EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Isaac Andrews, Indira Varma, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver
MPAA Rating: (for violence including battle sequences and intense images)
Running Time: 2:30
Release Date: 12/12/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 11, 2014
The most fascinating thing about Exodus: Gods and Kings is how it attempts to remove the supernatural from a biblical story that seems dependent upon divine workings. Moses (Christian Bale) sees a burning bush and hears the voice of God, but the vision and message are perhaps the result of a concussion. He talks to God's messenger throughout the movie, but to everyone else, it looks as if he's talking to himself. The 10 plagues come about as per tradition, but there's a progressive, rational logic to how they unfold.
The water turning to blood is the result of an abundance of vicious crocodiles in the Nile, which is the result of an excess of clay in the river. The blood forces frogs to abandon the water, whereupon they die on the land. That brings forth flies, and they bring about disease in the livestock and, soon after, the human population. Of course, the death of the firstborn children of Egypt is impossible to see in logical terms, which leads to a significant gap in the movie's approach. The slaughter is the result of a passing shadow and a killing breeze, and the only room for doubt is whether Moses is lying or telling the truth when he says that not a single Hebrew child died in the night.
Soon enough, though, we come to the climactic miracle. When the Red Sea parts, it is not in the customary picture of towering walls of water forming a path to the other side. It is just a freakish, coincidental shift in current that leaves small pools of water scattered throughout the otherwise dry land.
All of this is explained visually by director Ridley Scott in sequences of impressive scale and visual effects. The idea that the overwhelming majority of these events could just happen due to natural forces is iterated by an Egyptian doctor, whom the pharaoh orders to be hanged for the scientist's troubles and his inability to fix the problem. The king also hangs his chief priestess after she determines that the plagues are the result of some design—either natural or otherworldly—that she has no power to influence.
Why the pharaoh wants a simple explanation should be obvious, but he also wants something he can control. Whether they're the result of nature or a higher power, the plagues defy the pharaoh's understanding of the world—a world over which he believes he has complete control. The screenplay (written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian) appropriately sees Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) as a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense (as opposed to the Bible, in which he's tragic in the Greek sense). This is a man whose inborn flaws of pride and stubbornness prevent him from seeing the truth and lead him to destructive second-guessing when he does. His obsession with losing power becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That's where the intrigue of the movie begins and, unfortunately, ends. These are ideas that never coalesce with the movie's execution. With the abandoning of the supernatural comes a strange disconnect of the characters from the story. They have no power over what happens and are not even pawns in the inexplicable design of a higher power. They are passive witnesses to legend.
Despite the adjustments that bring doubt into a story about faith, the story is pretty much the same as it has always been. Moses, having been saved from a massacre of Hebrew children under Rhamses father (John Turturro), has been raised as an illegitimate child of the royal court and now serves as a general in the army. While visiting a slave colony outside the capital city of Memphis, he learns of his true origins as a child of Israel from Nun (Ben Kingsley). Rumor reaches Rhamses, who quickly exiles Moses, and Moses begins a normal life before God, in the form of a temperamental boy (Isaac Andrews) who serves as a messenger, tells him to rescue the Hebrew slaves from captivity.
In this version, Moses becomes the leader of a rebellion, using guerilla warfare techniques against pharaoh as the plagues escalate, much to his consternation. Rhamses is a man who craves power but seems uneasy yielding it. The same rationale that turns miracles into natural occurrences sees the struggle between Moses and Rhamses as a political one.
The two engage in hollow debate on a couple of occasions (Moses demands wages or, denied that, freedom for the slaves, while Rhamses counters with the economic trouble in which either choice would result). Neither of the main characters is particularly engaging. Bale, who has little with which to work for the character, fares better than Edgerton, whose portrayal of the uncertain Rhamses comes across as an actor who is simply uncomfortable playing the role. Meanwhile, every supporting role (played by the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, and Ben Mendelsohn) seems to have had their scenes liberally edited.
Despite its hefty length (150 minutes), the movie feels incomplete (Given Scott's fondness for director's cuts, it might be more than a feeling). Exodus: Gods and Kings is commendably daring in its rational, distrusting slant on a biblical narrative, but there's no ignoring that something fundamental is lost in the movie's translation.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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