Exodus: Gods and Kings
Exodus represents Ridley Scott's attempt to emulate Cecil B. DeMille. Comparisons with The Ten Commandments are both unavoidable and appropriate. Considering the mixed critical reaction to the 1956 spectacle, it is perhaps surprising that Exodus comes up short on nearly every one of those comparisons except perhaps visual splendor. There's no debating that Scott has produced a sumptuous feast for the eyes (although the 3-D is, as is sadly often the case, superfluous), but the screenplay (credited to four screenwriters) is a mess, the pacing is uneven, the acting is inconsistent, and the experience as a whole is a letdown. At 2 1/2 hours, the movie is actually too short to adequately tell the full tale (The Ten Commandments is 70 minutes longer) but that doesn't prevent Scott from presenting multiple, seemingly endless scenes of people crossing deserts.
In the main, Exodus chronicles the key events surrounding the rise of Moses (Christian Bale) as the leader of the Hebrews in slavery, the plagues sent by God, the decision of Ramses (Joel Edgerton) to let the Israelites go, and the pursuit to the Red Sea of the Egyptians. In broad strokes, Exodus is faithful to the outline presented in the Bible book of the same name, but the devil's in the details.
In the first place, there's too much material to effectively cram into 150 minutes. As a result, there are several jarring gaps in the narrative and instances when events move too quickly to have the proper level of gravitas. The plagues are a perfect example: these are presented as orgies of special effects with little exploration of the human impact. At times, such as when a mass of giant crocodiles attack, the productiong feels like it's veering into exploitation film territory. There are also scenes (such as one late in the proceedings when Moses is chiseling out the Ten Commandment) that teeter on the edge of parody. It's not a good thing to be watching a supposed epic and flash back to Mel Brooks' The History of the World Part One.
Skin color issues aside, some of the casting choices are questionable. Christian Bale, who is undoubtedly on board primarily because of his name, is never credible as Moses. Part of the problem is that he's being asked to play a character who's half-Moses/half-Job with deep concerns about his faith and huge reservoirs of self-doubt. This is a Moses for the nihilistic generation. Charlton Heston, for all his bluster, made Moses into a larger than life character viewers could identify with. (Those who spend the entirety of Exodus waiting for Bale to declare "Let my people go!" should know that he never speaks those words.)
Joel Edgerton's Ramses also falls victim to poor writing. The character is given some "character building" scenes showing his devotion to his son, but he's also painted as being petty and venal. His court is filled with snakes but the politics (along with most of Sigourney Weaver's role) appear to have been left in the cutting room. The "brotherly" relationship between Moses and Ramses is as cold as ice. There's never any pretense that these two like each other so it's not much of a tragedy when they end up on opposite sides. Of the "name" actors, the only one who does a good job is Ben Kingsley, and he's only on screen for ten minutes.
Perhaps the biggest misstep is to have God represented not by a booming, disembodied voice but by 11-year old Isaac Andrews. This image of The Almighty is so absurd as to render nearly every scene in which he appears almost satirical. One doesn't have to be believer to understand that a god - any god - needs to be imposing to work on screen. The guise of a petulant child is far too commonplace to inspire awe. Bible purists may also be irritated by the decision to have the Red Sea parted via a tsunami rather than by a wave of Moses' hand, but that strikes me more as an instance of artistic license that a faux pas.
If there's a saving grace and a reason to stick it out through Exodus' seemingly interminable running time, it's that the movie is visually impressive. Although there are some scenes in which the CGI is obvious and overdone, there are also some eye-popping moments. Not all of these are the big, showy scenes like the plagues and the Red Sea crossing. I was most impressed by the detail evident in the aerial shots of ancient Egypt.
There's no denying that, at times, Exodus is immersive but that quality is fleeting, too often undone by a scattershot and uneven screenplay and a complete lack of emotional impact. Characters pop up and disappear with alarming regularity. Plot points are glossed over. A romance happens in less than two minutes (this is not an exaggeration). In some ways, it's like Noah, in that a more secular interpretation of a Bible story has resulted in some bizarre choices. But this is sloppier than Noah and that's hard to forgive, especially from a director of Scott's stature. Exodus is far from the worst movie of 2014, but it may be the year's most disappointing.
© 2014 James Berardinelli