Ridley Scott’s biblical epic, starring Christian Bale as Moses, tells a gripping story without preaching to the masses.
The prophet Moses (Christian Bale) first meets the God of the Israelites on the flanks of Mount Sinai. A storm has blown up, and suddenly a landslide tears Moses’ feet out from under him, then a shower of rocks comes crashing down on his head, knocking him out cold.
What follows is either the effects of a nasty concussion or a vision – not that the movie sees a need to differentiate between the two.
Moses is submerged up to his ears in black mud, whilst a nearby bush is engulfed in blue flames. Beside it is a child stacking a handful of dice made of knucklebones in the shape of a stepped pyramid. He commands Moses to return to Egypt and set his people free.
The defiant leader rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.
The movie pits brother against brother, race against race, and mankind against God – or perhaps nature, depending on how you read it. Although the movie occasionally becomes too wrapped up in its own magnitude, you have to applaud Scott for his unwavering vision.
At its core, this is a story about two adoptive brothers, Moses and Ramses. They’re both pretty buff and heroic, natural leaders, and clearly very familiar with the spray-tan booth.
In theory, Bale was the natural choice for Moses: he has the intensity and the skill to carry the role. But whilst he makes a good Russell Crowe-shaped fist of it, there’s little of the gripping internal conflict here that defined his work in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and his two movies with David O. Russell, American Hustle and The Fighter.
In fact, it’s Edgerton who gets the juicier role. Ramses starts out as not much more than a camp, blinged-out bad guy – he’s topless and pouty in his early scenes – but his jealousy of Moses, the clear favourite of their father Seti (John Turturro), gives him depth. By the time the 10 plagues arrive and Ramses is increasingly fearful for the life of his firstborn son, he’s become an embittered anti-hero, the vengeful victim of a water-poisoning, disease-spreading, child-murdering higher power.
Apart from Ben Kingsley the supporting cast doesn’t really register. Sigourney Weaver is pretty nondescript as Tuya and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, who plays Moses’ sidekick Joshua,spends most of the movie standing anxiously behind shrubs looking lost.
Scott’s refusal to mark out anyone as straightforwardly good gives Exodus a very different flavour to the morally clear-cut Biblical epics of the Fifties, and also to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a more poetic, hopeful adaptation of a well-known Old Testament tale. The movie opens with a caption that locates the story in “1300 B.C.E.” (the secular Before the Common Era) rather than the expected B.C (Before Christ): even in a movie in which God plays a central role, his existence can’t be taken for granted.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is trying to be all things to all men and that’s its downfall. The seriousness of the movie’s story is trumpeted more by its running time rather than any narrative depth.
There was no real need to film this movie in 3-D; it doesn’t add anything to the story. Instead more time should have been taken to develop the storyline. The movie is very linear but the fact that it’s that bit too long means that you’re more consumed with when the movie will end, than the ending itself.
In the end, the movie’s strength comes from the plagues, with frogs, flies and locusts descending in awe-inspiring fashion. Those sequences gave me the willies, whilst other scenes switched me off completely. But still at least it isn’t as tedious as Aronofsky’s Noah – the only movie I walked out of last year.
Exodus isn’t as strong as Kingdom of Heaven or Gladiator or any other Ridley Scott epic – but it does have his signature spectacular, screen-stretching battle scenes and moments that take your breath away.
By Ruth Walker