Ancient Egypt, Ben Kingsley, Ben Mendelsohn, Burning Bush, Christian Bale, Drama, Hebrews, Historical epic, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Memphis, Moses, Ramses, Red Sea, Review, Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver
D: Ridley Scott / 150m
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Isaac Andrews, Ewen Bremner, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald
Ancient Egypt, 1300 BC. In the holy city of Memphis, Pharaoh Seti (Turturro) has learnt that the Hittite army is nearby. He sends his two sons, Ramses (Edgerton) and Moses (Bale) to rout them, which they do, but not before Moses saves Ramses’ life on the battlefield, thus fulfilling a prophecy that says one of them will be saved by the other who will become a leader. When they return, Seti orders Ramses to travel to Pithom in order to assess the slaves working there. Moses goes instead and meets the Viceroy, Hegep (Mendelsohn).
Hegep is crooked and treats the slaves poorly. During his visit, Moses meets a man called Nun (Kingsley) who tells him that he is a Hebrew and that the circumstances of his birth are not as he believes. Moses refutes this and returns to Memphis, but the story is overheard and reported to Hegep. Soon after, Seti dies and Ramses becomes Pharaoh. When Hegep comes to Memphis he tells Ramses of Moses’ history; this leads to Moses being sent into exile. He travels to Midian where he settles down as a shepherd and marries Zipporah; they have a son, Gershom. Meanwhile, Ramses marries Nefertari and they too have a son.
Nine years pass. During a storm, Moses pursues some stray lambs onto a nearby mountain. A rock slide renders him unconscious; when he comes to he finds himself confronted by a young boy, Malak (Andrews) who is God’s messenger. He gives Moses a task to do, one that brings him back to Memphis and a meeting with Ramses where he warns the Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free or there will be consequences. Moses prepares the Hebrews for conflict, while Ramses targets them in the hope that Moses will give himself up. But Malak appears to him again and warns him that Moses’ lack of progress means “something is coming”.
“Something” proves to be a series of plagues that wreak havoc on Memphis and the Egyptian people, culminating in a cull of all the Egyptian firstborns, including Ramses’ infant son. Ramses, in despair, tells Moses to take his people and leave. But once they’ve done so he takes four thousand men and pursues them all the way to the Red Sea, with the intention of slaughtering them all.
It could be argued that the need for a re-telling of the Moses story isn’t exactly high on anyone’s agenda at the moment, but nevertheless here it is, and directed by one of the few directors able to orchestrate a movie on such an epic scale. However, while Exodus: Gods and Kings is as visually impressive as you might expect given that Darius Wolski is behind the camera and Ridley Scott is overseeing things, the movie as a whole is a leaden, passion-free exercise in big-budget movie making.
Considering both the material and the cast taking part, the movie struggles to engage the audience from the off, proving largely uninteresting and a frustratingly bland experience. As happens every so often with the projects Scott chooses – 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Hannibal (2001) are just two examples – Exodus: Gods and Kings is a) too long, and b) too tedious.
With the story of Moses, the ten plagues, and the crossing of the Red Sea being one of the most dramatic Biblical tales, the fact that this incarnation loses its way so quickly (and never recovers) is a little embarrassing. The criticism that Scott focuses too much on the design and look of a movie is upheld here by a range of performances that give new meaning to the word “undercooked”. Bale’s portrayal of Moses lacks the intensity of feeling that the part demands, and his discovery of his roots is reduced to a brief scene that gives way to an even briefer fight scene; it’s as if he’s more irritated than devastated. Edgerton plays Ramses as an indecisive, self-doubting pharaoh who looks like he needs a comforter (or his mommy). As the dramatic foil to Moses, Ramses’ character carries all the weight of a feather duster, and Bale and Edgerton’s scenes together quickly become repetitive in nature: Moses shows his annoyance/anger/disappointment in Ramses, Ramses does his best not to look as if he’s going to cry.
Thus any clash between the two is always going to be heavily weighted in Moses’ favour, but Bale never takes full advantage of the way the script orchestrates these encounters (he’s also able to get to Ramses without being detected, and to leave without being pursued). He and Egerton aren’t bad per se, but they don’t spark off each other. If it weren’t for the fact that both actors are clearly physically present in their scenes together, you could be forgiven for believing that they filmed them separately and were “united” in post-production.
As for the rest of the cast, their roles are generally too small for them to make much of an impression, with the notable exception of Mendelsohn, who takes Hegep and invests him with a surprising mixture of flippancy and menace. It’s the best performance in the whole movie, and when he’s on screen, the discrepancy between his approach and Bale’s (in particular) is all too apparent. In even minor roles, Weaver, Paul, Turturro, Kingsley and Farahani are there to make up the numbers, while Valverde is stranded by the script’s need to tick off the boxes in Moses’ life without providing any depth to it. It’s unfortunate, as well, that Valverde’s appearance is during the film’s middle section, where Moses strives to be a shepherd before his first meeting with Malak (there is a burning bush but with Malak acting as God’s mouthpiece, it just looks superfluous). This stretch of the movie has all the pace of a snail race, and thanks to the indolent editing – courtesy of Billy Rich – seems to go on for much longer than it actually does.
With so many scenes either dragging on or lacking in energy, Exodus: Gods and Kings regularly falls back on its special effects, but even here the spectacular appears commonplace, our familiarity with what CGI can achieve blunting the effect of seeing Memphis from the air, or giant crocodiles attacking ships on the Nile. It also leaves the crossing of the Red Sea, and its fast-approaching ten-storey wave, feeling less impressive and/or intimidating than it should be. Again, Scott and his cast and crew fail to heighten the drama and leave the viewer struggling to work out where everyone is in relation to a constantly changing topography (not to mention a wave that appears to be advancing from at least three directions at once).
Scott’s ardor seems to have waned recently, with his last two movies – The Counselor (2013) and Prometheus (2012) – showing clear signs of a director unable to spot, or deal with, or overcome, the faults in each movie’s screenplay, and sadly, the same is true here. The script – by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, with assists from Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian – aims for intimacy amid the spectacle but ends up skirting it instead, and any notions of leadership, duty, fraternal betrayal, faith or destiny, rather than being placed front and centre, are given a passing nod whenever the movie appears to need them.
Rating: 5/10 – visually stunning but dramatically redundant, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a disappointing, mediocre piece that fails to inject any fervour into the story of Moses and his efforts to free the Hebrews from the pharaohs’ tyranny; stilted and dull, this becomes as much an epic of endurance (for the audience) as it does for its characters.