There has been a lot of ink spilled and arguments raised over numerous stories surrounding Exodus: Gods and Kings, a lavishly mounted biblical epic from director Ridley Scott. People have become upset over a variety of things: casting choices, adherence to source material, historical accuracy, casting choices, the director’s propensity for running his mouth instead of showing some tact. And yet, for the life of me I can’t see too much here worth getting angry or infuriated over. It’s so lavishly mounted and so narratively unoriginal that it’s hard to really get worked up about it positively or negatively. I had a reasonable amount of fun when I watched it a week ago, but I doubt I have given it much thought since.
If you know the story of Moses and his pleas to release all the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, there’s very little that will surprise you here. Raised as a sort of surrogate brother to Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), it’s eventually discovered that Moses (Christian Bale) was born Jewish. Instead of murdering his former best friend and protector for treason as per his mother’s wishes, Ramses decides to banish Moses to the inhospitable desert in hopes that time will run its course. Moses survives, eventually embraces his faith over his former propensity for reason, and one day following an accident on a mountain he believes God comes to him (in the form of a tough talking child). The lord (or possibly madness) tells Moses to lead his people in an uprising against a soon to be crumbling Egyptian empire and its increasingly megalomaniacal ruler.
I’m not any sort of biblical scholar, nor would I ever pretend to be, but the story seems pretty legit given my admittedly limited knowledge. All the greatest hits are in there: the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the sea. It all comes after about an hour or so of character set-up that’s pretty satisfying. There are large scale battle sequences that blend CGI and admirably large scale practical effects with an early battle between the Egyptians and the Hittites and a late film chase sequence as the Hebrews attempt to make their way to the sea making big impressions. The production design is immaculate. The cinematography is sweeping. The speeches being delivered in all directions are on point and sufficiently rousing.
The performances are fine and in step with traditional epic filmmaking. Bale’s Moses is a strong and silent leader of men constantly conflicted by reason versus religion. It’s also intriguing to see the suggestion that Moses might have been a bit a madman with a good heart instead of a true believer. Edgerton is sufficiently campy as the tyrannical despot; self-aggrandizing and petulant one moment and withering and ineffective when proved wrong. Even the supporting cast is stacked with performers doing great work. Maria Valverde works to make Moses’ wife Zipporah more than just a passive participant in her husband’s life. John Turturro takes what could have been an otherwise thankless cameo as Ramses’ father and turns it into a vital part of the film that leaves a lasting impression. Aaron Paul, as the nearly mute and probably insane Joshua, and Ben Kingsley, as Hebrew elder Nun, don’t have much to do, but they’re good enough to make you forget they’re even in the film. The best supporting nods, though, have to go to Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mother and a deliriously over the top Ben Mendelsohn as an evil viceroy.
Yet, with so much going for it, Scott can’t shake a feeling of sameness. If you’ve seen any film working on this kind of a scale before (Lawrence of Arabia, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Scott’s own Gladiator), there’s nothing being done here to particularly raise the bar in any way. Exodus seems to be settling for “good enough” instead of excellent. It feels kind of bad for me to say that a film that looks this great is coming with a distinct lack of artistic enthusiasm, but that’s what happens here. It’s not only that this exact story has been told in similar ways before, but that Scott himself has made similarly fashioned films of this same vein and temperament before. It looks, sounds, and moves exactly like what one would expect and it never deviates from the path. Even the controversy around the casting of someone like Edgerton to play an Egyptian is tiresome in the wake of a system that continually makes these kinds of choices for the sake of bigger box office takes. There’s nothing above or below the line here that’s remotely new.
Exodus is fine if all you want to see is a familiar story told in a familiar fashion with familiar faces. There’s nothing inherently wrong about it, but it’s doubtful to make much more than a passing impression. I case you couldn’t tell, I was struggling to find anything to really say about the film other than espousing its competency. But much like Ridley Scott, I at least like to give people their money’s worth.