2014 has been labeled the ‘year of the Bible movie’. It was also the year in which audiences decided Transformers: Age of Extinction would be the box office’s highest grossing film (something I think you should all be ashamed of). In the form of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, we have an interesting mix between the two; perhaps the most anticipated of these ‘Bible movies’, and certainly the closest of all of them to a typical Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ in the breadth of its vision and scope.
You may think it inevitable then that I would be critical towards the film, if only for its gallant use of an inflated budget to tell a story previously told many times before. But this is not necessarily the case – remember I gave Noah a positive review earlier last year. I did wonder then whether any other director could achieve the kind of emotional beats and clever effects that Aronofsky did with his somewhat ambiguous vision of a flawed character from a much-debated text. Though if there were to be another of them out there, it would surely be he who gave us Alien and Gladiator: Ridley Scott. With Exodus he at least matches Aronofsky’s biblical effort, and in some ways surpasses it.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an interpretation of the story of Moses and the liberation of his people, the Hebrews, from their slavery in Egypt around 1300 BC. In terms of its narrative content at least it is no more, no less, and doesn’t appear to wear any ulterior motives on its sleeve. Now you can choose whether you would like to read certain things into it that aren’t there, or judge it based on how you think it should have been done without allowing for the possibility that other people’s opinions are okay too.
To do this, though, would be to change the terms by which the film itself adheres to. Film is an art form. There is no ‘right or wrong’ way to do it, though there are ‘good or bad’ ways it can be done. Frequently you will find viewers, and even perhaps the occasional critic, who confuse the two.
How you react to this film should not, therefore, be dictated by how strict your subjective stance on whether or not it should be a ‘biblically accurate’ interpretation. If you’d like to do that then go off and write an essay about it by all means, but unless you can put these feelings to one side for the purpose of a review, you are not qualified to give an informative opinion that could prove helpful to those outside of your own social group.
Look what I’m doing now, for example. This is in danger of not being a review at all, but an argument for my stance on what’s right and wrong. And that doesn’t really belong here – I should be talking about whether or not the acting and directing is any good, whether it is effective at telling its story, how its soundtrack measures up to previous Ridley Scott films…. These things would accompany any normal review. For me, a deeply personal stance on any films content should not and (I hope) would not affect whether I think the film is actually any good at doing what it does, because the two are categorically different things and should be clearly classified as such if one chooses to comment on the former while discussing the latter. Indeed knowing this films makers were not out to create a strictly Christian movie means it would be inherently dishonest of me, from a critical perspective, to judge it by such criteria and try passing that off as an objective opinion.
If on the other hand Exodus did have obvious ulterior motives dictated by the bias of those who made it and if, say, those motives severely harmed its overall quality – as was the case for one of 2014’s worst films, God’s Not Dead – then I think it would be more appropriate, if not completely vital, to widen the conversation as it pertains to your own personal stance. After all, ignorance breeds ignorance, hence why one must rise to fight it with intelligent discourse when such matters arise.
But in this case, Ridley Scott’s take on the story is as unbiased as it is illuminating for the open-minded viewer. While not shying away from identifying the Hebrew God as its deity (getting itself banned in several countries as a result), it leads with a refreshing ambiguity around its main events, taking into account the distinct possibility that this story, even if based on truth, may have been exaggerated over time on its way to becoming a kind of Old Testament myth that everyone is aware of to varying extents.
Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton step into their respective lead roles as brothers Moses and Ramesses confidently, with Edgerton showing he is more than capable of matching Bale in the spotlight when it would have been easy for him to be overshadowed here. Though beyond this, casting choices for the films other roles seem questionable. Ben Kingsley appears to be going through the motions as Nun, one of the slaves who help reveal Moses’ true identity, while Sigourney Weaver’s inclusion, as the Egyptian Queen Tuya, feels wasted to the extent that I had forgotten she was in the film until seeing her name credited at the end. This disconnect ultimately could be attributed to the heavy edits made to Scott’s original four hour cut of the film (I suspect this also robs the relationship between Moses and Ramesses of some of its depth), but it still leaves you questioning whether this movie really needed any other big names present aside from its two lead actors.
Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack is suitably epic in all the right places and knows when to stay silent in others – which is of course the secret to all the best soundtracks, though this one isn’t quite memorable enough to be one of your core lasting impressions of Exodus. This is still a major Hollywood film, after all, and therefore numerous qualities, such as its grandiose use of music and consistently impressive visual effects, are things we have become overly accustomed to. Even the aforementioned Transformers series is capable of pulling off such things and has not gained much critical success for it. No, these are not what truly set Exodus: Gods and Kings apart. What does that is what it chooses to do differently from what you’d expect.
Having said that, you may still find the story’s perceived accuracy (or lack of such in places) – especially if it’s a meaningful, personal story for you – directly affects your enjoyment of the film. Let me tell you then where Exodus: Gods and Kings will most likely struggle to gain your trust. The ‘plagues’ that affect Egypt are afforded practical explanations and shown to be potentially due to natural causes (at least until the awkward point of all the Egyptian first born children dying in one night).
God appears not as a voice from the sky, as in The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956), but as an authoritative ten-year-old boy. Moses’ initial encounter with Him is set up after a rock hits him on the head, and the nature of subsequent encounters are left somewhat ambiguous as it is shown on more than one occasion that Moses is in fact the only one who can see ‘God’, even among his fellow Hebrews. Therefore, the possibility remains open that these encounters are simply the result of a hallucination by Moses, or perhaps a sign of his deteriorated mental state (indeed, for someone who did not already know the basic plot, whether this entity is really God at all would also be up for debate).
Furthermore, details such as the nature of the ‘parting of the Red Sea’ sequence and a lack of true supernatural intervention on show in the film will serve to irritate those who perhaps came expecting to see their God glorified through the use of enhanced CGI. Within the context of this modern world in which Exodus has been released, though, I found its approach to be appropriate. It doesn’t touch DeMille’s legacy in The Ten Commandments, but what Ridley Scott has admirably shown is that he never intended to merely present an updated copy of the former film, which was made in a different era to this one.
Exodus is very much its own film that takes certain risks. It doesn’t pander to any section of its potential audience. It doesn’t get everything it tries right. It attempts to present an objective vision of what, for many, is a very subjective issue. Of all of last years ‘Bible movies’, it was arguably the best at doing this, and for that at least, I think it’s worth recommending – for any audience.
8 / 10