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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Catches Up With Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings

I missed Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings when it was released back in December, 2014, and the film’s dismal reviews kept me from rushing to watch it on DVD or streaming.  But there was no way I could altogether skip a new film from Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors working today.  After recently re-watching Mr. Scott’s brilliant adaptation of The Martian (actually, the new Extended Cut of that film, about which I might write more soon) I decided the time had come to give Exodus: Gods and Kings a try.

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The film is a sort of action-adventure version of the Exodus story from the Bible.  When the film opens, we meet Moses (Christian Bale) as a young adult, the happy adopted son on the Pharaoh of Egypt.  He and his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close and, in one of the film’s opening sequences, they ride off to war together on behalf of their father, the Pharaoh.  But a prophecy given by one of the Pharaoh’s priests threatens the bond between the half-brothers Moses and Ramses.  When Moses agrees to do a favor for his brother by taking on a thankless assignment to visit the city of Hebrew slaves, he begins to discover his true heritage.  You pretty much know how the story unfolds from there.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an interesting movie.  It’s certainly not entirely successful, but neither is it the train-wreck catastrophe I had expected from all the original reviews.

What’s most curious about the film is the way that Mr. Scott (and the phalanx of screenwriters credited on the film) have taken the Biblical Moses story and reshaped it into, well, into Gladiator (Mr. Scott’s very successful 2000 film starring Russell Crowe).  The whole set-up is almost exactly the same.  Two almost-brothers have been raised by a powerful king.  The brothers begin the story close, but a wedge is driven between them when it turns out that the king favors his adopted almost-son over his flesh and blood heir.  Said adopted son is a cunning warrior and noble and honest to a fault.  After the death of the king, the actual son assumes power, and very soon after an attempt is made on the life of the noble almost-son, who survives when everyone believes him dead and is driven into exile.  Eventually, events conspire to bring the brothers back together in a confrontation that will result in the ultimate defeat of the now power-mad actual brother.

Am I exaggerating?  That description is almost exactly the story of both Gladiator and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The funny thing is, while much of what we see in Exodus: Gods and Kings has been dramatically changed from the Biblical account, this alternate structure that has been given to the story sort of works!  I like the drama between the half-brothers Moses and Ramses.  This brings a personal drama to the larger story of the Hebrew slaves being freed from their servitude to the Egyptians.  Both Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton play their parts well.  I like the dynamic between the two characters, and their eventual (and predictable) break is suitably painful to watch.  I like in particular that Joel Edgerton plays Ramses with a bit more nobility than Joaquin Phoenix’s sniveling, evil-to-the-core Commodus from Gladiator.  I do wish Ramses had been allowed to keep a little more shading in the second half of the film, in which he suddenly seems to have become drunk with power without much explanation.  But the scenes between Moses and Ramses are the best in the film.  While none of this story-line is found in the Biblical Exodus story, I almost wish the film had given us MORE of this Moses-Ramses dynamic.

But their relationship, like so much in the film, is very loosely sketched.  Characters played by major actors have mysteriously very little to do.  Sigourney Weaver plays… well, in all honesty I watched the whole movie and I’m not entirely sure who she plays, I think she plays Ramses’ mother.  All I knew about her character at the end of the film was that for some reason she hates Moses, but the film leaves us to guess as to why that might be.  The great Ms. Weaver is totally wasted in the film.  Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and another dude in a bushy beard play two Hebrew guys who become Moses’ main lackeys in the second half of the film, but it wasn’t until the crossing of the Red Sea at the very end of the film that I understood that these men were Joshua and Aaron.  (Also, I thought Aaron Paul was playing Moses’ brother Aaron, but at the very end I realized that, nope, he was Joshua.)  Sir Ben Kingsley pops up early in the film of a Hebrew elder who you think will prove important to the story, but then he almost completely drops out of the film in the second half.  (A brief consultation on the film’s wikipedia page reveals that Sir Kingsley was playing Nun, Joshua’s father, but that was not at all clear to me from the film.)  This whole film reminds me a lot of the original theatrical cut of Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.  That film too was an epic historical action-adventure film, but with thinly sketched characters and a story that didn’t make much sense.  The far-longer director’s cut that was eventually released on DVD was vastly superior, and suddenly one could see the full story that the film-makers had set out to tell before the movie was brutally truncated  for the theatrical cut.  I wonder if there is a longer director’s cut of Exodus: Gods and Kings that would similarly present a more satisfying, complete version of this story.  Because while the movie as released has some great moments, it doesn’t at all hold together as a complete and satisfying story.

When this film was released, many critics scoffed at the way Mr. Scott and his team took the Moses story and made it into an action-adventure film. I freely admit that this raised my own eyebrows as well.  One could dismiss this as a cheap way of trying to cash in on epic films like The Lord of the Rings, or Mr. Scott’s own Gladiator, that have so enraptured modern audiences.  To be a little more charitable, I was intrigued by the ways in which the filmmakers seem to have tried to marry the Biblical story of Moses and the Ten Plagues with a version that feels more historically plausible.  God and miracles do figure into the story — we see a burning bush and the ten plagues — but the film also casts Moses less as a prophet and more as what we would expect of a revolutionary leading a popular — and sometimes violent — uprising against the ruling class.

At times this works, and I was interested in this film’s version of a Moses who is more like Jonah, someone who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into believing in God and trusting in God’s miracles (as opposed to the more human-based solutions that we see this Moses favoring, such as training the Hebrew slaves to fight.)  I wish the film had developed this idea more deeply.  As it is, it’s left as an interesting notion without too much development.  (And the sequences of Moses training the Hebrews in secret to shoot arrows and ride horses seems ridiculous and very out of place with the rest of the movie.)  Moses in the film has to learn to turn aside from violence — although, again, that journey is more hinted at than really developed.  I liked that, in this film, the Red Sea only parted when Moses threw his sword away.  Although then he picks up his sword again and rides off for single combat against his brother, so, you can see how some of these narrative through-lines in the film are a bit muddled.

I was similarly intrigued — though again not altogether satisfied — in the film’s depiction of God, who is seen (ONLY by Moses) in the form of a small, sometimes petulant, boy.  This certainly feels like an original and interesting way to depict God on screen, and I respect the filmmakers for taking this unusual choice.  Having Moses only see God after getting konked on the head by a boulder felt like a way of allowing the film to work whether one believes in God and miracles, or whether one thinks what transpires after that point was all a hallucination in Moses’ head.  There is also a scene in which an Egyptian attempts to provide a non-divine explanation for the first few plagues.  But then by the end of the film, we do get to see what appear to be genuine miracles without any possible non-miraculous explanation (such as the death of the first-born plague, and the parting of the Red Sea.)  So I’m unclear why the film bothers to even hint at the possibility that all of Moses’ conversations with God might just be his hallucinations.  I was also intrigued and a little confused by the film’s depiction of God, who seems intent on meting out vicious punishment on the Egyptians in a way that horrifies even Moses at the end.  Is this the filmmakers’ way of addressing the Biblical account, which can feel brutal and hard to understand to a modern reader?  I’m not entirely sure… As with much of the rest of the film, the filmmakers’ intentions remain somewhat unclear to me.

At the time of the film’s release, I recall that many critics objected to the “whitewashing” of the story, with white actors cast in almost all of the roles, playing Egyptians or other people of color.  I share that objection, though for as long as there have been movies there have been movie-stars using their movie-star wattage to play characters they weren’t really suited for.  So this doesn’t feel like anything unusual to me.  Would it be nice to see a version of this story played entirely by actors of Egyptian ethnicity?  Sure!  But I also do understand the realities of making big-budget spectacles and how movie-stars are required to help sell tickets.  There’s no question that seeing Joel Edgerton made up with heavy eye-shadow to look Egyptian is pretty silly.  On the other hand, Mr. Edgerton is terrific in the role, which helps prove his movie-star worth.  Is the idea that John Turturro is playing the Egyptian Pharaoh somewhat ludicrous?  Yes, but deliciously so!  Mr. Turturro is a hoot.  Frankly, I think the white-washed cast is one of the lesser of this film’s problems.  (Though I also completely understand how, for others, this could be the most objectionable issue in the film.)

I’m glad to have see Exodus: Gods and Kings, and I definitely didn’t hate it.  (There’s your pull quote right there.)  There is a lot to enjoy in the film.  The cast is strong, and Mr. Scott is, as always, a complete master of visual effects spectacle.  But there’s no question that the story doesn’t come together in the way that Mr. Scott and his collaborators surely intended.  I respect their ambition, even as I clearly recognize that the final product does not satisfy.

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