A film review by Craig J. Koban December 20, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 150 mins.


Christian Bale as Moses  /  Joel Edgerton as Ramses  /  Aaron Paul as Joshua  /  Ben Kingsley as Nun  /  Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep  /  John Turturro as Seti  /  Sigourney Weaver as Tuya  /  Indira Varma as Miriam  /  María Valverde as Séfora  /  Golshifteh Farahani as Nefertari

Directed by Ridley Scott  /  Written by Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, and Steven Zaillian


With visionary director Ridley Scott at the helm returning to the sword and sandal epic genre (which he re-popularized with his Oscar winning GLADIATOR and the underrated KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), you’d think that him taking on the Biblical story of Moses’ journey from Egyptian prince to Hebrew leader and liberator would have been a relative win-win proposition for all involved.  


There is no doubt that EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, on paper, has the right director at the helm in Scott, whom has the tools in his directorial arsenal to lovingly envision an Egyptian saga of the highest order.  To be fair, there are legitimate moments in the film when the veteran filmmaker does elicit a strong evocation of awe and wonder.  Yet, at a mostly brisk 150 minutes, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS feels far too padded for its own good.  There’s simply too much that the narrative has to adequately tell in its relatively short running time, which leaves the larger-than-life story here feeling largely skimped down. 


Then there’s the other issue with EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS and that’s the rather large shadow that Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic 1956's film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS casts on it, not to mention the litany of other numerous Biblical film adaptations that have seen the light of day over the last several decades.  The overall story of Moses rising up and freeing his people versus the tyranny of Pharaoh Ramses is one of the most recognizable Bible narratives, which leaves Scott in the daunting position of trying to stay true to the essence of it while simultaneously making the material feel fresh and relevant for modern day consumption.  Despite the fact that Scott and his screenwriters – one including Steven Zaillian (an Oscar winner for writing SCHINDLER’S LIST) – find some ways to revitalize Moses’ tale, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS feels a bit too pedestrian and safe for its own good.  It’s an unrelentingly solemn and humor-free film that also happens to lack…edge.




The film does has a grand and rousing opening sequence that plays up to Scott’s inherent strengths at delivering gladiatorial battlefield mayhem.  It’s 1300 BC as we see Egyptian Prince Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and his closest ally and friend Moses (Christian Bale) leading their army to battle the enemy.  It’s a surprising way to introduce us to these personas, in full swords-swinging, testosterone-induced, and teeth-clenched battle mode, which helps immerse us in the film’s period right from the get-go.  Even though Moses and Ramses are victorious in the battle, the former was almost killed if it were not for Moses’ heroics.  Back at home Egyptian Pharaoh Seti (the oddly cast John Turturro) is making plans to anoint his son Ramses as his rightful blood heir, even though both he and Moses have their doubts about his worthiness of such a title.


Moses’ life changes during one fateful visit to Pithom, where he is able to witness the savagery of Egypt in full swing as he sees the Israelite slaves being barbarically whipped and tortured into submission.  While there he meets a Jewish elder (Ben Kingsley, refined and dignified as always, but in an underwritten role) that matter-of-factly tells Moses that he is, in fact, a Hebrew that was secretly adopted by the Egyptians and raised as one of their own.  After being told this – as well as being informed that it is he that is prophesized to lead the Israelites out of bondage – the initially conflicted Moses comes to accept his true lineage, which is revealed in a hostile confrontation with Ramses.  With Ramses becoming the new Pharaoh after Seti’s death, he is forced to exile his once loved sibling, but while Moses tries to acclimatize himself to being alone he’s given visions of his true destiny and calling.  The rest of the film will hardly be a surprise to anyone that's went to Sunday school.


Predictably, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS looks stupendous despite some of its more obtrusive CG visual flourishes.  Scott has made a career of making films with a transformative power and allure that ground us in their otherworldly spectacle, and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is no exception.  It’s abundantly clear that Scott and his art designers have pain-stakingly crafted the ancient Egyptian world for maximum gritty verisimilitude; the film was shot in Spain and, in many instance, thousands of human extras were used instead of pixelized ones to give the film a sense of palpable scale.  When the multiple plagues do ravage Egypt – involving locusts, frogs, flies, sandstorms, rivers of blood, etc. – EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS has a sweeping and majestically intimidating grandeur.  The film is ripe with set pieces that allow Scott to fully showcase his penchant for breathtaking visual majesty. 


Maybe this is part of the very problem with the film, though.  I was won over by it on an aesthetic level, but the film’s widescreen pageantry at times seems to drown out its human element.  EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is filled with brilliant actors – some cast resoundingly well, others…not so much – that seem reticent with their respective performances, unsure of how they're coming off on screen.  Bale (one of our most committed and ferociously empowered actors) as Moses seems like an ideal fit for his larger-than-life Hebrew savoir.  He certainly gives an unexpectedly dialed-down performance (way, way less so than, say, Charlton Heston’s legendary turn playing the same character) and he certainly has the requisite presence to make Moses a worthy figure of rooting interest.  Yet, Bale comes off as emotionally distant in the film and seems to lack intensity when the film requires it.  He’s, no doubt, one of our greatest living thespians, but here Bale seems oddly and uncharacteristically aloof. 


He’s not helped much by his supporting cast either.  Edgerton – such a criminally underrated actor – is good at playing up to both Ramses’ internally self-doubting nature and his more disquieting sociopathic tendencies.  Unfortunately, he’s not given much thorough embellishment as an antagonist beyond bullet point traits.  Then there’s other characters that wander in and out of the film and seem all but adrift and lost in the story altogether.  Turturro is rarely convincing as Seti, and Sigourney Weaver – whom appears as Ramses' mother – has such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her level of involvement in the story that you have to wonder why an actress of her caliber was cast in the first place.  Kingsley, as mentioned, brings gravitas to his role that, frankly, is too marginalized for its own good.  And Aaron Paul – six ways to Sunday miscast as Moses’ right hand man Joshua – looks mostly confused throughout. 


The much-cited controversy of having a largely white cast playing Middle Eastern characters looms over the film as well (which is fair, especially seeing a Brooklynite playing Pharaoh Seti).  I think the white washing of the cast was arguably more forgivable during the historical context and time of DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but a bit less excusable now.  The larger controversy, though, might be how Scott and company handles the Biblical miracles that are such an indelible part of Moses’ story.  God in the film is presented as an ethereal apparition of a young British boy (which is either a fascinating or laughable conceit, depending on your frame of mind), which may or may not be a figment of Moses’ imagination.  Then there is the possible inference that monumental events – like the God’s parting of the Red Sea – may – just may – have a natural cause.  The Red Sea in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is not so much parted as it is…I dunno…drained. 

Alas, odd casting, apathetic performances, and Biblical faithfulness are the least of EXODUS’ woes.  The tale of Moses leading thousands of slaves out of Egypt to freedom is an undeniable powerful and dramatic one.  Yet, Scott’s take on it seems distractingly impersonal at times.  There is no doubt that EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is an ambitious and sometimes thrilling Biblical epic on a lavish scale that we simply don’t see at the multiplex every week, but its storytelling and character dynamics feel weakly engineered and largely empty on a pure emotional level.  More disappointingly, Scott rarely rises to the occasion of fully and audaciously transcending the material beyond our expectations of it.  It’s rather fitting that Bale’s Moses - at the conclusion of the film - looks old, withered, and spent.  Audience members leaving EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS may feel the same way. 

  H O M E