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Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise: A retelling of the Biblical story. Moses (Christian Bale) leads the Jewish people out of slavery.

What Works: The Exodus story has been filmed many times, from the 1909 silent film The Life of Moses to Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments to the animated feature The Prince of Egypt. Exodus continues to appeal to audiences because it is an epic tale and it is one of the most popular religious narratives, appearing in the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The familiarity of Exodus challenges filmmakers to find a way of telling this story in a way that speaks to the contemporary audience. In this new version, the filmmakers capitalize on the relationship between Ramses and Moses, played by Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale, respectively. The relationship between Moses and Ramses is the strongest part of this film and Bale and Edgerton’s scenes together give the movie its sole moments of emotional resonance. Of the two, Edgerton makes the better impression and he grants the Pharaoh a humanity that differentiates his version of Ramses from other incarnations of the character. In terms of scale and spectacle, Exodus: Gods and Kings is extremely well crafted. Director Ridley Scott is renowned for the production design of his movies and Exodus is no exception. The film has some great set pieces, especially the crossing of the Red Sea, and the scenes of the Jewish slave camp recall images of concentrations camps in Holocaust dramas.

What Doesn’t: Although the production design of Exodus is quite good, the picture suffers from a lot of fundamental problems. The pacing of the movie is off with lengthy periods of screen time dedicated to subplots that aren’t important while major set pieces are rushed through, especially the series of plagues that besiege Egypt. Moses and Ramses are characterized well but the rest of the cast are mostly interchangeable. This is highlighted by the casting of major actors such as Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, and Aaron Paul in minor roles. These notable actors are only given a scene here or there and casting distinguished players in what amount to cameo appearances is distracting. The casting is also problematic because of its clash of ethnicities and accents; Exodus is populated by actors of British, Australian, American, and various Middle Eastern nationalities and most retain their native inflection except for Christian Bale who spends the entire movie in search of a coherent accent. This corrodes the verisimilitude of the movie; the cast always come across as actors on a stage instead of people in their natural environment. The filmmakers’ take on Moses is an interesting one; his religious visions are staged in such a way that that they could be authentic religious experiences or they could be delusions. The problem is that whenever Moses is given something interesting to do he is undercut by God’s intervention. In one of the more provocative portions of the film, Moses leads an insurgency against the Egyptians, with the Jews engaging in acts of terrorism intended to force the Pharaoh to free them. Pressure mounts on the Egyptian ruler but the insurgency is abandoned when God shows up in the visage of a little boy and begins the plagues. Throughout this part of the story Moses is relegated to a passive role as he observes the procession of holy terrors. Unlike Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Noah, Christian Bale’s Moses does not experience meaningful spiritual anguish. Like Moses’ visions, the miracles of Exodus are staged to suggest that they might be a result of circumstance rather than divine intervention. That ambiguity doesn’t play well. It robs the narrative of its miraculous qualities and cuts out the core appeal of the story.

Bottom Line: The filmmakers of Exodus: Gods and Kings have succeeded in creating an adaptation of this story that is distinctly different from any version preceding it but they haven’t made a very good movie. The film suffers from a lot of basic storytelling flaws reminiscent of the theatrical versions of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven. Hopefully, like those films, a longer and better cut of Exodus will emerge in years to come.  

Episode: #522 (December 21, 2014)