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2014 marks the resurgence of the Old Testament at the movies. After Darren Aronofsky turned to Genesis to unleash Noah, Ridley Scott moves forward to the Book of Exodus to revisit the story of Moses. Exodus: Gods and Kings is this century’s answer to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, but it already looks to be more controversial than that pious 1956 opus. Spectacularly filmed and intermittently well acted, though not quite as much campy fun as the DeMille version, the picture looks likely to attract a substantial audience even if some religious leaders voice protests.
Scott did a great job reviving the Roman sword-and-sandals epic when he made the Oscar-winning Gladiator. This Egyptian saga is not quite in the same league, but it confirms the director’s flair for widescreen imagery. Exodus has the added kick of 3D technology, and it has enough eye-popping set pieces to please adventure fans.
See more Ridley Scott: His Life and Work
Unlike the DeMille rendering, this one does not begin at the beginning but plunges us into the middle of the action, with Moses (Christian Bale) as an adult in the royal court. We eventually learn the backstory of how the Jewish child managed to find a home among the kings, but we’re introduced to him as a warrior and best friend of Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The first part of the movie cribs rather shamelessly from Gladiator, which began by sketching the rivalry between the emperor’s son and his favorite warrior. Here the aging Pharaoh, played by John Turturro, prefers his adopted son Moses to his own son Ramses. This tortured family drama was performed much more persuasively in Gladiator by Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Richard Harris. Despite an excess of mascara, Turturro is sympathetic, but he doesn’t fit all that comfortably into ancient Egypt.
An early battle scene against the Hittites, modeled very closely on the climactic battle scene between Arabs and Turks in Lawrence of Arabia, suggests that Moses is the superior warrior, which prepares for his eventual banishment once Ramses succeeds his father on the throne. But the friendship between the two soldiers is not well established in the opening scenes, so the film stumbles out of the gate. Four writers — Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Oscar winner Steven Zaillian — are credited with the screenplay, and they haven’t been able to craft an elegant narrative from the biblical text. The dialogue is often cringe-worthy, as when a surly Moses tells God, “Nice of you to come.”
When Moses learns his true identity, he is reluctant to play the role of savior, and he finds a comfortable home in a remote village, where he marries and has a son. But his destiny calls when he comes upon the famous burning bush and is approached by God to lead his people out of slavery. Here is the film’s most controversial choice, for God appears to Moses as a fierce child. Although this may offend some devout viewers, it’s actually far more interesting than the booming offscreen voice that DeMille used in his version of the story. This divine child seems angry and vengeful rather than a benign Buddha figure, but one could argue that this is in keeping with the Old Testament God of wrath.
The film hits its peak in the sequence recounting the 10 plagues. The savage crocodiles were not in the Old Testament, but as they attack humans as well as fish, they turn the Nile blood red, which is at least an ingenious explanation of how the river might have turned to blood. Frogs, boils and locusts are truer to the text and are rendered in luscious visual detail.
The climactic chase to the Red Sea is equally spectacular. Although The Ten Commandments won the Oscar for its visual effects, the parting of the Red Sea in DeMille’s film was laughably tacky. Scott comes up with a somewhat more credible portrayal of how the Israelites managed to cross the sea before a monumental storm drowned the Egyptians. This sequence is visually thrilling. The movie should have ended there, but Scott and the writers seem to have felt obliged to include a few of the later parts of the story, including the delivery of the Ten Commandments and a scene of an aged Moses finally arriving near the land of Canaan. But while these events are integral to the biblical story, they come off here as the worst kind of anticlimax.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max make impressive contributions, though some of the aerial shots of the Egyptian capital look a little too much like CGI-enhanced sets. Alberto Iglesias’ score is overly bombastic.
Don’t expect any acting nominations for the picture. Bale garbles a few too many of his lines, but he has an imposing physical presence. Edgerton is competent, but we miss the hammy exuberance of DeMille’s Ramses, Yul Brynner. Ben Mendelsohn, however, has fun with the role of the sniveling, treacherous viceroy who exposes Moses’ true heritage. Ben Kingsley adds gravitas as the elderly Jewish leader, but most of the other actors are stranded with far too little to do. Sigourney Weaver is completely wasted as Ramses’ conniving mother, and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul barely registers in the underwritten role of Joshua. Maria Valverde is strikingly beautiful as Moses’ wife, Zipporah, but her role is just as skimpy as most of the others.
No movie with such a limp ending can be fully satisfying, and the beginning also falters. But the long middle section is a rousing good show.
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Golshifteh Farahani, Indira Varma, Hiam Abbass
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Producers: Ridley Scott, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaeffer, Mark Huffam
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Billy Rich
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Rated PG-13, 150 minutes
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