REVIEW: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

EXODUS POSTER

I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually possible for a ‘by the good book’ movie to be embraced and appreciated within the arena of contemporary film criticism. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying critics have been given a lot of quality Bible-based movies to consider. I’m just curious if a receptive environment exists in criticism these days for movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”? Is this why a flawed movie like “Noah”, which drastically alters the biblical account, is widely accepted among critics? Is this why Ridley Scott chose to omit some key portions of the Moses story in his new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”?

Now make no mistake, thankfully “Exodus” is no “Noah”. Darren Aronofsky used his Noah story as a platform to promote everything from environmentalism and animal rights to redefining the God of the Bible in several unsavory ways. Ridley Scott doesn’t do that in “Exodus”. “Noah” was also utterly ridiculous and downright dumb at times. “Exodus” doesn’t have that problem either. Scott takes several dramatic liberties, but he does maintain a level of respect for the source material. Instead it’s the numerous omissions that hold the film back a bit.

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It may be an overused term, but “Exodus” is by definition an epic. Ridley Scott is definitely playing in a familiar period piece sandbox and the sheer scope of the production is jaw-dropping. Over 1,500 special effects shots and some incredible costume and set designs were used to create this vast and vivid landscape. This may be the most visually arresting movie I’ve experienced this year, and it could be said that it should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its accomplishments.

The sweeping story begins in 1300 B.C. with Moses (Christian Bale) serving as a general in the Egyptian army. He holds a place of prominence after being adopted into the royal family as an infant and raised with friend and Pharaoh-to-be Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). The Moses of this film is a very complex character. We see him as stubborn, defiant, and conflicted. These traits really come out after God appears to him and tasks him with leading His chosen people out of Egyptian slavery. The film paints Moses as a reluctant prophet at first – one who often disapproves of God’s actions. Only over time does he finally understand that God is with them.

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Now “Exodus” could be theologically picked apart, but I felt its central focus was on target. But there were interpretive decisions that puzzled me. For example, when God speaks to Moses He does so through a messenger – a young boy. I’m sure there is some deeper meaning behind that imagery, but it’s completely lost on me. I also think Moses’ reluctance to follow God and general lack of faith carries on for too much of the film. I think it robs the story of some of its deeper meaning.

On the other hand there are some interpretations that really intrigued me. For instance, I love the way Scott presents the ten plagues. Aside from the odd way the film launches them, there is a natural connection between several of plagues that is very well realized. Some people have voiced displeasure with the use of nature, but I think it works because the plagues are still clearly supernatural. The same with the parting of the Red Sea. It’s definitely a different approach and some of the changes are unnecessary. But the entire sequence is tense and thrilling. It’s an incredible visual spectacle.

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There has also been criticism about the casting of predominately white actors playing Hebrew and Egyptian characters. Some have gone as far as to ask for a boycott. I don’t like these objections because they automatically assume a degree of racism is behind the casting even though no evidence exists to support it. I also think in this case they ignore some really good performances. Bale gives a solid performance that skillfully moves his character from prominent Egyptian royalty to tired and destitute Hebrew leader. And Joel Edgerton is very good as Ramesses. It’s an incredibly committed performance that could have gone terribly wrong in lesser hands. Both actors put all into their characters and I have nothing bad to say about their casting.

“Exodus” is an interesting Bible-inspired epic. There are a number of Bible omissions and deviations that actually hurts the plot. There are also some unfortunate narrative jolts – moments where the story leaps ahead without giving us the information we need to fill in the gap. But the movie doesn’t disrespect the Biblical account and there no hidden or secret agendas as with Aronofsky’s “Noah”. And then there is the overall presentation from director Ridley Scott. No one can visualize huge and ambitious period pieces like he does. I can’t tell you how many times I said “Wow” while sitting in the theater. It’s that visionary style that ultimately brought this amazing and beloved story to life for me. I doubt it will resonate with most critics, but I’m hoping it finds an audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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19 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

  1. Great review Keith, thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m thinking of going to see this as it has been a long time since I saw a big, religious epic at the cinema (I didn’t bother with Noah although I will watch it at some point). I think the point you make about the criticism of these films is interesting. They are completely out of fashion today, and it’s something of an anti-fashion statement by the likes of Bale and Aranofsky (less so Scott, he’s been fond of the big historical blockbuster for a while) to be involved with them. I wonder whether some professional critics are thinking about their reputations as they go into films like this; ie afraid to champion a film in an unfashionable genre.

    • Thanks so much. Really appreciate the kind words.

      I really do wonder about this. The last time I checked “Exodus” sat at 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. Thst is truly astonishing to me. There are issues with this film, but much of the criticism I’m reading is hard to digest. Since writing my review I ‘ve went back and read others and there are a small handful of critics who have liked the film. But the overwhelming majority do not and that response was quite predictable (unfortunately).

  2. Great write up, Keith. I, too, have read about the boycott and I do think if the casting had reflected a realistic representation of the location and era–I’ll go ahead and say it–if the cast were “blacker”–it most likely would have helped the film achieve a realism that fostered respect. I think of films like 300 or Gladiator or think of the countless Roman films starring British actors — people can associate the British Empire with the Roman — and somehow it’s okay that everyone’s white instead of olive.

    I don’t think Christian was a bad choice at all considering it’s virtually impossible for me to separate Charlton Heston from his role as Moses. Did Bale achieve that “holiness” that Heston accomplished? Aside from the color issue, I bet the special effects and the costumes and production design were well worth the price of admission as films like these deserve the big screen. I’m glad Scott didn’t manipulate the importance of the Biblical story, too. Funny, I JUST posted about epics and how they were hard for me to sit through or read about these days. I wonder if this epic would sustain me for the duration?

    • Thanks so much for reading Cindy.

      I’ll be honest, I dont see an ounce of credibility to a boycott based on the acting choices. Bale (while certainly diffetent than Heston) fits this film perfectly and I thought Edgerton was fantastic. For that reason it’s hard for me to argue with his casting. Now some are complaining about other casting including Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, and Aaron Paul as Joshua. I suppose they could they could have chosen racially authentic actors for those parts. But they are such small roles and not worth the debate. This criticsm also overlooks the number of non-white performers that have parts in this film, some bigger than Weaver or Paul.

      Would this sustain you for the duration? Quite possibly. I’m a big fan of Scott’s films and this is undoubtedly his. But it’s far from a big action epic. There are those scenes, but it mostly focuses on the story with a few (odd at times) deviations. I would be interested in your tesponse to it.

      • What black roles there were only slaves and antagonists. AS far Ridley Scott films, he seems to be taking a beating with fans losing his edge. I would probably like the epic story more if the script is solid and characters had a chance to develop. IF it’s all one-liners and fight scenes, I grow bored a third of the way through regardless how spectacular the effects are.
        Not an easy balance, for sure. Blockbusters are designed to entrance the mass audience.

      • I wasn’t speaking so much about one particular race (in this instance black). The main criticism seems to be that the cast is too white. There are a number of non-white actors and actresses that do a really good job. And I disagree with the idea of Scott losing his edge. But I’m also one of the few who loved Robin Hood and enjoyed Prometheus. LOL!

  3. Nice review, Keith! I’m happy that a fellow Christian enjoyed this film. From the trailer, the parting of the Red Sea and the plagues appeared as though they would be incredible to behold in the film. I have no doubt that there were several Biblical omissions, but nothing quite as bad as Noah. I’m also with you in that there isn’t any proof of racism with the casting. Often different races are cast as characters, and I don’t think there’s anything quite wrong with that as long as there isn’t a racial agenda behind it.

    I doubt I’ll see this until I can rent it, but I am curious. Great review here. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m not sure what I’ll think of it, but I have to admit that I’m more curious after reading your review.

    • Thanks for reading Kristin. If at all possible you should try and see it on the big screen. It is incredible. Its is sooo different than Noah even though it does take some odd diversions from the original text. But as I mentioned it respects the Biblical account and that is important to me.

    • I was pretty glued to the screen. Scott is such a visionary and aside from some clunky plot holes the story worked for me. But kinda like Robin Hood it depends more on opening up and following the characters than big action that some people want.

  4. Y’know what Keith, I honestly don’t have any interest in this film as it seems to stray so far from the source material. “There are a number of Bible omissions and deviations that actually hurts the plot.” That’s the thing, and I also read that Scott himself didn’t want to believe in God’s miracles and somehow trying to *rationalize* the plagues. I might rent it at some point but I didn’t feel like seeing it on the big screen that I gave my screening pass to my friend Ted instead. He reviewed it over the weekend and he found it to be so boring despite the great visuals.

    • Hey Ruth. I completely see where you’re coming from. Honestly I think the film does a good job of staying true to the focus of the source material. It never tries to redefine or insult the Scriptures. That is a very important thing to me. The omissions that I mentioned mainly do more to hurt the pacing and they leave a couple of gaps that narratively hurt the film.

      As I mentioned in the review, I found the depictions of the plagues to be really interesting. The first one starts in a weird way but the way several of them are connected is pretty fascinating. More importantly I didn’t think that the film’s use of nature hurt it at all mainly because the plagues are still clearly supernatural.

      I haven’t seen Ted’s review but I’m really interested in reading it. I was never bored. In fact I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

  5. Nice review. I thought it was decent, but definitely not as bad as some critics have been saying. It felt a bit bloated, but at least there weren’t any rock monsters.

    • YES!!!! I honestly don’t get the harsher criticism. I do understand some of the plot issues, but as you said, it’s not as bad as some critics have said. I liked it sooo much better than “Noah” (which is around 75% on Rotten Tomatoes).

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  7. I’ll be honest, I actually enjoyed Noah a lot. I thought it was an interesting take on the story, but as far as recent biblical epics go, Exodus is superior in every way. I did my write-up of it today. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but it’s a really good movie. It’s visually spectacular and emotionally engaging without really delving into religious politics. I certainly recommend it.

    • We definitely see Noah differently but I’m really glad to hear from someone else who enjoyed Exodus. As you say, not perfect but so much better than many give it credit for.

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