And so Ridley Scott is back with yet another ‘swords and sandals’ butt-numb-a-thon! Following on from Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, Scott now tackles the biblical tale of Moses leading 600,000 Hebrews out of Egypt after enduring 400 years of slavery . Although no stranger to scope this immense, Sir Ridley can be a bit of a hit-and-miss filmmaker – who else can deliver such an immersive experience as Black Hawk Down followed by dull-as-dishwater Prometheus?
So nothing is quite a sure thing in his usually capable hands, but this is Moses after all! Everyone knows the story by now (and if you don’t, then spoilers ahead!).
Exodus: Gods and Kings sees Christian Bale cast as the man in question. Surpringly, he underplays the role considerably - almost dispassionately - coming across like a brooding Bruce Wayne with a beard. In contrast, Joel Edgerton delights in hamming it up as Moses’ brother Ramses, making sure that he leaves no scene without shouting at someone at least once. And this I think sums up the mood of Exodus: Gods and Kings perfectly –it’s a bit of a mish-mash. It tries to be too many things at once – is it supposed to be nitty gritty seriousness, widescreen epic entertainment, intimate family drama, mythical fantasy, all-out religious fairytale, or the story of a delusional man with serious mental issues?
Throughout this mish-mash style, the film tries to bring the latter element to main focus as Scott tries to set his story in the realms of explainable. Put simply, is Moses merely a man losing his marbles? His ‘discussions’ with God (here personified by an angry young boy) are presented as mere delusions, akin to Edward Norton talking to himself in Fight Club. Then there are of course the famous plagues – water into blood, frogs, diseased livestock, flies, boils, locusts, etc - each coming complete with their own ‘scientific’ explanations as plausible freaks of nature (although the final ‘death to firstborn sons’ plague is depicted as a Godly act).
It is these parts of the film in which Exodus: Gods and Kings does impress, and the visual effects are jaw dropping – along with the plagues, the Red Sea sequence is a particular highlight, as is a stunning chariot chase across a dangerously narrow mountain road. Unfortunately the rest of the film is little more than connect-the-dots storytelling, going through the story of Moses with little enthusiasm. Joel Edgerton is over-the-top but effective, playing the jealous brother who was told years earlier that Moses would save his life and go on to become a great leader. Egged on by his mother (an under-used Sigourney Weaver) he banishes Moses after his true heritage is discovered. Moses is left to wander around the desert until he stumbles across a Jewish tribe, gets married, and learns more about his past from village elder Ben Kingsley who provides some handy exposition to fill in the gaps before guiding Moses to become saviour to his people.
After watching Exodus: Gods and Kings, I get the feeling that lurking within it somewhere is a highly entertaining film trying to break out. Although already 150 minutes long, the film almost seems restrained by its running time and could easily benefit from an extended cut (there are rumours of a 4 hour version for Blu-ray). And I found Christian Bale’s portrayal of a contemplative Moses a little too understated at times, Bale comes across as if his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it.
Scott tries his best to beef up the Moses story, and although the result is a bit unfocused in its approach, he does at least deliver an entertaining and thoroughly watchable film, although biblically short of spectacular.