The story of Moses, regardless of one’s religious leanings (or lack thereof), is a brilliant one. A well-known biblical narrative that incorporates, among many other things, faith, redemption, forgiveness and the good ol’ battle between good and evil, the life of Moses has always been ripe for cinematic translation. It is somewhat surprising then, that there have only been a handful of Hollywood adaptations. Cecil B. DeMille tackled the story in his silent 1923 epic The Ten Commandments, then delivered a momentous remake of sorts with his 1956 Charlton Heston-starring epic of the same name. Add to this DreamWorks Pictures’ animated take on the story in 1998, The Prince of Egypt, and the big Hollywood translations begin dwindling rapidly. That is until now.
Exodus: Gods and Kings sees director Ridley Scott bring the story of Moses to life in an old-fashioned, energetic epic. But while Exodus ticks off the right boxes for some solid Hollywood entertainment, moments of heavy-handed melodrama, scatterings of poor dialogue, and some frustratingly “safe” creative choices hold it firmly back from a home-run.
We meet Moses (Christian Bale), unaware of his Hebrew blood and ultimate destiny, living as an adopted son to Pharaoh Seti (a miscast John Turturro). His relationship with his adoptive brother, Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), is established quickly and somewhat poorly, rushing in its depiction of Rhamses’ jealousy and inferiority complex. An early war sequence, while nicely done, adds a bizarre punchline to a mystical foretelling tacked on to help establish a growing conflict between the brothers. The first quarter of the film moves in fits and starts, unable to convince of the relationships that will no doubt play a strong hand later.
Once Moses’ secret is revealed, thanks in part to a wasted Ben Kingsley, the film begins to kick into gear. Not fully, mind you, as we still have Moses’ banishment from the royal family, his wondering in the desert, and his falling for Séfora to go through before he decides to head back. It’s a big story, and there won’t be any surprises for those that know it.
The film earns itself points for delivering a suitably harsh take on the story, not pulling punches when depicting Rhamses’ brutality and God’s wrath. The plagues are nicely crafted and rammed home with CG wizardry and Scott’s wide-lensed vision. On a technical level, Exodus gets it pretty much right; the bigger the screen, the better.
While the film moves along at a nice enough pace when it kicks into gear, flying through its lengthy running time once Moses gets back to Egypt, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian’s screenplay fails to reach the rousing heights it clearly strives for. Apart from the aforementioned lack of depth in the key relationship between Moses and Rhamses, the characters themselves are somewhat dwarfed by the film’s epic format.
Moses, nicely played by Bale, is unsurprisingly the most layered character – but that isn’t saying too much. The man’s flaws and self-doubt are nicely portrayed, but it’s as though there’s a bigger cut of the film aching to come through. The sprawling plot undoubtedly calls for further clarification, especially when exploring this man’s emotional and psychological transformation. Instead, we’re given a handful of moments that attempt to illuminate what is behind his changes of heart.
Similarly, Rhamses comes frustratingly close to being a nicely realised persona. Edgerton gives a strong performance, easily convincing in his portrayal of a stubborn man as self-righteous as he is fearful of his own destiny. Moses and Rhamses are the film’s driving forces, yet they feel incomplete.
The film’s depiction of God, another integral component of the narrative, also fails to hit the right notes. It’s difficult to describe these criticisms without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Exodus‘ attempt to play it safe results in the loss of dramatic strength to scenes that are in dire need of it. Moses’ relationship with his creator is more than fundamental, but some of their interactions brought about some unintended laughs in my screening.
As has been the case in a number of Ridley Scott’s outings, it feels as though too much has been sacrificed in an effort to deliver a tighter film. It’s undeniably long, clocking in at 150 minutes, yet it would clearly benefit from a longer cut. Either that, or a completely different edit.
For all its shortcomings, of which there are an unfortunate amount, Exodus manages to be a decent bit of entertainment. Scott knows his way around sequences, and it shows in some of the film’s great pieces. The film’s energy tangibly picks up at the half way mark, progressively upping the scale until its thunderous finale.
There are some great elements in Exodus: Gods and Kings, with its slick direction, great special effects, booming soundtrack, and strong leads, but the aforementioned drawbacks are simply too prominent.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10