DVD Release Date: March 17, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: December 12, 2014
Rating: PG-13 (for violence including battle sequences and intense images)
Genre: Biblical Epic
Run Time: 142 min
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn
Closing out the year of Noah, it’s natural (perhaps even necessary) to enter the theater for Exodus: Gods and Kings – the epic retelling of the Moses story – reflecting on what many faithful Christians found problematic with Noah, another big budget studio take on a scriptural narrative, and then see if Exodus replicates or avoids that problem.
My core takeaway from the Noah brouhaha was this: Christians are open to liberties being taken (whether for cinematic framework or even artistic expression) and story gaps being filled just so long as – and this is vitally important – you don’t change the core nature and character of the people (or the Deity) as the Bible describes them. This, ultimately, is where Noah went wrong for so many. The Rock Monsters may have been silly, but the third-act Noah was seen as downright heretical. So the question is, does director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Gladiator) do the same to Moses?
Early on, it seems the worst license Scott will take is to turn Exodus into Braveheart and Moses into William Wallace, a liberty most Christians would likely forgive and even possibly cheer. Unfortunately, that’s just a first step toward crafting a tale so revisionist that its one overarching theme is to question if the Bible’s supernatural accounts actually have natural explanations, which then ultimately calls into question if Moses was ever even in his right mind to begin with. Worse yet, the film’s greatest sin ends up being how monumentally dull it all is.
Bypassing a “baby in a river basket” opening, Exodus: Gods and Kings – eager to get to the action as quickly as possible – starts with a young adult Moses living as part of Pharaoh's family. It isn’t too long before we’re given our first big battle scene in which Moses (Christian Bale, American Hustle) and heir apparent "brother" Ramses (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby) lead Egyptian warriors into the kind of large scale sword-and-sandal warfare we’d expect from the director of Gladiator. But just as Scott also ended up making the Crusades a bore in Kingdom of Heaven, so too here he makes the Exodus a watch-checking slog.
That opening battle aside, the first half-hour-plus plods along as it establishes internal political dynamics within Pharaoh's court. But in the long run, all of the dialogue and details prove pointless as it labors through numerous boilerplate exchanges simply to establish Moses as a man with strong leadership potential. This could (and should) have been done much more concisely.
Eventually Moses learns of his true origins and sets out from the family he's known. This sets up another boring stretch of nearly an hour that, to paraphrase Bale's Dark Knight trilogy opener, plays like Moses Begins. The approach has promise but the filmmakers do nothing interesting with it; he basically struggles in a dry wasteland before eventually starting a family. All fairly standard stuff that should’ve been accomplished more quickly – or, better yet, with much more heart and depth. Indeed, it actively seems to avoid those ambitions by portraying a humanist Moses who's not particularly interested in anything other than believing in one's self.
Things get decidedly more off the scriptural rails with the Burning Bush – which, it must be mentioned, Moses engages with while almost completely buried under mud; his face is the only part of him uncovered (and barely). In a unique portrayal, the voice of God does not come from the bush but rather a little boy who is near it. This, actually, isn't entirely without support of Scripture as it could be a creative interpretation of the angel as described in Acts 7:30.
Rather, it's what the Boy/Angel/God says, and how Moses responds, that marks the film's first true step toward the ridiculous. Aside from concluding "I AM who I AM," everything the supernatural vision says does not reflect what's found in Scripture. Here Ridley Scott draws his line in the sand, crosses it, and goes on to make a Moses story of his own secular fancy, one that not only shows the Boy/Angel/God continue to appear and have conversations with Moses throughout, but also begins to strongly suggest that God could just as easily have been nothing more than a figment of Moses's imagination. The Bible gives us a Moses who's a pious prophet. Ridley Scott gives us a revolutionary who may also be a paranoid schizophrenic, particularly since Moses and the apparition mostly argue and rarely (if ever) agree.
Then there are the Plagues which prove disastrous in all the wrong ways. Along with the digital animation overkill that makes them feel like something out of a Peter Jackson-y 'Middle-Egypt' (which also hampers the battle scenes; you half-expect Orcs to come roaring over the crest of a sand dune), Moses has nothing to do with the plagues, and God may very well not either. Moses is not there to strike his staff into the Nile and turn the water into blood. Instead, crocodiles go on a mass killing spree from which the carnage bleeds throughout the river. The subsequent plagues unfold in short order, again of their own natural volition, and the visual effects are so digitally rote that the film's biggest selling point feels rather underwhelming.
Then there's the big climax: the parting of The Red Sea (or maybe it was just a storm-induced tidal wave) and the Ten Commandments (which is portrayed as the exclamation point to Moses's psychosis). Throughout it all, the takes on these characters – in script and performance – are neither interesting nor revelatory, its spectacle remains spectacularly generic, and its attempts at subversion aren't thought-provoking; they're just cynical (not to mention completely draining the story – whether one considers it historic or mythic – of its intrigue and power).
To be fair, Scott technically leaves things open-ended enough to suggest it may actually have been God at work all along (though not through Moses but rather in spite of him). But the overwhelming impression is that it's more likely Moses was a valiant yet delusional man whose charismatic leadership and political connections came along at just the right time. The liberties taken aren't so much offensive as they are uninspired and occasionally silly, and Scott seems to be rehashing leftover battle ideas from Gladiator and Robin Hood. The net result is that Exodus: Gods and Kings will cause far more people to lose faith in Hollywood's ability to create biblical epics than it will in God.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: None.
- Language/Profanity: None.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A moment of intimacy between Moses and his wife Zipporah. They kiss, and he begins to untie the top of her blouse.
- Violence/Other: Battle scenes that depict ancient warfare, consisting of swords and arrows and fire. A lot of combat and killing, stabbings, though not depicted graphically or with much blood. Many killings, a few more intense than others (including the killing of two people simultaneously with one stab of a sword). Corpses are seen, including children. The victims of the plagues can also be frightening at times, such as when bugs and locusts begin to consume some people, or victims of disease. The plagues themselves may be frightening. Violent attacks by crocodiles toward other animals. People become injured, broken bones. A bird is disemboweled. People are executed by hanging. Animals cough up blood. Some people are beaten, stabbed and killed outside the context of battle. A man is trampled by horses. Soldiers are drowned en masse.
Publication date: December 12, 2014