One film I think I should really try and get round to seeing at some point is Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut of his 2005 historical epic Kingdom of Heaven. From all reports I’ve seen it’s a considerable improvement on the passable theatrical version. Scott is no stranger to Director’s Cuts, with a number of his film’s being later released in alternate versions, most famously transforming Blade Runner from a cult oddity into an accepted sci-fi masterpiece. I mention this now as one of the main impressions I got from Scott’s latest epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings is that the film feels somehow, incomplete.
This notion is most prominent when observing several of the film’s most famous members of its (controversially white) cast. Sigourney Weaver, whom Scott made a star with Alien, has barely a page worth’s of dialogue, and maybe 10 minutes of screen time at best. Similarly John Turturro (who both looks and sounds totally ridiculous playing an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh), exits the film in the opening act. Most noticeably of all, Aaron Paul as Joshua appears observing things from time to time but I can hardly recall if he even spoke a sentence. This and a few other pacing factors tend to suggest that, lengthy as it is, this is a film that a lot was cut out of.
As surprisingly, the second major Biblical epic to be released in 2014, Exodus occupies a place somewhere in-between the classical Hollywood approach of The Ten Commandments and the modern re-interpretation of Noah. The grand scale and spectacle of old is there, with many huge sets populated by hundreds of extras, but there are several more unconventional choices too.
The first act of the film is generally not what I’d have expected for a Moses retelling. It doesn’t begin with Moses’ famous rescue as a baby. Instead, after a brief few title cards, we meet him (Christian Bale) and Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) as they are adults. There is little exposition in these early scenes, we learn the nature of their relationship mostly through their actions and dialogue. They’ve been raised as brothers, but Ramesses is the heir to the ailing Pharaoh Seti I. The majority of the scenes occur inside the palace, but there’s one excursion for the obligatory massive battle sequence. While expectedly well-mounted (and brisk), this is yet another violent scene edited for PG-13 sensibilities, so of course there are multiple slashings but not a drop of blood. I bet if Gladiator were made now it could be forced to tone itself down too. I feel I’ve complained about this trend many times before and will do many times again.
In the course of this battle, Moses, a capable general, winds up saving Ramesses’ life. This appears to confirm a prophecy in the Pharaoh’s eyes that Moses is set to become a great leader. This adds a visible further tension to the two brothers, but soon Moses is sent off to the city of Pithom where he meets some Hebrew slaves, one of which (Ben Kingsley) informs him of his true heritage. Moses initially denies this but soon the information finds its way back to Ramesses, now Pharaoh, by Pithom’s slimy overseer Hegep (an out-of-place camp performance from Ben Mendelsohn).
This leads to one of the scenes that felt to pass very quickly. Ramesses, knowing Moses all his life, wastes no time in questioning him to the claim’s veracity, and immediately exiles him upon it’s confirmation. He also begins to display signs of being a tyrannical leader almost immediately after his ascent.
From then on the movie treads further toward familiarity, after years in exile, Moses has a spiritual awakening via the burning bush. This in turn leads him to his ultimate decision to return to Egypt, and ask Ramesses to release the Hebrew slaves, which of course The Pharaoh’s refusal of leads to the plagues.
There are a number of interesting choices Exodus makes with this, the most prominent one being to have God appear as a petulant little child. I was a little taken aback when I first saw this, and I still can’t decide if it was exactly a good idea or not. In many ways the Old Testament God acts very much like a child, and this could be a sly commentary on that, but it’s also rather distracting.
Bale’s characterisation of Moses is also unconventional, he is initially portrayed as a sceptical man, unconvinced by the Egyptian prophecies, and it’s only when he directly encounters God that he starts to believe. However, no-one else sees God, we get a few shots from observers’ perspectives of Moses appearing to be arguing with no-one, suggesting that he could even be hallucinating the whole thing. He initially aids the Hebrews by no supernatural means, drawing on his military background to train them. Later, he is horrified himself at the actions God takes.
When the plagues come, the first batch are combined into a montage beginning as a mass of CGI crocodiles chomp down on Egyptians in the river. While this scene was rather ridiculous, it was also surprisingly graphic, especially considering the earlier bloodless battle. Maybe the ratings board allows exceptions for ‘Biblical violence’? The blood of the dead flows into the river eventually taking over the whole thing. Then the frogs come, and the flies, the locusts and the death of the livestock and so on. There are a few moments in this that are like something out of a creature feature, such as Ramesses’ wife waking up to find her bed filled with frogs. It’s also interrupted to have one of Pharaoh’s advisers attempt to offer a non-supernatural explanation for the plagues. It’s an interesting take, but actor Ewen Bremner plays it as an off-putting comic relief moment. I found myself feeling sorry for the animals, I don’t imagine any movie’s featured as many horse deaths as this.
Scott kicks back into gear come the tenth plague though, simply and coldly portraying the deaths of the children as they sleep, emphasising Ramesses’ own son. It’s sobering stuff, and the reactions on screen reflect this well. Ramesses, holding his son’s corpse, distraughtly asks Moses how he can worship a god who slaughters thousands of innocent children.
There are of course some logical problems one could find with the story, why does God wait 400 years to free the slaves? Why does he first ask Moses to do it rather than just doing it himself? These all stem from the source, and I’m sure have been asked plenty of times before.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a heavily flawed epic, sometimes plodding, sometimes silly, with an unnecessary epilogue. It could have been so much better but there is enough spectacle and thought-provoking material contained in it that I can’t just dismiss it as another retelling of a familiar old story.