Anyone who has taken a semi-regular read through my reviews will be able to deduce that I’m a substantial Ridley Scott fan. I love the man’s work! Even when a total flop is shat into his filmography (looking squarely at YOU, ‘The Counselor’!), there are still technical and artistic aspects of the presentation that are definitely worthy of praise.
As of late, many people have been turning an increasingly critical eye on the man’s more recent work, and have begun to ask: “Has Ridley finally started losing his touch?” “Is advanced age beginning to have it’s way with the creative output?” In many respects, I understand this point of view, but can’t necessarily subscribe to it. Sure, there’ve been more noticeable issues with some of his films recently (‘Prometheus’ and ‘The Counselor’ instantly leap to mind), but what may not fully work on The Page is definitely given a helping hand from Scott’s distinctive and large-scale sense of visual flair.
One genre that Scott has brought a noticeable amount of attention to is the ‘sword n sandal’-type dramas, beginning with the surprise hit ‘Gladiator’, back in 2000….even though a credible argument can be made for his near-forgotten ‘1492: The Conquest of Paradise’ (1992). Since then, he’s also given us the vastly under-appreciated ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (2005) (make sure you see the MUCH improved Directors Cut), and ambitious, but flawed ‘Robin Hood’ (2010). Based on those titles, Scott would seem like a logical choice for The Directors Chair, for a epic-sized retelling of the Biblical story of ‘Moses’ and ‘Ramses’.
Now, right off the bat…I’m NOT religious. I happily count myself as an ‘agnostic’, and generally have little to no use for organized religion of ANY denomination. I simply don’t need it. So I didn’t have the rigid bias that I’m sure MANY religiously-inclined movie-goers may have with the material and, as a result, I thankfully didn’t have my first reaction tainted by the ingrained ‘teachings’ of an ancient and destructive group delusion (On MY blog, I call em as I see em…deal with it). I simply wanted a good flick from a renowned director whose long body of work constantly impresses me. Did I get it? Well…yes and no.
Obviously, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ follows ‘Moses’ (Christian Bale), the adopted brother of Egyptian Pharaoh ‘Ramses’ (Joel Edgerton), as he discovers his familial connection to the enslaved Hebrews and is, seemingly, charged by God with the momentous task of freeing them from the tyrannical grip of the ruthless young pharaoh… and 400 years of slavery. As he sets to work on his guerrilla warfare-like approach to the task, ‘Moses’ discovers that God may not be the benevolent deity they all believe He is, as a lethal competition between ‘Moses’ and Him breaks out, with the child-like Creator impatiently favoring the famous Plagues approach, to push the issue of Hebrew freedom. This all leads up to the iconic parting of the Red Sea during the Jews escape and a predictable one-on-one confrontation between the two former friends.
Being a Ridley Scott film. the visuals are pretty amazing, with the presentation of The Plagues and the awe-inspiring parting of the Red Sea being obvious stand-outs, especially in 3D. Everything feels appropriately epic and vast. Scott’s habitual use of wide-angle lenses and breath-taking vista shots are used VERY well here. I wish the same could be said of the ‘talent’.
There’s been a fair amount of controversy regarding many of the casting choices for the flick and in this aspect, I have to (largely) agree. For a director who has proven time and time again to have a firm and impressive grasp on the use of detail and historical accuracy (I know that’s a hilarious term to use for a Biblical story), I was surprised (and a little taken aback) by the abundance of ‘white’ faces populating a story featuring exclusively Egyptian and Hebrew characters. Sure, people can ‘counter’ that he did the same thing with ‘Gladiator’, but somehow that one just flat-out worked (the historically accurate size of the Roman Empire helped with the linguistic ‘suspension of disbelief’). Here, I found it a distraction. For one, there are no consistent accents that would help place the viewer in the setting being shown. Everyone speaks in European English accents (or versions of them), as if trying English accented by the actual region being shown was just too hard…so they gave up. Many people have also questioned Scott’s choice to specifically cast Australian actor Joel Edgerton (‘The Thing ‘ (2011) as an Egyptian pharaoh, but I actually think his look suited the part. Christian Bale, usually VERY good at what he does, is certainly serviceable as ‘Moses’, but there was nothing overly unique or distinctive about the character. He melodramatically yells and glares around menacingly, but there was a lack of ‘engagement’ for me.
Speaking of ‘lack of engagement’, several other top-notch actors were completely wasted in the film and should’ve been cast aside in favor of actors with more of an appropriate ethnic connection to the material. Of course, it was great to see Sigourney Weaver in a Ridley Scott movie again (after ‘Alien’ and ‘1492’), but her presence here was insultingly pointless. I think she literally has 4 lines of dialogue through the entire run-time and then completely vanishes, with no resolution. Same goes for John Turturro (‘The Big Lebowski’), a clearly talented thespian who really had NO business in the role of ‘Ramses’ father, ‘Seti’. I found him unconvincing and I kept waiting for some moronic joke to happen whenever he was on-screen (Kinda thinkin Turturro’s been ‘Bay’d’, after his regrettable appearance in the ‘Transformers’ pieces of shit movies). The deadly serious tone didn’t mesh well with his brief presence. Aaron Paul went straight from the awesome end of ‘Breaking Bad’ to this…and is also wasted as one of ‘Moses’ inexplicably trusted Hebrew lieutenants, ‘Joshua’. Mostly hidden behind a thick beard and long mop of hair, he really could’ve been played by anyone. Paul is a good actor, we all know that, but he didn’t NEED to be in this. And then there’s Ben Kingsley…also shamefully thrown away. I’m wondering if all these characters were ‘fleshed’ out in a currently shelved Directors Cut of the film, which we all know Scott is a fan of. He and James Cameron are the two directors who essentially brought the concept of the Directors Cut to the movie-going masses…so it really won’t surprise me if we eventually get blessed (or cursed?) with one. That being said, I’m not sure this flick would benefit from an Extended version, with it already running at 2 and a half hours…with a 2nd Act that slows to a plodding trudge for a noticeable period of time. But…I could be wrong.
So, to sum up The Bad of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, I have to go with much of the casting, the choice of inaccurate accents used, issues with the long-winded and fragmented narrative structure and a distinctly regrettable feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ about the whole movie. The characters weren’t given any real depth and therefore, there wasn’t much emotional investment when the Biblical shit hit the Biblical fan. And I’m thinking the less said about the questionable portrayal of ‘God’, the better. Not a terrible concept, but the idea of showing Him as a spoiled and impatient child (literally) was a little too ‘on-the-nose’.
All that being said, there’s also some seriously cool shit to be seen here too. It’s not ALL bad decisions. First off, the cinematography is gorgeous. The attention to period detail in the sets and costumes is great and when the time came for The Plagues to rear their ugly heads, the movie hit a certain stride that worked well for a good while. I appreciated that Scott n Co. seemed to try to throw us Godless Heathens some scientific reasoning behind the Plagues and their large-scale mechanics, ie ‘crocs go into mass feeding frenzy, sheer volume of blood n bodies in The Nile depletes the water of needed oxygen, forcing out the amphibians (namely frogs) who leave the bloody waters only to die en masse within the city limits, giving rise to vasts clouds of diseased flies, who in turn cause festering boils to erupt on the skins the human population’. Some times though, it simply is The Supernatural at work…as in the case of the first born sons of Egypt all perishing at the same moment an ominous (and sourceless) shadow falls across the city, or the initial ‘trigger’ for the death-by-crocodile massacre of the local fisherman population, sparked by a curt nod from the mysterious God child; who may or may not be a figment of ‘Moses’ imagination. The famous Parting of The Red Sea is a highlight of the film and it’s strongly implied that it’s the work of a comet or meteorite entering the Earth’s atmosphere and possibly impacting the surface somewhere. The sequence in which the ocean comes crashing back is amazing in it’s scale and detail. Once it’s all said and done though, I found it REALLY hard to believe that two key characters would’ve emerged as unscathed as they seemed to have, considering what an impact of hundreds of tons of crashing sea water would ACTUALLY do to a human body. But damn…did it look cool!!
Speaking of ‘looking cool’, I had a mixed reaction to the 3D. The use of ‘depth’ was shown effectively, especially considering Scott’s tendency for vast wide-shots and ‘layering’ in the frame, but the lighting was wrong for the shading that seems to be ‘part n parcel’ of the 3D glasses. They caused all the ‘blacks’ to take on a washed-out gray tone and the rich color scheme was dulled noticeably. I knocked my glasses down my nose a couple times to compare and did notice what the brightness level SHOULD’VE been, which had me momentarily kicking myself for taking the 3D option.
Not to harp on ‘negatives’ again, but one thing I found perplexing was, given the horrors we witness when The Plagues hit, the human-on-human violence is surprisingly tame. The movie opens with an impressively-staged cavalry charge on a group of Egypt’s enemies where I’m not sure I actually saw ANY blood spilled. Arrows streak through the dusty air, swords are swung viciously, spears are hurled, but…no blood! Scott has shown numerous times before his mastery of realistic battlefield gore (‘Gladiator’, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, ‘Black Hawk Down’ etc), but here it’s almost totally absent. If the aforementioned Directors Cut does come to fruition, that’s something that I would like to see put back. Give us the spraying crimson, Ridley!!
All in all, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ is an ambitious and impressively-realized version of this particular Biblical tale that ironically suffers from a lack of ‘soul’. There’s something empty to the whole thing, and in the hands of a less visually-inclined director, would’ve probably bored me to death for long stretches of the run-time. As it is, there are some aspects that deserve to be seen on The Big Screen that are, unfortunately, damaged by some bad writing and pacing problems. In THAT respect, I can’t help but to compare it to ‘Prometheus’. THAT movie looked beautiful as it tried to present some challenging and interesting concepts, but fell short due to hollow characters, awful plotting, shitty dialogue and a seeming lack of focus. MUCH of that critique applies to this flick too. Maybe Ridley Scott HAS lost the edge that deservedly chipped his name into the annals of movie history, with some of his now classic older titles, but it cannot be said that his visual sense has suffered. The script may not come together…but damn, it looks good!…while it doesn’t come together. If you opt for the theatre, there are elements here that WILL blow your mind…while others just plain ‘blow’.
*I appreciated seeing the first Title Card of the End Credits be ‘For my brother, Tony Scott’. The world of film lost a unique and cool ‘voice’ when Ridley’s younger (but equally talented) brother Tony tragically chose to take his own life (for still unknown reasons) a couple years ago.