my cynicism working for me.
What I can say that is incredible about this film is the scope. Ridley Scott knows how to give his films a feeling of enormity. You see several vistas of the Egyptian city, the all-encompassing desert, the raging wall of the Red Sea bearing towards the people. It’s a huge film and it is made possible by a combination of CGI and practical sets (joy of joys!) There are also a few battle scenes that take place in the film, once again playing to Scott’s strengths. You see every particle of dust kicked up, the clash of swords is brutal and fierce, and the camera makes sure that you see all the action in play. It’s a superior example of direction, watching the long-dead civilization come to life in all its sandy glory.
Although, I have to say that the casting is one of the problems where Exodus falls flat. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christian Bale and seeing him as Moses was cool and all, but I never got the sense that I was watching Moses. For all I know, I was just watching Bruce Wayne in a fake beard and a robe for two and a half hours. That being said, I like what the story was trying to do with the character, by making his conversations with God seem a little disconnected with reality – possibly an interpretation of him in a schizophrenic way. That quality isn’t expanded upon much, but it’s interesting nonetheless. This version of Moses is also shown to be a warrior, which makes sense considering that a son of Pharaoh would have to take a military position instead of the audience having to accept the man as an ancient version of Jason Bourne right off the bat (like Noah). If he’s a general in the Egyptian army, then it makes sense that he has some combat skills. I find nothing wrong with that.
Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Great Gatsby) plays Rameses, Moses’ brother and the Pharaoh. Unlike the DeMille version, the character of Rameses is portrayed as the brother of Moses, much like the Prince of Egypt did. The film tries to develop a close bond between the two men who will ultimately become enemies, but their interactions aren’t as meaty as the animated version’s were. Most likely that’s because Exodus is trying to touch on a lot of things while keeping a slow and steady pace. As it is, Edgerton makes a serviceable Rameses but I don’t think it will be remembered as vividly as Yul Brynner’s portrayal or even Ralph Fiennes’.
Aaron Paul is even in this movie (who’da thunk?), unrecognizable as Joshua but he only gets three lines in total. (No, he doesn’t say “bitch!”) In sum, his role is pretty shafted, as is Sigourney Weaver’s role as Moses hateful, adoptive mother. In fact, a lot of the supporting cast is not that well developed, come to think of it. Ben Kingsley is one-note as a village elder but it has been a long time that he has gotten a role that isn’t complete crap, so it’s a nice return to form for him. The only stand-out of that lot is Maria Valverde as Moses’ wife, Zipporah. (At one point, she was channeling Tali’Zorah so heavily I figured that Legendary should give Valverde the gig if they ever put that production on the line). You know, despite the film’s long running time, it doesn’t really do a whole lot with its characters, but Ridley Scott has hinted that there is a 4 hour cut of the movie out there. Knowing how beneficial his director’s cuts are to his films, I’d wager that all of the characters would be significantly better developed in that version. I’d buy it right now, as a matter of fact.
A part of the film that I found to be very interesting that I suspect will cause several deeply religious people to raise hell about the ordeal, is the portrayal of God, or rather, the angel that takes the form of a young child. You’ll find no kind and loving God in this movie, here the little brat is shown to be a vengeful God, impatient after enduring 400 years of his people’s enslavement. I can understand the portrayal for God in this instance, and his reasoning for being vengeful comes off as appropriate, considering the circumstances. However, whenever the angel appears, it’s a very creepy experience and I think it’s a clever choice on how to show God…or his angels…or whatever.
An aspect of Exodus that I enjoyed was how they made the scene with the ten plagues to be more realistic instead of a mysterious phenomenon. For example, the blood in the river does not just appear out of nowhere, but crocodiles, summoned by God, appear and ravage the Egyptians in the water, spilling blood into the Nile. That blood in turn chokes out all life, causing frogs to abandon the river and take refuge in the city. The frogs then die off, causing gnats to appear and…you see where I’m going with this. Of course, the final plague cannot be realistically explained and the film allows a touch of mysticism surrounding it, a gentle dose of faith in a movie that had been pretty grounded in reality up to that point. But when the climactic scene at the Red Sea approaches, reality takes over again. It is implied that an earthquake in the film caused the waters of the sea to drain temporarily, receding before approaching back in one massive wave. I liked that touch in the film as it paid respect to the source material but also offering a logical explanation of how it actually could have happened in real life. (The purists might not like that, but that’s beyond my control).
A brave choice for Exodus was the hiring of composer Alberto Iglesias for the score of the film. Iglesias, whose only mainstream work at the time was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was not really known for writing anything as massive in scope as Exodus. However, like Gabriel Yared before him, Iglesias set aside his soft piano and pulled out the brass fanfares, the intimate strings, and the epic choir to make one of the best scores of 2014 that I have heard. Harry Gregson-Williams (Metal Gear Solid series, Kingdom of Heaven) would make a few contributions for the battle scenes and Federico Jusid would assist Iglesias with some cues but the whole album is one piece of work. Fans of traditional scores not marred by electronics have to check this out. Not even kidding.
Despite a lot of people really disliking this film, I enjoyed the hell out of it. I walked in expecting a movie about the story of Moses, and I left satisfied. Ridley Scott’s direction and production design really emphasized the feel and tangible nature of the film so much that it just sucks you into the world built before you. The acting is a little iffy in some parts and many of the characters are not as developed as I would have liked them to be, but Exodus remains a firm and steadfast film to lead us strongly out of 2014. I’d give it a lower score, but I had such a big smile on my face while leaving the theater that I think I can let my bias run rampant.
Final Score: 89/100