IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 150 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1300 BC, Ancient Egypt. Moses, a general and member of the family, saves the life of Prince Ramesses in a battle with Hittites. Later, the pharaoh Seti I sends Moses to the city of Pithom to meet with the Viceroy Hegep, who oversees the Hebrew slaves. There, he is appalled by the horrific conditions of the slaves and is told that he is actually the child of Hebrew parents who was sent by his sister Miriam to be raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses is stunned at the revelation and leaves angrily. Two traitorous Hebrews overhear this and report their discovery to Hegep. Set I dies after Moses’ return to Memphis, and Ramesses becomes the new Pharaoh. Hegep arrives to reveal Moses’ true identity, and Ramesses decides to send Moses into exile….
So again we have a religious themed movie that has provoked some controversy, in this case mostly concerning the casting of white actors in the lead roles and events which were Acts of God in the Bible now being attributed to natural causes. The thing that mostly bothered me about the film before I even saw it was that it would probably be yet another really poor effort from Ridley Scott, whose films just seem to be getting worse and worse, even if one has to admire a guy who is 77 years old and is still able to turn out a film almost every year. Of course there’s also the fact that the story of Moses has had at least three good and very different retellings and doesn’t really need another one, to the point where the most another version can really do is take advantage of the advances in special effects. Surprisingly, Exodus: Gods And Kings manages to stem Scott’s decline and is nowhere near as bad as the general critical reception it seems to have received. It’s much like Noah, muddled, badly flawed in places but admirably ambitious and generally entertaining as long as you don’t expect to see a faithful retelling of the Bible story.
One thing I should point our right away though is that this is a determinedly Atheist retelling of the story, in this respect actually not quite like Noah which was virtually Atheist but explored Christian values and ideas with respect. I don’t think it quite says that the miracles were definitely not due to any supernatural invention – to me, it seems like we’re left to make up our own mind and that’s probably the healthiest way to do it for our times [there are some good moments when one of Ramesses’s advisors tries to explain away the plagues, but does it in an amusing manner that makes it seem like he doesn’t believe what he is saying] but, whether God is supposed to be an illusion of a guy who could be quite mad, or not, this movie quite clearly portrays him as an imperious, dislikeable young boy [though it’s not clear if he’s God’s emissary or God himself] who is mercilessly violent and vindictive with no kindness or compassion whatsoever. There are even scenes where Moses argues against God and seems to be in the right. Now not being Christian I don’t mind the film’s obvious Atheist point of view and can enjoy it more as a combo historical drama/fantasy spectacular, but it’s undoubtedly a far more simplistic approach than Noah’s cynical but measured and interesting one. I must say that the script for this movie is, despite the input of Steven Zailian, one of its worst aspects, with a bad idea for every good one and often lame dialogue, though the whole film is very cold and distant. What we witness on screen is generally absorbing and enjoyable, but it’s hard to care about anyone on it, including its fascinating main character.
We open with a battle and it’s a rather good one, the camera getting right in the thick of it without quite resulting in the sick-making shakycam that is prevalent these days for such scenes. It’s also pretty brutal, even if the violence isn’t dwelt upon. In fact, this is an astonishing vicious, graphic and dark film for a 12A, once again showing how idiotic this certificate is [how the hell can this get the same rating as Avengers Assemble?]. The vivid depiction of the plagues almost turns this into a horror movie, while a silly but rather cool scene where crocodiles bloodily devour some people on a boat will really make you wonder what our censors are playing at, and what was actually cut out of the film, since Scott has talked of a four hour cut which may get a release on Blu-ray. This one is a bit disjointed and sometimes shows evidence of its heavy editing. Moses meets the woman who will become his wife, he says he’s going to leave, he enters a room where she’s weaving, then we cut to the wedding ceremony without even getting to see a proposal! Sigourney Weaver’s character also seems to have been dreastically cut down.
Nonetheless this familiar story is always strong whatever you do with it and it’s still definitely recognisable here with many of the same beats, some more familiar from previous screen versions like the relationship between Moses and Prince Ramesses than the Bible, though of course it’s been proven that historically much of this tale, or at least the Biblical version of it, is bunkum anyway [something that has caused the film to be banned in certain countries], even if you take away the fantastical aspects [wrong Pharaoh, for a start]. As is usually the case, the first half is rather sedate even though this is by far the grittiest version of this story. The second half moves like an action movie and really is all out spectacle, excitement and, yes, fear [there really is a genuine feeling of it some of the time], with the addition of some fighting between the Hebrews and the Egyptians and an earthquake, though we disappointingly don’t get to see the Angel Of Death in this version, while the parting of the Red Sea, something which should be the highlight, is reduced to the tide simply going in. Things also end in a bizarrely muted manner, as if they had several ways to finish the film and chose the one that would least bother anyone. Why bother with depicting, for example, lofty things like the ten commandments if you’re going to do it in such a low-key fashion?
Real sets and CGI are seamlessly combined throughout and there are lots of show-offy aerial shots of occurrences occurring beneath, while the frogs, boils and such are generally convincing. However, the climactic tidal wave and some accompanying typhoons look like something from an old computer game and are so fake looking that I actually became glad they hadn’t gone the whole hog in showing the waves parting and in the process falling far short of the astounding sequence in the 1956 film, still one of the greatest special effects moments ever, and even more admirable today because it was done entirely without computers. Honestly, the wave and typhoons in this 2014 version look so poor that I can’t understand how Ridley could have looked at them and said: “Yeah, they look fine”. Maybe these bits were rushed to meet a deadline, who knows? It’s a shame, because, while there’s no real empathy with his characters, Scott nonetheless does seem partially revitalised in telling this story and is clearly enjoying himself doing so. He’s helped immensely by some good performances where the cast members really do their best to steer matters through the weaker dialogue. Christian Bale is convincingly intense and conflicted, though he doesn’t quite project the charisma that Moses ought to have in any retelling of this story. Joel Edgerton expertly portrays megalomania and cruelty though his best moments are early on when Ramesses still seems to have some humanity. Alberto Iglesias’s score is reasonable but unmemorable considering this story tends to inspire great musical backing [even from Hans Zimmer!].
In the end Exodus: Gods And Kings is not much different from your typical empty effects-filled blockbuster, lacking much in the way of intelligence or depth, and shouldn’t really be looked at as much else, but it’s not really a bad example and does succeed in providing solid epic escapism on a huge scale. After the rather painful third Hobbit adventure, it actually came as something of a relief to this critic, though some of that may have been due to his very low expectations. Scott hasn’t made a great film here, he’s probably not even made a very good one, but he has made a fairly good one, albeit one that like Kingdom Of Heaven will probably improve immensely when its full version is released. Scott, welcome back. You’ve got some of your mojo back. This doesn’t mean that you should not still leave the job of making crappy prequels/sequels/whatever to your two greatest movies to other individuals though.