Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) / Adventure-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images
Running Time: 150 min.
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Maria Valverde, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Isaac Andrews
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven XZaillian
Review published December 13, 2014
Moses (Bale, American Hustle) is an adopted member of Pharaoh Seti's (Turturro, Fading Gigolo) family in Memphis, growing up as an Egyptian, BFFs with the Pharaoh's natural son, Ramses (Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty), and considered by their people as great princes and warriors. The empire is not only built on conquest, but also on slavery of the Israelites for the last four centuries. Moses later discovers that he may have been the son of a Hebrew slave himself, found and sheltered as the son of a general, and soon the rumors begin to spread to Ramses, who has subsequently become Pharaoh, and the results lead to Moses making a hasty escape. When Moses receives a vision from God and a task to free his people, it's a test of wills between Moses, with divine powers on his side, and Ramses, with the mightiest empire on Earth at his disposal, to see who comes out on top.
Director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) follows up what many considered to be the worst film of his illustrious career, The Counselor, with what I consider to be one that is even more disappointing, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a reinterpretation of the account of Moses from the Old Testament book of "Exodus". Scott's vision is similar to that of Darren Aronofsky's Noah by viewing the Biblical account as a grand-scale epic adventure rife with highly detailed CGI elements, with Moses as a semi action hero amid what amounts to a borderline disaster film. It's not as bizarre, but it is definitely as loose and unfaithful.
Also like Noah, theologians will likely scoff at the multitudinous artistic liberties employed by the filmmakers. God in this movie is actually shown on the screen, represented as a young, temperamental boy - or perhaps that's God's messenger, Malak (Andrews, Hercules) as he is listed in the credits - whatever, it's what Moses perceives. Even though it isn't particularly compelling, that's probably the most interesting character touch, as most of the roles are written without much flavor, including Moses, whose motivations for doing just about anything in this film remain enigmatic throughout. Moses's introduction to God follows a nasty smash to the head after getting caught in the middle of a rock slide, leaving it a bit open-ended as to whether it's just a hallucination (other characters are seen watching Moses talking to God as if talking to himself). When the plagues of Egypt begin to occur, the screenwriters initially start with the premise that Moses and his band of ex-slaves are turning revolutionaries and unleashing a dastardly attack that evokes fire and brimstone, but there's really no adequate way to explain away the Biblical accounts of some of these plagues without powers mightier than man. They ditch the notion of a non-theistic rationalization, assuming some scientific basis, but the murder of the first born children of Egypt is not something the screenwriters can adequately reason out.
Casting choices aren't just problematic, they detract severely from the film - and not just because it is full of American, European and Australian actors playing as Middle Eastern, all adopting a variety of accents that aren't of their native region, neither in the story nor in real-life. I never thought I'd see Christian Bale not an asset to any movie, but one could never surmise he could be considered one of the world's finest actors from the characterization he employs here. The moment when I knew this film was in trouble came from seeing John Turturro as Pharaoh Seti, about five minutes in, looking more comical than imposing, and it never gets much better. Sigourney Weaver (The Cabin in the Woods), Ben Mendelsohn (Adore), and Joel Edgerton (who delivers the film's only good turn) are stretches to be sure as Egyptians, but it's Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) as Joshua that feels the most out of place. Some of this could be forgiven if these thespians brought great performances, or even added box office appeal, but none of that applies, so it's a mystery why Scott went that route.
Scott tries to infuse as much machismo as he can out of the situations, playing up the violence and destruction to the utmost degree for a PG-13 movie, with plenty of action involving upended chariots, flaming arrows with combustible properties, and lots of mano-a-mano swordplay. Though the Biblical tale is sweeping enough to justify a cinematic rednition, Scott isn't satisfied with a straightforward approach, instead trying to give his movie the kind of cinematic grandeur to rival all others to appear on the big screen, especially recalling the super-widescreen Technicolor sword-and-sandal epics of Hollywood's yesteryear.
Unfortunately, by upping the special effects, seat-rumbling sound, and grunt-filled, blood spittle-infused, nose-to-nose threatening exchanges of its characters, the original thrust of the tale is lost, with Moses' astonishing origin relegated to just a verbal anecdote not even worthy of a flashback scene. Four screenwriters are listed as having taken a stab at putting this story together, and it seems that with each pass, each treatment tries to go against the grain of the poetic elegance and powerful regality of its original time-tested narrative, until it lays mutated to the point of near unrecognizability. Instead of delving deep into these characters and trying to find just what makes them tick, we're subject to dialogue that merely sets up plot points that angles the movie to the next grandiose action sequence.
While Exodus: Gods and Kings is an undeniably good looking CG extravaganza, no amount of cataclysmic depictions of the demise of a mighty civilization can mask the inept story elements and horrible casting decisions. The term 'exodus' means a departure of a people; it's a safe bet that those who come to see Exodus will be eagerly anticipating their own exodus long before the exorbitant 2.5 hour run length expires.
©2014 Vince Leo