This I have to say: Exodus: Gods And Kings is perhaps the most technically streamlined movie I’ve seen all year. Ridley Scott has found a way, as he always has, since those most treasured days of Alien (1979), to boast all the latest CGI technology while at the same time keeping the practical effects and stunt businesses chugging along. Observe the Stunts portion of the end credits; it’s massive for a blockbuster of this new millennium. What a joy it was to see so many names. Stunt people have been putting their lives on the line for our entertainment since the time of Méliès. Now computers seek to elbow them into unemployment.
They really work in the hours here. Hittite warriors are slaughtered en masse in an early skirmish that sees bodies flung in all sorts of directions. Hebrews are lugged around the sandy dunes of Ancient Egypt as if tied to the backs of horses, and they very well could have been. As Ramses makes the famous chase through mountains and valleys to kill every last one of his fleeing slaves, his soldiers crumble off narrow ridges and disappear in the rubble. Of course, many of the wide shots no doubt show us computer-generated people running here, there and everywhere, but when the camera gets in close, we are certainly admiring real experts doing their jobs and doing them well.
The sets of Ancient Egypt, too, are to be marvelled at. Some exist in real, physical spaces, and we can identify them immediately and appreciate their craftsmanship. Some are made in virtual spaces, particularly the wide sweeping panoramas of Memphis and The Nile. The virtual spaces are very pretty, yes, but the physical spaces are something else. They are tangible, real. They excite our imagination. Part of enjoying a movie is believing it; Scott’s movie works on a technical level because he believes it does.
But Exodus is a Biblical movie, is it not? And what’s a Biblical movie if not Biblical? It tells the age-old success story of Moses (Christian Bale), a former Prince of Egypt, leading his fellow Hebrews out of slavery and the clutches of the stubborn Pharaoh Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) to The Land of Milk and Honey. Along the way, there must be Moses’ exile, his rebirth in a desert hamlet where he weds Zipporah (María Valverde), his return to Egypt to sway his childhood brother Ramses, the 10 Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and so on. All this the movie fulfils. What it doesn’t fulfil is much of anything else. It lacks the “Biblical”. Exodus plays as if the Bible was written by Stephen Hawking.
It’s a very… scientific movie. Very realistic, which isn’t so much a concern as it is a casual observation. I admire its approach. But I call to mind The Prince Of Egypt (1998), the enchanting animated movie by DreamWorks that told the exact same story in half the time with twice the wonder. It felt every character with a sensitive finger. It paid attention to their plights and relationships. It delved into the grandiose and produced memorable visual splendours like The Burning Bush and the Red Sea’s parting. Yes, Scott’s adaptation doesn’t exist in wonder. It is based in an everyday world where miracles are explained even if their explanations are miracles themselves (the parting of the Red Sea, for example, is treated as a receding current in preparation for a tsunami), but something is telling me that Biblical stories and the inexplicable must go hand in hand, lest they fail.
I admit I approach Exodus obliquely, with some bias. I am Catholic. I grew up with these stories. They have instilled in me the ability to believe in miracles, no matter how audacious. I expect certain things from them; a leap of faith. When the cartoon Moses dipped his staff in the river and tentacles of blood reached out from its tip in every direction, it was awe-inspiring. When crocodiles slide into the water and turn it to blood by tearing Egyptian sailors limb from limb, there’s a little tick in my head that quickly shifts from Yes to No. It’s an instinctive reaction. I am not criticising Scott and his film. I think it’s refreshing. But I am unable to get around the idea that for Scott, miracles cannot exist on their own.
I hate to sound like a pedantic downer, but there is something else that plagues me about this movie. It is the relationship between Ramses and Moses. Here are two young men, brought up as brothers, were the closest of close, and are rudely torn asunder in their older years by their ambitions and their gods. They become the saddest of opponents. Their war should break them down and rip their hearts. Instead, Steven Zaillian, the writer, frames them from the beginning as estranged half-siblings. There is no notion of their bond, their familial camaraderie. So when they eventually turn on each other, we are not looking at a unit being dismantled, we are witnessing two foes wishing the worst for the other. If Zaillian had included a scene of cheerful reminiscing, or a moment in which either Ramses or Moses, or both, have a breakdown, we might have better sympathised with them.
Okay, enough of that. I can step back now and inform you, in all honesty, that Exodus is a good movie, and I enjoyed it on a purely historical level. It’s very bold in its decisions, many of which pay off, even if in somewhat underwhelming fashion (that God takes the form of a boy is inspired, but handled dully). Bale and Edgerton are strong contenders; they make Moses and Ramses meaty. It’s a movie that looks wonderful, is filled with microscopic details, tells its story the way it wants to, and is visualised with great richness. But the truth remains: The Prince Of Egypt was far more entertaining.
Best Moment | Struggling to think of one. Let’s just go with none for now.
Worst Moment | The Burning Bush. Think about God taking the form of a boy. Then think about the Bush.