Biblical epics seem to be making a promisingly grandiose comeback, helmed by respected filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott. Well, as for the latter, it’s quite heartbreaking to witness the downward spiral of a man who once graced us with one of the greatest, if not the greatest—most perfect, epics in Gladiator. Scott’s famed production values surely haven’t deteriorated since then, but his creative vision certainly has. Exodus: Gods and Kings retells the classic biblical story about the ferocious rivalry between two regal “brothers”: Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton). They grow up together under the wing of Egypt’s pharaoh, Sati I (John Turturro)—their support and love for one another never defied until their differences on the state of Hebrew slavery materializes and their dutiful father passes away for Ramses to take the throne. On completely opposite moral ends of the spectrum, Moses accepts his destiny as God’s prophet to aid the people while Ramses only worsens the citizens’ situation—in their poverty and captivity—during his mercilessly tyrannical reign.
To most audiences, this tale is already very well familiar, not just for those who have read the religious text but also for those who witnessed the narrative unfold on the big screen before through classics like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Yes—first and foremost—Exodus’ production design and sheer visual splendor is simply impeccable. Like with Gladiator, Scott seems to have built an entire kingdom, permeated with astonishingly imposing ornate structures and gaudy decorations. It took me back to the first time I saw Ben-Hur’s jaw-dropping, larger-than-life sets and reminded me of this particular genre’s current drought in the industry. Still, nothing you see in the first hour and a half of Exodus remotely compares to the wildly entertaining segment that bedevils Egypt with the infamous ten plagues. It’s not every day we see a studio film with the disturbing imagery of dead children; Exodus dares to be that uncompromising in its few thrilling moments.
On the other hand, those occasional scenes are interrupted by painfully lengthy stretches of walking and then some more walking. At 150 minutes long, the film is overly bloated, smugly comfortable in its every minute (or just unnecessary) story arc and overly reliant on its spectacle to entertain the crowd throughout its never-ending duration. The exciting specialty of Homeric battle sequences is utterly diluted herein; the amount of executions and monumental clashes is innumerable to the point of forgetfulness. The finale’s runtime extends far beyond necessity and eventually strikes you with boredom. Now, we can question the correlation between a truly boring story and one’s attention span; frankly, I hate that entire (condescending) argument because it’s purely subjective to the eye and mind. If I were to assume that mentality, a moment of hypocrisy would soon follow. For instance, I honestly found Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Expendables 3 to be incredibly soporific while finding myself totally riveted by a slow-paced European film like Force Majeure.
Actually, the first half of this picture appeared wholly by-the-numbers and fairly predictable in its direction without any unique events to justify this modern remake. The premise and story are spectacularly compelling indeed, but the execution is acutely poor (again, the pace and uninteresting Hollywood tropes stand out). “Let’s waste a considerable portion of the movie on a romance that’s, funnily enough, unconvincingly rushed in its first stage and seriously dragged out post-marriage.” So, the plot of the film isn’t handled exceptionally well, but does Exodus at least offer something thought-provoking—something profound to say about religion or societal traditions? There’s a clear opportunity for that sort of material, but it’s either incoherent or downright nonexistent. The ambiguity in interpreting one’s (religious) faith/god—intriguingly presented in Noah— is largely absent in this biblical entry. There are hints of an insane man rambling within Moses (seeing a messy-haired, heavily bearded, and gritty personage in the climax, for one), but it doesn’t go anywhere from there. With Bale’s recent comments on Moses’ frightening mania, I was expecting something more of a new, nuanced rendition of the character—again, something like what Aronofsky pulled off with a renowned character like Noah and put quite a topical, stimulating spin on it all.
In addition, yes, the level of whitewashing here is utterly transparent (with the striking presence of Sigourney Weaver as an Egyptian particularly laughable), but I’m not going to pretend like the performances didn’t make up for it. It’s up to the Hollywood system to birth more racially diverse actors/stars in order for the future ridiculously expensive blockbuster to cast them. In short, this might be too profound and controversial of a topic to sufficiently cover in a film review, but there’s yet a silver lining in all this: Christian Bale’s and Joel Edgerton’s performances are definitely notable as usual. Ben Mendelsohn and Ben Kingsley also make disappointingly brief, but absolutely memorable, appearances while Aaron Paul’s talent is completely wasted.
In its closing, the end result that came of Exodus: Gods and Kings frustrates me because I really desired to like this film more—in this day and age, it’s undoubtedly an ambitious task to produce a film of this scope. There are only several filmmakers that Hollywood entrusts with this kind of mountainous project, and unfortunately, it fell into the hands of Ridley Scott—a director whose peak is far behind him.