CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)
Movie Review by Michael Arruda
(THE SCENE: In the middle of a great sea which has receded to make a walkable path, MICHAEL ARRUDA casually strolls along the rocky ground.)
MICHAEL ARRUDA: Welcome to this week’s CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT column. Today I’m walking in the middle of the Red Sea, which as you can see has been conveniently parted by God so that Moses can lead the Hebrews to safety. Of course, a horde of angry Egyptians are in hot pursuit, and—well, you know the story.
Anyway, they tell me that the sea will remain parted long enough for me to get through today’s review. (Looks at the thick dark storm clouds and violent lightning strikes in the distance). I hope so.
Today I’m reviewing EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, the new Biblical epic by director Ridley Scott, which tells the story of Moses and his Pharaoh brother Ramses as they fight over the future of the Hebrew people. I’m doing this review solo as my “brother” L.L. Soares is off on another assignment, but truth be told, I think he wasn’t too keen on doing a review in the middle of a parted ocean. In fact, now that I think of it, he did seem awfully eager to send me here. Hmm. Oh well. I have no intention of drowning today, so let’s get on with the review.
Unlike Cecile B. DeMille’s classic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) starring Charlton Heston, which began with the birth of Moses, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS opens with Moses (Christian Bale) already as an adult.
(Charlton Heston as MOSES scurries past MA)
HESTON: Where the hell are my people going? They’re supposed to wait for me!
MA: Er, they’re following another Moses, this one played by Christian Bale.
HESTON: Another Moses? Like hell! (Lifts his staff high in the air.) I’m not giving up this staff until they rip it from my cold dead hands!!! (Runs away in pursuit of the Hebrews.)
MA: So the movie begins with Moses, his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and their father, the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturo) discussing their plan to attack their enemy. Moses scoffs at the Pharaoh’s reliance on mystical omens to determine the outcome of the battle, as he doesn’t believe in all that religious stuff, only in a man’s ability to do the job himself. Can someone say irony?
Of course, there is a prophecy that on the battlefield whoever saves a leader will himself become a leader, and it’s Moses who saves Ramses, which doesn’t sit well with the Egyptian prince, although truth be told, he’s not too broken up about it, since he and Moses share a strong friendship- they’re “brothers” after all.
However, when Moses is sent to visit the Hebrew slaves to gather information about their reported uprising, he meets with one of the Hebrew elders Nun (Ben Kingsley) who tells Moses the true story of his upbringing, how in response to a prophecy Pharaoh had ordered all the first-born Hebrew boys killed, and so Moses’ mother secretly sent him away, and he was raised by the Egyptians. In short, Moses is Hebrew. Moses nearly kills Nun over this story, and says he doesn’t believe it, but as he goes along it gnaws at him.
Furthermore, Moses had given the Viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn) a hard time for living too lavish a lifestyle and thinking he was a king, an admonishment that didn’t sit well with the Egyptian official, and so when he too learns the story of Moses’ secret, he quickly informs Ramses.
Ramses loves Moses, but he can’t afford to keep a possible leader of the Hebrews in his court, and so he banishes Moses to the desert. There, Moses is taken in by some desert dwellers, where he marries and has a son. Years later, alone on a mountainside, he gets caught in an avalanche, hits his head on a rock, and when he awakes sees the burning bush and experiences his vision of God, in this case, in the form of a young boy.
From this moment on, Moses believes in this God known as “I am,” and he leaves his family in order to lead the Hebrews out of slavery and out of Egypt. Of course, Ramses won’t have any of this, and so it takes help from God, in the form of vicious deadly plagues, to help loosen Ramses’ grip on His chosen people.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is a likable enough movie. Like NOAH (2014) which came out earlier this year, it deemphasizes the religious elements and focuses more on the human elements of the story.
(Russell Crowe as Noah runs by leading a multitude of animals making their way through the parted sea two by two.)
MA: I think we’re confusing our Bible stories here. Noah, aren’t you supposed to have an ark?
NOAH: Not in this crossover movie.
MA: Crossover movie?
NOAH: In the new movie NOAH MEETS MOSES, I discover a wormhole which leads me thousands of years into the future where I arrive with my animals just in time to help Moses with his Egyptian problem. We’re on our way now to strike at the Egyptians from behind. It’s all part of the new push to turn Biblical characters into action heroes. Eventually we’re going to have our own AVENGERS-style movie.
MA: Why not? Everybody else is! You’d better hurry. This sea isn’t going to remain parted forever.
(NOAH and the animals race off in pursuit of the Egyptians.)
MA: God is still present in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, and the relationship between Moses and God is still an integral part of the story, but it’s not the main part. The driving relationship in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is the one between Moses and Ramses, and that’s the story which works best here. They love each other like brothers, and yet they are thrown into this conflict which not only pits them against each other, but puts them on the opposite ends of brutal bloody events which make it impossible for them not to want to hurt the other.
Yet through most of the conflict you get the sense that Ramses still loves Moses and doesn’t want to harm him. In fact, even after his own son is killed, even as Ramses asks Moses how he could worship a God that kills children, his anger is not aimed at Moses, but at God, and he even offers his sympathy to Moses and his child. It’s not until Moses informs Ramses that no Hebrew children were killed that Ramses finally loses it and becomes an instrument of pure vengeance. For Moses’ part, his answer to Ramses is that it’s not him that is doing these things, it’s God, and that regardless of what they do, God’s will is inevitable.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS also deemphasizes the epic feeling of this story, and this is not a bad thing. The screenplay by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zallian makes a point of emphasizing the human elements rather than the supernatural. Moses is not at all interested in gods and religion- he’s a man of common sense and action, and so when we witness his transformation later, it’s all the more interesting because we know that he was not someone who was looking for omens and religion- he wasn’t interested in the least.
Ramses may be the most clearly developed character in the movie. You really come to understand his plight, that he in no way wants to harm Moses. Joel Edgerton as Ramses does a nice job showing how this incredibly confident leader is increasingly overwhelmed by a force he doesn’t recognize or believe in; yet, it’s a relentless force that won’t leave his people alone.
The four writers here all have extensive credits, with Caine and Zallian with the more impressive ones. So, it’s no surprise that the screenplay is a good one. That being said, it doesn’t all work. I thought some of the key moments were glossed over. The conversation between Nun and Moses where Nun tells Moses the true story of his birth lacks drama and just sort of happens matter-of- factly. “Your name is Moses? By the way, even though I’ve just met you and have known you for all of two seconds, I know the true story of your birth.” Yeah, right. Get away from me you senile old man!
Likewise, as much as I believed in Moses’ conversion, it sort of just happens as well. On the one hand, the lack of melodrama makes things more believable, but on the other, sometimes things come off just a little too low key. I banged my head, had a vision, and now without question, I’m jumping into my new role as a religious liberator of an entire people. Really?
And really, other than Moses and Ramses, no other character is developed to any degree of satisfaction.
But in this movie that’s okay because the two leads do an excellent job. Christian Bale makes for a likable and heroic Moses. Sure, it’s not as ambitious a performance as last year’s turn in AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) nor is it as satisfying as his work in OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), but he’s still very good here and I never grew tired of watching him.
Just as good as Bale is Joel Edgerton as Ramses. Of course, Edgerton is helped by the script which does its best job defining the Ramses character, but even so, Edgerton is excellent. I liked him as Tom Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) but he’s even better here as Ramses, where he rises above the cliché. Edgerton makes Ramses a very human leader who is not interested in killing his brother or his people. He just knows who he is- the Pharaoh- and as such he cannot allow a slave race or their “god” to dictate terms to him.
(Gatsby and Daisy, and Tom, Nick and Jordan Baker race by in two 1920s vehicles, nearly running MA over in the process.)
GATSBY: Sorry about that, old sport!
MA: Hey, you need to watch where you’re going. You’re going to run someone over if you keep driving like that. Actually, you are going to run someone over, and it’s not going to be pretty.
Okay, back to EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS.
Both John Turturo as Seti, and Ben Kingsley as the Hebrew elder Nun make their mark in relatively brief roles, and Ben Mendelsohn makes for a very memorable Viceroy. We’ve seen Mendelsohn in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012) and KILLER ELITE (2011) but this is probably his best performance that I’ve seen. He makes for a deliciously sly weasel.
The women don’t fare as well. Maria Valverde is okay as Moses’ wife Zipporah, but she’s hardly memorable. Then there’s Sigourney Weaver as Tuya who is in this one for all of a minute- blink and you’ll miss her.
(A bunch of the Aliens from ALIEN creep by.)
MA (to the Aliens): If you’re looking for Sigourney Weaver, she’s playing an Egyptian in this movie, which means she’s back there in Egypt. You need to turn around.
(The Aliens ignore him and keep going.)
MA: Oka-ay. I don’t know why I was talking to them anyway. It’s not like they understand English.
(SIGOURNEY WEAVER suddenly appears in a low flying spaceship firing lasers at the Aliens.)
WEAVER (to the Aliens): For the last time, I can’t get you cameos in the AVATAR movies!
(She fires more lasers at them and continues her pursuit.)
MA: And lastly, there’s poor Aaron Paul from TV’s BREAKING BAD as Joshua. Is he bad? Not at all. He’s just given absolutely nothing to do. I kept thinking, after his work as Jesse on BREAKING BAD, this is all they’re giving him? For the most part he gets to stand next to Christian Bale, and when he’s not staring off into space with an awe-struck expression he’s uttering one or two monosyllabic lines. Seriously, the expression on his face made me think Bryan Cranston’s Walter White was standing next to him saying, “Jesse, what part of playing an Egyptian do you not understand?”
I’m not usually a fan of CGI effects, but I have to admit I was into them here. I liked the look of this movie and thought ancient Egypt looked rather spectacular. Visually, director Ridley Scott did a phenomenal job. The plague scenes in particular were very well done, but the centerpiece of this movie and my favorite scene was the parting of the Red Sea. Visually, it’s a tremendous scene and by far the most exciting sequence in the entire film.
I also liked how it was shown to resemble a Tsunami, which lent credibility to the idea that a sea would recede and then return with a vengeance.
This movie is available in a 3D version and probably looks great in 3D, but I chose not to pay the extra admission price, and so I saw it in 2D and liked it just fine.
I enjoyed EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS more than Ridley Scott’s previous film THE COUNSELOR (2013), and I even liked it better than his film before that, the overly ambitious science fiction ALIEN-prequel PROMETHEUS (2012).
Not everything works, but enough does so that its 150 minutes goes by rather quickly. It helps to have Christian Bale in the lead role, and he does a nice job carrying this movie, with help from Joel Edgerton as Ramses.
While I liked the idea of having God appear to Moses as a child, I’m not sure it worked all that well. Not that I wanted an over-dramatic Hollywood interpretation of God, but the young actor they chose to play God looked like he belonged in a re-imagining of THE BAD NEWS BEARS.
There are some battle scenes in this one, especially early on, and not that I have anything against battle scenes, but I see so many that they’re really not anything special anymore. I mean, the scenes of battle in this movie were interchangeable with battle scenes I’ve seen in DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), HERCULES (2014) and any number of historical battlefield movies I’ve seen on the big screen in recent years. The best thing I can say about the battle scenes in this one is that they don’t go on too long.
And since this one’s not called THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, those ten rules of God’s law are hardly in this one at all.
For what it was, a visual tale of one of the Old Testament’s more exciting stories, the tale of Moses leading his people out of Egypt, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is an enjoyable movie that held my interest and kept me entertained for its long 150 minutes running time.
I give it three knives.
Okay, I made it, and the waters remained receded. (Things suddenly grow dark, and MA turns around to see a massive tidal wave closing in on him.) Uh-oh. (Opens an umbrella.)
(The gigantic wave thunders down upon him and covers everything in its path with a massive flood of water. Cut to a beach where we see MA walking out of the water still holding his umbrella.)
MA (examines his umbrella): Hmm. Waterproof.
(Exits onto beach past a group of sunbathers, and a volleyball game with Ramses’ Egyptians on one side of the net playing Moses’ Hebrews on the other.)