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.
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.
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.
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.