Exodus highlights the ongoing battle between traditional and modern filmmaking, and neither side really wins.
Exodus: Gods and Kings was bound to be a spectacular epic, considering the biblical source material and the director at the helm, Sir Ridley Scott. Scott echoed this projection when he said that Exodus: Gods and Kings is his “biggest” movie yet. Considering his long resume of major titles, that’s quite a statement and yet it’s true. The sets, the action, the effects, and the scope are all monumental, and these are mainly where the movie succeeds. It’s heartwarming to know that there’s still room for traditional sandal epics in the modern film business, featuring a good amount of built sets and armies of real actors (as opposed to CGI backdrops and armies…though these are still employed here as well). But trying to keep to tradition comes with a price, and some poor decisions. Exodus is weakest (and most controversial) in its casting choices and artistic breaks from the source material, but these falters can’t keep Exodus from providing a mostly exciting experience.
There have been many cinematic tellings of the Exodus story, in which the Israelite slaves under the rule of Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt were freed through the efforts of Moses with God’s help, and journeyed through the desert to Canaan, embracing the ten commandments along the way. The two most memorable films to feature this story are The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Prince of Egypt (1998). It’s a story meant to be displayed on the grandest scale, and so Exodus: Gods and Kings succeeds and fails where most traditional sandal epics succeed and fail. There’s the successes: large elaborate sets, a bombastic film score, epic scope, and thrilling battle sequences. There aren’t many, if any, directors who are able to orchestrate large battle scenes like Ridley Scott. As for the score, although Hans Zimmer probably would’ve been the more logical choice to craft an appropriate score (and severely lacking central theme), Alberto Iglesias provides a great orchestral backdrop. And then there’s the failings: white leads, often subpar dialogue, and creative licensing of age old texts…
…Which is why Exodus is very hit or miss when Scott showcases his own interpretation of the biblical story. While the interconnectivity of the ten plagues, unlike any version I’ve ever seen before, is masterfully executed and stunning to behold, the decision to have God (or God’s messenger?) represented as a mountain child with a thick British accent is more than a little jarring. Even as the God-child and Moses engage in some interesting exchanges, it’s hard to accept this visual representation as an upgrade or even a welcome variation from the traditional burning bush. There are other minor (some may argue major) alterations, like presenting Moses more as a Robin Hood figure than a peaceful messenger, or the lack of the phrase “Let my people go!” (this was definitely disappointing to me), but the God thing takes the cake. To be fair, some may like the changes. Either way, Exodus: Gods and Kings is unlikely to elicit the same backlash felt by last year’s reimagined bible epic, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.
As for the casting choices, Bale and Edgerton definitely don’t fit in with the look and skin pigmentation expected of those living in Ancient Egypt. However, they each put a tremendous amount of passion into their performances, which come close to making up for them being on screen in the first place. Bale does, indeed, make a compelling Moses. Edgerton, even with all the fancy makeup and costumes to distract us, excels at capturing the tension of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and the drive to succeed (see also his brotherly performance in Warrior). And then there are Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul, both who have no business being in this film. Not only does Weaver look out of place, but her role is so minimal that her out-of-placeness is all the more distracting. But she and Scott are undoubtedly friends (Alien, remember?) so one must expect backs to be scratched. Let’s be thankful that 5-time Scott lead actor choice Russell Crowe didn’t make the cut, unless he’s featured in the inevitable superior director’s cut of the film — a Ridley Scott tradition.
What Exodus boils down to (get it?) is Scott and crew’s ability to make something special again out of a story most audiences are already familiar with. For the most part, we know what’s coming. It’s all about how entertained we are in getting to the finish line, and how it feels to cross the finish line, that make or break a film, especially one where the finish line is in sight from the moment the film begins. Exodus: Gods and Kings is definitely entertaining and features some sequences that could easily be used as guides for how to properly construct a battle scene or sew in CGI so that it blends in with physical sets. But does the film have enough emotional heft to accompany its bombast tone to become a classic? Likely not. Or will Christian Bale’s Moses join the likes of Charlton Heston and Val Kilmer, you know, in the biblical sense? God only knows.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is in theaters today, December 12th.