Exodus: Gods and Kings

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 12, 2014

Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale star in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'
Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale star in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'  (Source:Twentieth Century-Fox)

Ridley Scott's new movie "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is dedicated to his late brother Tony Scott. It's fitting that this is a film that boils down, in part to a fraternal relationship: A conflict between two powerful men, raised as brothers, who find themselves on differing sides of what is, in essence, an ideological question with economic ramifications.

But this is also a movie about a man's struggle... or, as implied by a bit of dialogue in the course of the movie, his wrestling... with God. Moses (Christian Bale, whose casting makes sense from a ticket-sales vantage but otherwise mystifies) and Rhamses (Australian actor Joel Edgerton, another exasperating casting choice) are two of Egypt's most important young men, serving Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) as generals in time of battle and counselors in everyday affairs. Also on hand to counsel the Pharaoh is a high priestess (Indira Varma), whose prayers and incantations are ineffectual, but who even so manages to utter one meaningful prophecy: Just before they go into battle with the Hittites, Moses and Rhamses hear a portent that suggests Rhamses will almost be killed, Moses will save him, and then Moses will become a leader in his own right. Rhamses, insecure because of his daddy issues, is instantly piqued: Moses is the favored son even though he's not related, and Rhamses knows it.

A chance bit of intelligence gives Rhamses the excuse he needs to strip Moses of his position and send him into exile. (None other than Ben Kinglsey shows up in connection with this turn of events, and Sigourney Weaver drops by in a turn as Rhamses' scheming mother.) Surviving the wasteland of the desert and a pair of assassins, Moses makes his way to a new life with a beautiful wife (MarŪa Valverde) and a son. Then God... or perhaps a messenger of God; it's not really clear... shows up in the form of a young boy / imaginary friend (Isaac Andrews). Is this divine intervention? Or mental illness? Either way, peaceful family life is over. Plagues, civil unrest, and general mayhem are soon convulsing Egypt, with Moses and Rhamses locking horns in the middle of it all.

"Exodus" makes some startling departures from the Biblical text it's loosely based upon, and also makes a point of not being beholden to the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic "The Ten Commandments," in which Charlton Heston played Moses and Yul Brynner portrayed Rameses (different spelling, same shaved head). Scott understands that audiences expect to be wowed now, as they were then, by demonstrations of God's power, and most of the highlights are here: Burning bush, various plagues, a lethal shadow falling over the land and snuffing out Egypt's first-born sons, and - most spectacularly, in the 1956 film - the parting of the Red Sea to provide an escape route for Moses and the 400,000 Hebrew slaves he's leading to a better life. (In the case of "Exodus," it's not the parting of the waters that's the spectacle; it's the wall of water that rushes down as the sea-basin refills.) But Scott doesn't make the visual effects the spine on which to hang the rest of the film. Rather, he focuses on questions of privilege, power, and wealth. In other words, this is the Greatest Story About Labor Versus Management Ever Told.

The film is seen by some in the Christian community as a bookend for a Year of Biblical Movies, with the companion piece being Darren Aranofsky's badly mishandled Russell Crowe vehicle "Noah." Evangelicals rejected that movie as not being "Biblical" enough (even though its most bizarre and fantastical elements were taken right from the pages of Scripture). They're not going to like "Exodus," either, and in this case it's easier to see why not. The film hedges its bets at every possible juncture: While Moses is arguing with God, his brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) looks on, puzzled as to why Moses is shouting with such passion at empty air. Similarly, the movie itself offers us explanations for some of the plagues that torment the Egyptians. (The "scientist" who offers rational explanations is presented as a comic figure every bit as regrettable to behold as the Kohl-eyed, flamboyantly gay, and larcenous viceroy who plays the part of a minor villain.)

Of course, the Nile running red, with ensuing mass migrations of frogs, swarms of flies, and haemorrhagic illnesses striking down livestock while humans suffer boils, are only the buildup to the really interesting plagues and miracles, but even the dramatic hailstorm lacks its definitive edge of supernatural menace, there being no fire. The most profound exhibitions of God's might are almost glossed over; the three days of darkness are almost a footnote, and while the death of Egypt's firstborn sons carries an edge of mystery (a shadow falls across the land and candles gutter as the victims breathe their last), the lack of buildup robs the sequence of its power. It should raise goose bumps, but it barely raises eyebrows.

Subsequent miracles fare no better. Moses awakens briefly the night before the Red Sea parts, to see a meteor falling across the sky; the implication is that a natural occurrence could have caused the waters to retreat and then, later, come rushing back in time to drown the Pharaoh's army. (It's a little better than the idea that a passing "Planet X," or maybe Venus, caused the sea to part through gravitational influence, but not by much.) There's no towering column of fire to guide the Hebrews through the desert; no magically created spring of water to relieve their thirst or manna from heaven to feed them; and as for the Ten Commandments themselves, they have a cameo about equal to that of Sigourney Weaver, whose screen time totals maybe four minutes. Indeed, if you didn't know the story already - Golden Calf and all - you might have no idea what's going on when you see God and Moses with the tablets of stone upon which the commandments are engraved.

If the faithful regard "Exodus" with skepticism, it will be unsurprising given how the movie itself wavers and waffles. Even non-believers will be dismayed at the movie's refusal to commit to the idea that God is taking direct action in the affairs of humanity; take it as faith or as fantasy, but God's involvement is a central source of the story's drama, and a major reason for its staying power.

This hedging, tentative take on the ancient myth isn't about to dislodge Heston from the mass media uber-mind as Moses. More likely, both "Exodus" and "Noah" will sink with barely a ripple, not unlike the 2007 animated "Ten Commandments" or the TV miniseries from the previous year. (I can hear you saying, "What?" to both. That's exactly my point.)

Like "Promethius" before it, "Exodus" feels too long, too shallow, and - despite its visual grandeur, plumped up with 3D production, and its big-budget gloss - not narratively big enough to fill the shoes of its predecessors.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.