Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Editor’s Note: Exodus: Gods and Kings opens in wide release today, December 12th.
Far from the camp disaster many thought or expected it would be, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s latest foray into epic territory (e.g., Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood) offers moviegoers the best and worst of Scott, his spectacle-creating, small-moment best and his narratively problematic, bombastic worst. One of our finest visual stylists, Scott too often substituting meticulously detailed production design, elaborately choreographed set pieces, and high-end visual effects to make up for deficiencies in story, characters, and tone. Despite a screenplay credited to four writers, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian, Exodus: Gods and Kings never overcomes its compromised nature (trying to be all things to all demographics, young and old, believer and non-believer) or the constricting, constrictive demands of big-budget storytelling.
Exodus: Gods and Kings never overcomes its compromised nature (trying to be all things to all demographics, young and old, believer and non-believer) or the constricting, constrictive demands of big-budget storytelling.
When we first encounter Moses (Christian Bale) in Exodus: Gods and Kings, he’s already a well-regarded general in the pharaoh’s army, second only to the son, Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), of the aging Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). While Ramses II may be the natural-born heir to the pharaoh’s throne, Moses is the more natural leader, an expert in strategy, tactics, and all-around leadership. Defined by a mix of respect, admiration, and rivalry, Moses and Ramses’ relationship shows signs of the inevitable fraying and dissolution on the battlefield, the result of a prophecy that all-but-names Moses as Ramses future opponent. Moses, however, still saves Ramses, but that does little to save their friendship when Seti dies and Ramses ascends to the throne.
Exposed as a Hebrew and thus the son of a slave – one of 400,000 the Egyptians enslaved to build their cities and monuments – Moses goes into exile. For a time, Moses puts aside his worldly ambitions, settling down with the daughter, Zipporah (María Valverde), of a local sheep- and goat-herder, and becoming a father. The Old Testament God, however, has different plans. After an accident leaves him on the side of a mountain, Moses has the first of many visions. The God he encounters – or perhaps an angelic messenger – appears both as the familiar burning bush of the Old Testament/Torah and as a young boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews). At least for some, depicting God as a child will cause no amount of consternation, but blasphemous or not, the depiction of God-as-child isn’t far from the cruel, capricious God of the Old Testament, prone to temper tantrums, abandoning his Chosen People, the Israelites, for 400 years before reappearing to impatiently reclaim their unquestioned obedience and devotion.
Exodus: Gods and Kings wouldn’t be a Moses origin story without the parting of the Red Sea and Scott delivers the best CG spectacle money can buy …
God, of course, pushes a hesitant, recalcitrant Moses on the familiar path of the Hero’s Journey. Moses’ initial entreaties to Ramses to “Let my people go,” unsurprisingly fall on death ears. Ramses, a semi-expert on economic theory, isn’t about to free a cheap labor source without compensation or replacements. Moses, a man of action, not action, initially becomes a guerilla fighter and leader, training and mentoring Hebrew slaves on their off-time. As capricious and impatient as always, God steps in with the ten plagues of the Old Testament, each one given a scientific or rational explanation in keeping with Scott’s stripped-down approach to miracles and the miraculous. The plagues unfold in a series of tightly directed and edited scenes, culminating in the cruelest plague of all, the deaths of Egypt’s first-born sons.
Exodus: Gods and Kings wouldn’t be a Moses origin story without the parting of the Red Sea and Scott delivers the best CG spectacle money can buy, though here the Red Sea doesn’t part so much as retreat into the horizon (presumably after a distant earthquake), only to return as a massive, if shockingly slow-moving, tidal wave, again in keeping with Scott’s explicit desire to downplay the supernatural elements of Moses and the Israelites’ story. Moses himself isn’t immune from Scott’s anti-supernatural approach. Scott repeatedly cuts away to the POV of another, not-quite-trusting character during Moses’ open-air sit-downs with God, showing Moses alone, talking to no one. As a result, it raises doubts about Moses’ state of mind and the possibly non-divine source of his dreams and visions. Later, when a post-exodus Moses retreats into a mountain cave to carve out the Ten Commandments for his people, God not only encourages him, but also serves him a proper cup of tea (he also has a British accent).
Ridley Scott’s latest foray into epic territory offers moviegoers the best and worst of Scott, his spectacle-creating, small-moment best and his narratively problematic, bombastic worst.