Despite some interesting touches to muse on, “Exodus: Kings and Gods” feels bland while bringing very little to a story familiar to many of us. Like Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” (2014), the movie attempts a modern reinterpretation of its biblical tale, but it is frequently hampered by its weak, deficient drama, and that was the main reason why I found myself not caring a lot about what was going on the screen as dully waiting for its promised spectacles which are more or less than its obligatory window dressing.
It is around 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, and the movie duly informs us at the beginning that thousands of Hebrew people were taken away from their homeland Kanaan by Egyptians. Many of them were forced into slave labor for those huge architectures including pyramids, and their slavery has continued for more than 400 years.
The movie begins its story around the point when Moses (Christian Bale, who certainly looks slimmer than his recent Oscar-nominated turn in “American Hustle” (2013)) comes to learn about the secret of his birth. Because he was raised as the son of King Seti’s sister Bithiah (Hiam Abbass), Moses has never had any doubt about his true identity while being loyal to King Seti (John Turturro, who unexpectedly looks regal and majestic) and his kingdom, and King Seti clearly perceives that Moses has more right stuff than his own son Rhamses (Joel Edgerton with shaved head and eyeliner), though, as the aging king admits during his private talk with Moses, his wish is not possible at all.
What happens next is not so different from what was depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1955) or animation film “The Prince of Egypt” (1998). Moses happens to meet an old Hebrew man named Nun (Ben Kingsley), and what Nun reveals to Moses during their secret encounter inevitably arrives at the ears of Rhamses later, who has just become the new king after his father’s recent death. Although Rhamses does not want to eliminate Moses in spite of his personal jealousy(after all, they grew up with each other like brothers), he has no choice but to banish Moses once that inconvenient truth eventually comes out in front of him and others.
After managing to survive his long, hard journey across badlands, Moses walks across the Red Sea (no, he is not helped by God in this time), and then he settles in a village where he begins a new life with Nefertari (Golshifteh Farahani), a lovely young lady he came across when he had just arrived in the village. It does not take much time for them to become husband and wife, and they soon have their own son while Moses works as one of village shepherds.
The most intriguing part of the movie is when Moses encounters God at a big, ominous mountain near the village, and that is where the movie tries more to be different from other religious epic films. His first encounter scene accompanied with the burning bush is drenched in a moody tone with a certain degree of creepiness, and God, who approaches to him with the appearance of a young boy, does not look like a good-willed entity, considering how he pushes Moses to follow his holy command.
Moses comes back to Egypt for his people as God told him, and he soon begins his rebellion against Rhamses and his kingdom. He gathers and trains his people, and we see them participating in partisan activities including burning oil warehouses. Although I have no idea on how they become effective fighters so quickly under Moses’ leadership within a short time, they make enough headaches for Rhamses, who will not let Moses and his people go for good reasons (it is not easy to give up a free labor force of more than 400 thousand people, you know) and responds to the rebellion with drastic measures including sudden massive attacks on Hebrew districts.
Anyway, it is God who steals the show in the end, and there are a number of big moments as the series of well-known disasters are mercilessly poured upon Rhamses and other unfortunate Egyptian people one by one. I sort of enjoyed how the Nile River is turned red after one gruesome moment involved with a bunch of deranged crocodiles, and the following disasters, which get nice logical explanation except that infamous final disaster, are more vivid and urgent than what is shown in DeMille’s 1955 film thanks to the advance of special effects. We also look more closely at lots of subsequent damages around the kingdom and its people, and God accordingly looks more disturbing while justifying his wrathful acts like an angry child ready to squash more ants.
I saw an interesting potential as Moses comes to have doubts on his God’s ruthless acts, but the movie keeps presenting expected things without much surprise or interest. Moses’ initial atheistic attitude is destined to be discarded from the beginning, and, though he is presented here as an understandable bad guy, we all know that Rhamses will never change his decision until that fateful point. The Red Sea sequence during its climax part feels dragged in spite of all the efforts for creating tension, and what is shown during this sequence lacks awe and wonder compared to what we recently saw from “Interstellar” (2014).
The main actors of the film are mostly wasted due to flat characterization. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton did as much as they could do, but this is not their best moment, and the other notable performers including Aaron Paul, Ben Bendelsohn, and Sigourney Weaver are stuck with thankless roles which do not give them many things to do except delivering lines as required.
The movie is directed by Ridley Scott, who is no stranger to epic period drama films as shown in “Gladiator” (2000), “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005), and “Robin Hood” (2010). He and his crew did an impeccable job on the technical level, and the movie looks good during its 2.5 hours with wide shots overlooking on cities and landscapes, but it ultimately fizzles as trudging on its predetermined path. While hurrying itself from one narrative point to the other, the movie does not give enough space for its characters to breathe and come alive, and I frequently noticed some narrative gaps needed to be filled.
Although I disliked “Noah” (2014), its bold attempt was something to be appreciated, and, as still remembering the striking visual moments from its disjointed result, I sometimes wonder whether I was too harsh on that film. In case of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, I really doubt whether I will be able to remember this passable misfire in the next year to come.
Sidenote: The movie is dedicated to late Tony Scott.