‘Exodus’ Commands Visual Grandeur, But Is Plagued By A Lack Of Emotion (Movie Review)
Exodus: Gods And Kings: 2 ½ out of 5
Moses: Remember this. I am prepared to fight. For eternity.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic. There is no way around that. Regardless of my thoughts on the film as a whole, director Ridley Scott has made a film that is grand in scale, fully realized in its depiction of an ancient time, and littered with extras, sets, props, and obvious visual effects in an effort to tell the story of Moses in ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, despite clear effort being put forth, the film is lacking in much emotional heft and, despite its runtime, the film feels rushed in execution, based on the straightforward telling of the narrative. It did not end up feeling like a drag, given the way the grand theatricality matched up with the fairly rote storytelling, but at the same time, Exodus does not capture the weight of this story in the way I am sure many would have hoped.
For Ridley Scott’s latest epic effort, I want to try something different. Whether or not it is true, I want to critique this film as if it were a cut produced for theaters, despite a longer cut being in existence. With that in mind, a lot of the issues are very clear. Again, regardless of whether or not this is actually the case, Exodus feels like a handsomely made production that has been stripped of the elements that really bring it together in a more fulfilling way. It is a film that lacks more profound characters, does not dig deep enough into the cause that Moses (Christian Bale) wants to fight for, and seems to have more of a desire to please so many different kinds of audiences, rather than have its own clear head, when it comes to telling a new version of an ancient story that many presumably already know going in.
I can address the nature of the casting later, but with that in mind, this is a film that has two important lead characters that are certainly full of talent and know how to convey a level of emotion in certain scenes, but feel robbed of a scenes that help us to further understand them. Say what you will about this year’s other biblical epic, Noah, but in that film, Russell Crowe was given plenty of motivation, emotion, and a fairly extreme arc to work with. Similar to that film though, Exodus has gone the route of updating a biblical hero to a gritty warrior, which could play better in this film if there was more to back it up. Instead, Christian Bale certainly shows strong conviction in key scenes, but without more time to really establish the crisis going on in the mind of Moses, based on both the revelation of his origins and what he has been tasked to do about it (and by who), we are left with seeing actions take place without having much weight behind them, beyond obvious spectacle on display.
Similarly, Joel Edgerton’s work as Ramesses II comes up lacking, as we see little in this character, beyond what is understandable for those who know about this sort of character already. Exodus is of course the story of Moses rising up against the Egyptian Pharaoh, commanding that the Hebrew people be freed from slavery. The twist is that Moses was brought up as Egyptian himself, before learning that he is in fact a Hebrew. While we see a noble (and often bearded) Moses on display, the required aspects of a Pharaoh character are also present. Edgerton plays the character as an unqualified leader focused on power, blinded by it to the point of having little to say to his brother, when it comes time to discuss the idea of freeing the slaves. This is where a better script could have done something interesting with the opposing side. Have us really understand what it means for Pharaoh to take this sort of demand into consideration. Moreover, story about brothers exists here, but the film shies away from diving deeper into an aspect that seemed like a clear focus in the opening portions of the film. Could there be another version of this film that leaves this element intact, better strengthening the relationship of the brothers and putting more weight behind the conflict that eventually puts them at odds?
That question may or may not be answered in an eventual home release of this film, but to speak to the casting in general, the notion of whitewashing the cast ended up leaving an impression that I would not call positive. It is a shame that the film would likely suffer from the same criticisms with a cast made up of actors more ethnically or racially in line with the roles being portrayed, but with that in mind, watching scenes made up of Bale, Edgerton, and Sigourney Weaver in Egyptian makeup and a floaty accent yelling at each other, while the subservient characters, all made up of non-white actors, look on, feels awkward, plain and simple. There have been reports and statements from Ridley Scott as to why this is the case, which mainly amounts to needing a cast that can make up for the expenses needed to make a film of this scale, but the results still led to me having a bit of a crooked eye turned towards what I was seeing.
Still, this issue is negligible when it comes to assessing the film, regardless of who is in these roles. As it stands, Exodus is a film that follows all the steps of ‘how to make an epic’ and rigidly sticks to them throughout its two and a half hour runtime. There are times when that can work, namely in an older period of film, when Cecil B. DeMille epics matched their lavish productions with a different style of acting that really gave weight to the proceedings, but in 2014, it is not enough to just settle for a good-looking film telling a straight-forward story, that features a lot of clunky dialogue.
Steve Zaillian and the other three screenwriters involved in this story had the task of putting together this new version of the story of Exodus for the big screen. Ridley Scott tends to be involved with his scripts as well, but regardless of what that script was and what it is that ended up on the big screen, this ended up being a film that offered nothing that has not been seen before, in terms of story. It is a mix of dialogue that sounds far too modern at times with a structure that leaves little dramatic impact, beyond getting to the point of seeing big battles and horrible plagues have their effect. Despite presenting a gritty action hero version of Moses, he is given little to really do in the later parts of this story, given that God’s will does a majority of the work for him. And that really is a main problem. This is a film more comfortable with having the presence of Christian Bale, rather than really showing us why Moses is a meaningful character/hero/prophet to rally people together and lead them out of a land of oppression.
Still, in spite of all of this, one cannot deny the meticulous craft and detail on display, let alone the sheer magnitude of a production like this. Yes, there are major problems with Exodus, but if there is one thing Ridley Scott knows how to do, it is put all of the money on screen. Costumes, sets, production design in general are fantastic. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is beautiful and striking. The visual effects on display to both create this ancient time and bring to life the deadly plagues, among other fantastical elements and action sequences are tremendous (and filmed in 3D quite effectively). The spectacle on display is the type of thing that makes it difficult for me to simply say not to see this on a big screen, but at the same time, if a more fulfilling cut of this film exists, hopefully a proper home theater viewing can make up for it.
I am not even going to get into the diminishing of the role of Moses’ brother Aaron (who I am named for), given my understanding of how this film decided to focus on some key figures for the sake of the narrative, but really, it is not the reconfiguring of this story that is bothersome. Exodus is a large scale production that looks the part, but has nothing to really offer. The film does little to feel like it has a relevant place in today’s world, aside from showing how far filmmaking has advanced. Despite two strong leads and a capable supporting cast, the performances end up feeling shallow and awkward. Really, it is made for too broad an audience, which is a harsh criticism, but one that ultimately makes sense. It is bound to attempting to gain a reaction out of the varying religious audiences looking forward to this film, along with those who are fans of the various actors and filmmakers involved, as well as the casual movie goers. It is a shame it is not better, despite seeing such great sites. Still, Ridley Scott and his team have turned in better results in the past and Exodus does not match up.
Moses: I love everything what I know about you. And I trust in what I don’t.