Rating: 6 out of 10
Christian Bale as Moses
Joel Edgerton as Ramesses II
Aaron Paul as Joshua
John Turturro as Seti I
Ben Kingsley as Nun
Sigourney Weaver as Tuya
María Valverde as Zipporah
Indira Varma as High Priestess
Hiam Abbass as Bithiah
Kevork Malikyan as Jethro
Anton Alexander as Dathan
Golshifteh Farahani as Nefertari
Tara Fitzgerald as Miriam
Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep
Dar Salim as Khyan
Directed by Ridley Scott
The Exodus legend has all the earmarks of a great epic – a young prince, war and court intrigue, exile, religious conversion and return, sweeping miracles – which is why it has been done so many times and why it is difficult to present an original take on it, which is what makes Ridley Scott’s new take both interesting and incredibly frustrating.
Approaching the legend as a story first and foremost, “Gods and Kings” casts many of its classic elements in a new light and asks its audience to think about them and not take them for granted, particularly the relationship between God and Moses (Bale). However, for all its focus on characterization and introspection, it is also an epic which means as a film it is also focused on scope and spectacle. The conclusion of these competing goals creates many of “Exodus’” finest moments but also ultimately keeps the film from attaining its higher aspirations.
When the first-born of the Hebrews were ordered slaughtered by the Pharaoh of Egypt to bring his slaves in line, Moses was placed in a reed basket and sent down the Nile to safety where he was taken in by the Pharaoh’s own family and raised beside the heir to the throne as a prince of Egypt. That’s where the story of “Exodus” normally starts; this version skips ahead to show the two in the prime of life and already moving in opposite directions, particularly Moses who is less the classic prophet and more a wise and loyal general thrown unwillingly (and unhappily) into the role of messiah.
Bale’s Moses is easily one of the two best things about “Exodus,” a fully fleshed-out human being who transforms continually from confidant general to acclimated shepherd and eventually who is never entirely certain why he is doing what he is doing and whether or not that means he is insane – Moses’ one-sided conversations with God frequently making him appear the madman the Egyptians claim he is. He is never played as the classic deliverer of staunch faith, either, but constantly wrestles with God, asking for an answer to the great mystery of Christianity: why does he allow such terrible things to the people he claims to love?
Ramesses by comparison does not get anywhere near the amount of material to be built from; jealous and prideful from the start, he is designed more as a stock movie villain than a worthy adversary for Moses. He spends most of his time stalking through his palace, either looking lovingly at his infant son or reigning terror on his subjects just to make sure we know where he falls in the scheme of things
Nor is Ramesses the only recipient of that loss as the overweening focus on Moses, and his relationship with God, overshadows most of the other characters until everyone becomes a spear carrier for either Moses or Ramesses. It’s not obvious at first as much of the early going is built around Moses’ relationships with Ramesses, their father Seti (Turturro), his romance with shepherdess Zipporah (Valverde), even his feud with the venal governor who discovers the truth of Moses’ parentage, causing his wilderness exile. After Moses hears the call of destiny, much of that focus shifts away from the world of humanity and human beings to the flashier and more ethereal realm of the supernatural and it never reconnects.
Not only do must of the human connections wither on the vine, but their replacements arrive stillborn with major supporting cast members coming across as little more than day players. Despite appearing in close-up in more than half the film, Moses’ second-in-command Joshua (Paul) speaks possibly a dozen sentences, his brother Aaron even less and we’ll never know why Moses’ foster mother (Weaver) wants him killed as her only speaking appearance is to demand said assassination. The result is characters (outside of Moses) which provoke no emotional response except the surety that their more sizeable supporting roles are on a cutting room floor somewhere.
It does suggest the interesting notion that once the Almighty is introduced into the human equation all normal relationships pale in comparison, a feeling Moses’ wife can attest to when he abandons her and their son to return to Egypt and launch a guerilla war against his former brother, forsaking all personal happiness until his people are free. Except that post-burning bush Moses is on screen a lot longer than the other version of him is, leaving a film with few human connections to hang on to and characters who are used more as props than people.
It seems more likely that Scott simply finds the Moses/God dynamic more interesting, particularly the way he uses God’s appearances as plays of perception rather than exhibitions of power, leaving both Moses and the audience to wonder how much actually happened and how much Moses just hallucinated. Like a black hole, the inherent wonder of the supernatural within a film epic creates a gravity well no person or thing in “Exodus” can escape; even Moses himself eventually falls prey to it, falling from dramatic driving force to observer of destiny once the Plagues begin.
It is impossible to deny Scott’s feel for the epic; he approaches scale and wonder with a gritty reality many of his modern peers miss – a tribute to his long standing collaboration with production designer Arthur Max – and that includes plagues and partings of Red Seas. Instead of going for capital-M ‘Magic,’ Scott and company showcase their miracles through the lens of nature; rather than bringing elements like frogs and flies out of nowhere, he suggests these are all plausible if extreme events caused by God using the laws of nature to his benefit as he knows exactly what the outcome will be, building small events up to larger and larger ones.
It’s clearly been well thought out and planned, but it’s just as clearly been the center of thought as well, removing Moses from his role as a guerilla warrior leading a domestic terror campaign against the Egyptians to an observer of God’s might along with the rest of us. As grand as all of Scott’s vistas are, they’re largely empty as he ignores the lessons of the Leans and Kurosawa’s and other past masters of the form to make sure the large is in some way connected to the small least it floats away from us like a lost balloon, unknown and unknowable.
As problems go, it’s not enough to completely derail such a classic tale, but it does prove that even the newest of new looks can’t entirely get away from orthodoxy, leaving “Exodus: Gods and Kings” – for all its pedigree and bravery – firmly in the shadow of its famous ancestors.