With Ridley Scott and Christian Bale, it was almost guaranteed that “Exodus: Gods and Kings” would certainly be unlike any other biblical epic. However, after select press screenings and the film opening in wide release yesterday, I was starting to worry that “Exodus” was not going to live up to my expectations.
From the opening shot of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” it is evident that we are sitting through an attempt to mine the Bible for the rich stories it has to offer.
Ridley Scott sets the tone of his piece in a convincing and believable enough way that all 150 minutes of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” never feels campy (see DeMille’s version for that) but never fully embraces (see Dreamworks Prince of Egypt). Scott, opting out of a purely religious movie, instead offers a study as much as it is a commentary on social uprising, civil unrest, insurgency, and of how powerful religion and faith is.
The film opens to an already grown up Moses (Christian Bale) serving as a general. It is 1300 B.C. and Moses does not know of his true origin so he serves Pharoah, has a friendly rivalry with Prince Ramses, and is content with the current state of Egypt. Both men learn of a prophecy as they prepare for battle against the Hittite’s and it leaves them troubled. According to the prophecy, one will save the other in battle and become a leader/savior of the people. As luck, maybe destiny, perhaps fate, or God’s divine intervention would have it, Moses saves Ramses during their attack on the Hittite army and return home. The casting is on point here and it is apparent that this Moses and Ramses couldn’t be further from the Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner performances in “The Ten Commandments.” Bale perfectly captures the weary, spiritually confused, and driven man who Scott’s Moses is supposed to be. Joel Edgarton, a personal favorite of mine, is a dynamic foil for Bale and is perhaps the most fun to watch as his Ramses is an uncertain and conflicted prince who comes across as a volcano ready to explode. His performance borders on diva and a quiet reserve that compliments Bale as he goes from Prince, to exile, to Savior.
We see Moses appalled with the treatment the Israelites receive, his encounter with Zipporah and her father Jethro in Midian, and his fateful encounter with the burning bush. This is perhaps the most critical moment that has divided audiences in that director Ridley Scott provides an “out” for non-believers. While Moses follows a flock of lost sheep up a mountain, he is injured in a landslide and hits his head on a rock. He awakens to find nearly his whole body buried under the rocks and mud, only his face remains uncovered. It’s dark, he’s tired, injured, and sees a burning bush. And then a child. The child, serving as a representation of God, speaks to Moses and gives him his mission. The scene works on merit that the burning bush is there, for the believers, but allows the non-believers to operate on the possibility that it may all be a delusion
. After all, he did hit his head on rocks.
The remaining scenes in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” work and the effects are far beyond the 1956 DeMille classic. One of the most visually exciting and arresting of moments are the onslaught of plagues upon Egypt. The film is beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski and is technically wonderful to watch. Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a tremendous improvement on the sword and sandals and biblical films of late. It feels like a worthy chapter in Scott’s career that has a place next to “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Robin Hood.” Taking a moment to consider the length and depth of the Book of Exodus it is understandable that a full adaptation of would be practically un-filmable, over budget, and decidedly more appropriate for a mini-series. Ridley Scott’s headfirst attempt at filming “Exodus” works in a way similar to the
way that the (far superior) “Prince of Egypt”. It hits all the right moments and has a surprising tenderness that connects. By the time the credits roll, “Exodus” is a film celebration of Gods and Kings, and the majesty of a sovereign God who hasn’t forgotten His promise to His people. While I was initially skeptical of the film, the direction it took surprised me and I feel comfortable in saying that it is worth viewing. “Exodus” avoids the extreme of a literal translation that would easily alienate many theater goers and chooses instead the direction of a biblical piece with more creative license.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” gets three out of five stars.