There have been a lot of faith-based films released within the last few years. 2014 might have been the most saturated the market has been in that regard, with the release of Noah, Heaven Is For Real, God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, and Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Ridley Scott is an accomplished director and has made some very good epic films (Gladiator), as well as some not-so-good epic films (Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood). Unfortunately, Exodus: Gods and Kings hews closer to Robin Hood than Gladiator.
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament or Cecile B. DeMille’s classic film The Ten Commandments will have a basic knowledge of the story here. Moses (Christian Bale) is a child of Hebrew slaves raised in Egypt in the house of Pharaoh alongside Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Edgerton commands his father’s military, and Moses is right hand man. When Ramses becomes Pharaoh, the truth of Moses’ heritage is discovered and he is exiled from Egypt. He crosses the vast desert and survives, makes a life for himself, and then has a revelation from God to return to Egypt and free his people from slavery and Pharaoh’s rule. The movie depicts the plagues that are sent against Egypt, culminating in the freedom from bondage of the Israelites, their exodus from Egypt, and climaxes with the crossing of the Red Sea, briefly touching on other events after that.
While this film is largely a disappointment, there are some positives worth noting. The film looks great visually. It is a story that is big in scale and on screen it looks big in scale. There are great visuals involving a few battles, storms hitting the city, and of course the parting on the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross over on dry land. It all looks very impressive.
One controversial aspect of the film is the depiction of God. Perhaps going in the extreme opposite direction of making him a white-haired old man in the clouds, Scott and his crew decided to depict God as a little boy whom Moses encounters upon the mountain near his small village and then carries out conversations with, though to the outside observer (Aaron Paul’s Joshua), Moses simply looks like a mad man talking to himself. For the most part, I did not mind the child depiction of God, though one scene really doesn’t work for me as it makes God come off looking like a petulant child, which I’m not sure was the intent.
I also liked the way that the plagues are revealed, showing how the natural and the supernatural could be combined to turn the river red, have an outbreak of boils, etc. The film does a good job of showing a kind of connective tissue that produces a progression from one plague to the next. In this same vein, I like how Moses’ initial attempts through his own means to change the mind of Pharaoh fail and it’s only when Moses steps aside and lets God go to work with the plagues that there are any results.
Christian Bale’s performance was pretty good as well. Similar to what was good about Russell Crowe’s performance in Noah, he has to play a man who is doing everything on the basis of faith and not much else to go on, not even the support of his wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde) or his son. Bale does a good job depicting that uncertainty. Also, early in the film, Moses travels to investigate something among the Hebrew slaves and to talk to the Egyptian in charge, Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), eventually discovering his heritage. When he first arrives at the mining location, he covers his nose because of the stench of the death and filth that these slaves are living in. Later on, when Moses returns from his exile, the same shot is essentially re-enacted, only instead of covering his nose, he takes a deep breath and takes it all in. This is a subtle thing that Scott puts in to convey that Moses is embracing his people and his purpose.
While all of these things were good or at least interesting, there are far too many problems that I had with the film. I’m not sure which is the biggest failing of the film; that it boasts a loaded cast that is mostly wasted, or that the film has very little new and interesting to say about its subject? Regardless, both are significantly lacking.
The Ten Commandments is an iconic piece of filmmaking. Heston’s and Brenner’s performances are memorable. Unless you are bringing something new to the table, what is the point of telling this story, outside of the cynical Hollywood reason that faith-based films can be courted to believers and make a ton of money if done right? Given the $140 million budget and the fact that the movie made less than half that domestically, this faith-based film was done right. It adds very little new to the story that is interesting. It spruces up the Israelites and Moses in terms of making people wonder if Moses is crazed zealot at times, and the people who are assisting him are depicted as insurgents trying to train an underground army. Any attempt to project whether any of this is a statement about current events in this world prove problematic. In general, the story lacks because the story seems to lack interest in the human characters and more interested in the events. The trouble with technology giving directors limitless options with their storytelling is that too often they end up too absorbed with thinking about the canvas on which they are allowed to paint at the detriment of everything else. Sadly, Scott seems to have fallen into that trap here.
Given the cast that was assembled for this film, it is hard to fathom just how wasted so many of them are in a film that runs 150 minutes. RIdley Scott is a director known for having director’s cuts for a lot of his films that adds in a lot of back story and important character development, so it would not surprise me if there were eventually a longer director’s cut of this film as well. Short of that, it is difficult to understand why Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and Aaron Paul are even in this film. Equally perplexing is John Turturro as Pharaoh Seti. Likewise, Joel Edgerton is a really good actor, but he feels wrong in the part of Ramses. Ben Kingsley plays Nun, a leader among the slaves who reveals to Moses the truth of his birth. Aside from that, he has very little to do. Sigourney Weaver has even less to do in this film as Tuya, wife of Seti and mother to Ramses. She appears in a few scenes, but mostly as background. Aaron Paul as Joshua has one half-interesting scene where he is introduced and then spends the rest of the film looking confused and just not having anything at all to do.
Exodus: Gods and Men boasts great visuals, but is severely lacking in a compelling story on a personal level with any of its characters, and its impressive cast is criminally underused. It’s a generic mess. It is a big spectacle of a film given the epic visuals it puts on screen, but it is has no heart and feels lifeless. It is a wasted opportunity to update a classic story and as well as a cinematic classic for modern audiences and offers nothing really new or inventive to justify its having been made.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars