Nothing says wholesome Christmas entertainment than a movie featuring oppression, tyranny, a spiteful and vengeful God, white people in key roles and people of color as slaves (sex and otherwise) or background decor, ten plagues that wreak havoc on the innocent and a parting of the seas that resembles a tidal wave out of a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. Seriously, who at 20th Century Fox came up with the brilliant idea of releasing “Exodus: Gods and Kings” in the middle of the Christmas moviegoing season and not on Good Friday which seems to be the most appropriate date?
I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s technical wizardry and Alberto Iglesias’ Middle East-inflected score, and was mildly entertained by the sheer absurdity of Ridley Scott’s latest enterprise, from the absurd casting of Scottish actor Ewan Bremner as some sort of royal Egyptian scientist and Italian American actor John Turturro as a Pharaoh to the downright silly dialogue. And some of it I found quite offensive, for example the film’s insistence in portraying the villains as effeminate bronzed creatures. Let m put it this way: Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” has nothing to worry about. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will never quite replace it as the essential cinematic retelling of Moses’ efforts to free the people of Israel from slavery. Although, personally, I still prefer “The Prince of Egypt”, Dreamworks Animation’s 1998 take on the tale.
The script by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian (yep, four writers, a sure sign of trouble) dispenses with Moses’ entire backstory. We are immediately introduced to an adult Moses (Christian Bale) and his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) as they prepare for battle. An army of Hittites, according to the Bible one of the most powerful empires of the time, is at Egypt’s doorstep, intentions unknown. Pharaoh Seti orders a surprise attack (Turturro), and a prophecy is made by the local priestess that out of the battle a true leader will emerge. That leader is, of course, Moses, although he downplays his role saving in Ramses’ life during the battle. Were it not for the fact that he has been adopted, Seti would have made Moses the rightful heir to the throne.
Moses volunteers to go to the neighboring city of Pithom to investigate its viceroy’s business dealings and treatment of the Israelite slaves. There, Moses not only uncovers evidence of the viceroy’s corruption but also his own identity: Nun (an underused Ben Kingsley), an Israelite elder, reveals to Moses that he is of Jewish descent.
Ramses is crowned king after Seti’s death and upon finding out Moses’ true heritage, imprisons and later exiles him. Moses eventually makes his way to Midian, where he marries Zipporah (Spanish actress Maria Valverde). Then, on a dark, stormy night, Moses ignores his wife’s pleas and, trying to recover some escaped goats, goes up a mountain God has forbidden his people from climbing. He falls, knocks his head on a rock and when he wakes up finds a small boy (Isaac Andrews) who claims to be God and orders him to return to Egypt and free his people. It takes awhile for Moses to acknowledge that yes, this is in fact God; and so, leaving wife and children behind, he heads back to Egypt where we soon find him teaching Israelites the techniques and strategy of guerrilla warfare.
But this Old Testament God is not too happy with the results and takes matters on his own hands. One plague follows another, in a seamless sequence of events that ends in the now familiar death of Egypt’s first-borns, as Moses is sidelined, defenseless. And this is where “Exodus: Gods and Monsters” truly and tragically comes to life: Scott realistically depicts the horrors brought upon a people by a vengeful God over sins and cruelties committed by their leaders. The digital and sound effects as well as the film’s 3D photography give tactility to these locusts, these frogs, this River Nile covered in blood, this plague. We feel the havoc they are causing.
Yes, Moses’ people are freed and yes, we do get to experience the parting of the Red Sea and Ramses’ army drowning once those waters return as several massive tidal waves. And Scott and his scriptwriters show us glimpses of what’s to come: the Ten Commandments and an elderly Moses setting his sight on the Promised Land. But these final scenes feel rather anticlimactic, in part because we are familiar with the story and in part because the portrayal of these plagues is so spectacularly accomplished that the rest feels like a retread.
For a film inspired by the Bible, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” lacks a soul due, in great part, to a script that seems to take our knowledge of these characters for granted. From Moses to the viceroy, from Ramses’ mother (Sigourney Weaver cashing a paycheck) to Joshua (Aaron Paul), Moses’ right hand man, these characters are less than ciphers. Bale spends the whole movie looking glum, wondering what the hell he is doing there. And poor Edgerton tries really hard to bring depth to his character. Whereas “The Ten Commandments” and “The Prince of Egypt” focused on the at first loving and later antagonistic relationship between Moses and Ramses, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” merely hints at it, giving both Bale and Edgerton little to work with. And it is that personal, political and religious conflict between the two, and God’s subsequent wrath, that gives the story its dramatic heft.
In the end, with its big name cast and spectacular special effects, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is nothing more and nothing less than a disaster movie based on a Biblical tale with a couple of battle scenes thrown in for good measure.