The story of Moses delivering his people out of slavery is a tale Hollywood is more familiar with than you may think. In the past few decades, there has been a high number of films and/or series based on the classic, beloved, and in most cases, believed-by-faith story of the Hebrew savior who, by the help of his god, delivered a league of Hebrew slaves from the ruthless hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The one that usually comes to mind is the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments, a walloping 220 minute feature. No one wants to watch that (unless it’s in fragments of, say, 15 minutes). But there have been others, such as two other films with the same title (one released in 1923 and an animated version released in 2007), as well as DreamWorks’ first traditionally animated feature The Prince of Egypt. But that’s not all. I haven’t even mentioned Moses the Lawgiver (1974), Moe and the Big Exit (a Veggie Tales movie), or The Ten Commandments: The Musical, which featured Val Kilmer as Moses. Yeah, that happened. But out of all these movies/series, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings bears most resemblance to the 1956 classic in that it is really, really long. And from what I remember from The Ten Commandments, I would actually say that Scott’s latest wannabe dazzler of biblical proportions is better (sorry to all of those who hold that movie dear to their hearts), even if I can’t bring myself to recommend it.
Christian Bale plays Moses and Joel Edgerton plays Ramesses. I think that sentence is enough of a synopsis. If you’re among the few that don’t know the story, crack open a Bible and read it. In a nutshell, Moses and Ramesses grew up together (though not blood-brothers) and have been raised by Seti I (a laughably miscast John Turturro). After growing into men, Moses realizes that he may not be Egyptian, thanks to a bit of backstory explained by Nun (Ben Kingsley, who coincidentally narrated the 2007 animated film The Ten Commandments). Now on the run and exiled from his family, Moses makes a new life with a wife and kid and then, years later, is caught up in a rockslide due to a violent storm and whilst buried in the mud of the mountain he meets… GOD! Dun-dun-dun. I won’t spoil how God communicates with Moses because I think to do so would be spoiler-ish, but just know that he isn’t some gravelly voice from above or a being who appears in Moses’ dreams. Ridley Scott (or the screenwriting crew, which includes Steven Zaillian, Schindler’s List) chooses a very interesting method to present God, and for me, it worked. I’ll also give the movie props for not shying away from the source material and actually including God (Yeshua) in the scenario, and even going so far as to have him say that his name is “I AM” in one pivotal scene. Good for it.
That being said, it takes over an hour for the meeting on the mountain to arrive (at least it felt that long) and once that happens, the movie gets good. Up until then, it’s just bland, uneventful, and boring. And trust me when I say that I don’t view movies with a need of slam-bang action every few minutes. No way. I love dialogue driven movies. But a large chunk of Exodus is just B.C. era conversations that really aren’t that interesting. Most of them take place between Moses and Ramesses (Joel Edgerton is also miscast), and they rarely ever pop. Then there are times when the movie does work, like, as I said, everything after the meeting on the mountain. But even there lies a problem, because after a long amount of tedious scenes that seemed to be particularly drawn out, the plagues come upon Egypt and they just zip by. Maybe I just enjoyed the scenes so much that time flew by (seriously, the plagues are brought to the screen in tremendous fashion), but I think that each of the ten plagues only takes up a minute of the running time. I would’ve loved it if Scott had sacrificed some of the meaningless character bits and gave us more of the plagues, but we just have to live with it.
What we also have to live with is the casting, which is peculiarly odd for a 2014 movie. I’m not so sure I would call this movie (or the filmmakers involved) racist, but there were times where I thought, “What are all these white people doing running around ruling Egypt?” It was distracting, indeed, but not “#BoycottExodus” level distracting. Seriously people, just shut up. I’ll tell you what bothered me more. The entire movie has white people speaking English (which is fine, I guess), but when Moses began to chisel away at the stone tablet in an effort to write the Ten Commandments, they were written in Hebrew. I saw that and I threw my hands in the air with “Okay, I’ve had enough of this” on the edge of my lips.
Ridley Scott is a remarkable director, and I don’t use that word lightly. He has proven to be able to tackle so many different genres, and tackle them effectively. From the sci-fi genius of Alien to the hilarious tenderness of Matchstick Men, Scott is a treasure. But Exodus: Gods and Kings just isn’t that good. Christian Bale is the standout actor of the film, being the only actor who brings what seems to be his all to the table (save for Isaac Andrews, in a role I don’t want to spoil). And I mean that. Bale is great as Moses. Most of the film fills itself with nonsensical scenes of popular actors (like Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and Aaron Paul, who seems to be doing his best to look like Frodo Baggins) wearing heavy Egyptian-era makeup, jewelry, and robes that make everything unintentionally laughable. The movie isn’t bad, though, as the final act uses a huge chunk of the budget to give us a gorgeous scene of the Parting of the Red Sea which is truly wonderful to behold and almost enough to give the film a recommendation. Unfortunately, the dullness of the remaining bits drowns Exodus. It has some jaw-dropping moments (specifically a shot of dead bodies in the sea following the Red Sea scene that wowed me) and some moments that really offer spectacle, but the movie just isn’t quite good enough to warrant a seal of approval.
Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver
Directed by Ridley Scott