“EXODUS:GODS AND KINGS” is a rollicking action saga with some fine battle scenes and an awesome, drop dead plague. Ridley Scott’s take on the Biblical myth is stunningly spectacular. The vast, arid plains over which Moses travels has the majestic feel of those big ticket old fashioned Vistavision, Cinemascope epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Ben Hur” and “Dr. Zhivago”. Scott conjures up the imagined worlds of Egypt around 1200 BCE and the yawn of tribal desert that stretches beyond it with far greater verisimilitude than the digital artificiality of “The Hobbit” series. You can feel the heat, the fearsomeness of the thundering Egyptian cavalry and the enormity of the Red Sea’s tsunami, as walls of water drown the ambitions of the vengeful Pharaoh, Ramses II.
It’s well crafted, beautiful film-making. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (one of Scott’s ‘troupe’ who also worked on “Prometheus”, “The Counsellor” as well as all the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) lights every scene with an almost tactile depth of field. And once the ten dread plagues arrive, Scott ensures that their relentlessness – the dense black clouds of swarming locusts, the blood choked rivers with their bounty of oxygen-starved dying fish, the ever-multiplying frogs, the blizarding hail that flattens dwellings etc. – evoke a vision of vengeful death that’s palpably, inescapably there.
For Scott, first “Gladiator” then “Robin Hood” and now this, it seems like a fitting conclusion to a trilogy of movies about the nature of moral courage and leadership. Both Moses and “Gladiator’s” Maximus are highly regarded generals who are cast into the wilderness by jealous siblings. And like Robin Hood, they’re all prepared to stand up to anyone, any army in stoic resistance to tyranny.
His Moses is no introspective man of God. He may be thoughtful and just, but at heart, he’s a man of action with an understandably skeptical view about God (and, in the guise of a cute kid, who wouldn’t be?)
Christian Bale makes a compelling Moses: part action figure and part looney. Indeed the more he gains belief, the crazier he seems. His oppose number, Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as Ramses II, actually delivers a more nuanced performance. He’s the jealous, somewhat effete, callous man-god, but also a tender husband and father and, himself, a relentless warrior. He also has to fight his way past some of the clunkiest dialogue not written by George Lucas, all with a straight face.
These two dominate the movie. Even the presence of the likes of Ben Kingsley as Nun, one of the Hebrew elders, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, the mother of Ramses II and John Tuturro as Seti, the father, are largely bystanders to the sizzling sibling rivalry between the princes of darkness and light.
But “Exodus” can’t escape the problem any retelling of these Old Testament stories face. It’s not so much the absurdities of the stories. After all we’d have no real issue if this were The Odyssey or any such tribal creation myth, which is all the Old Testament is. Indeed, even at the time of its creation (around 500BCE) the telling of the story had little interest in historical accuracy, which some scholars have suggested is a mythical rendering of a –rare- successful peasants’ revolt. (Perhaps someone should point this out to the President of Egypt who has banned the movie because of its “historical inaccuracies”)
Frankly, the problem is God. It’s God who’s the diabolical one in this Genesis story. It’s plagues are merciless and inhumane. It doesn’t simply want to free It’s people (come on, It’s God; just how hard can that by?) but to wreck havoc and mete out punishment no matter the collateral damage. And of that, there’s a lot. The body count is in the tens of thousands. The Genesis story offers us the very early Hebrew God of war, Yahweh Sabaoth, God of armies. And historically, such a mean and angry God may well have worked – to inspire fear and loyalty.
But despite Scott’s attempt to accommodate a modern (and secular) sensibility through Moses’ objections to God’s draconian actions, it’s difficult to get around the wanton carnage (“as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/they kill us for their sport…”) of his vindictive God.
And in the end (maybe subversively, deliberately), Scott may have given us in “Exodus” a God not unlike any ruthless dictator: one to be feared, but never worshipped.
EXODUS: Gods and Kings. Director: Ridley Scott; Writers: Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (“Tower Heist”) and others. Production Design: Arthur Max (“Prometheus”, “Robin Hood”). Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski