Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Film Review: Exodus - Gods and Kings

This movie is not biblically accurate, let's get that out of the way.

And for many people that might be a deal breaker.  To be sure it made watching it a bit of an annoyance.  But beyond that, Exodus: Gods and Kings is actually a fine sword and sandals epic.

Director Ridley Scott wisely begins the movie with some action, just like Gladiator.  In fact, the first act of the movie felt very much like Gladiator: Egypt.  In this movie, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are cousins who are close as brothers.  A prophetess says that in the upcoming battle a hero will save a leader and become the leader.  Moses chortles because he is a skeptic about all things religious.  Ramses takes it seriously.  The battle that ensues is both exciting and entertaining.  Scott was firing on all cylinders when directing this part of the story.

But for anyone who mildly Biblically literate, Moses comes to realize he is a Hebrew and is sent away to Midian where he finds God at the Burning Bush and is sent to let his people go.  It is in this section that things begin to fall apart.

Scott is an atheist who decided to go ambiguous with Moses' calling from God.  On the mountain he hits his head and has a vision of God, represented by a small child.  Throughout the movie, only Moses can see this Child-God and all of the miracles appear to have natural, if not unlikely, antecedents.  Scott wants both believers and unbelievers to be able to watch Moses' story and come away with their beliefs unchallenged.

But in trying to please everybody, he pleases no one.  In the end you are left with either a chain of coincidences that strain credulity of the atheist or a petulant, vengeful God to insult the believer.

And it is the latter point that is probably the biggest stumbling block.  I actually went to see this movie as soon as it opened so that I could decide if it was good enough to give my students extra credit if they went to see it (as I had with last years's Son of God).  And I was willing to do so until their portrayal of God.

I understand placing the voice of God in the performance of child.  That sense of preternatural power and wisdom in one so young while projecting innocence is a powerful image.  But it failed.  The reason is that this child also had to portray God's wrath.  And rather than coming off as righteous, wise justice, God comes off as a bratty child, like Trelane in the Squire of Gothos episode of Star Trek.  This one element spoiled a good portion of this film.  It was the same for my wife in the slightly brattish portrayal of Mary in The Nativity Story.

It is a real shame that this one thing was in there.  I could have accepted the fence-riding of the rest of the film if God was not depicted so horribly.

Beyond that, the rest of the movie is fairly good.  The performances are excellent.  Bale takes Moses to an interesting place where he goes from skeptic to man compelled by faith.  I particularly like Edgerton's Ramses.  He was venal and whiney but he managed not to go the more common route today of making him effeminate.  Sigourney Weaver is wasted in her small role as Ramses mother.  Ben Kingsly as Nun doesn't get nearly enough screen time.  And John Turturro as pharaoh did a fine job, but unfortunately his outlandish performances in movies like Transformers have left their mark on him.  I really had trouble buying him in the role.

Visually, one of the things I loved about the movie was that it made Ancient Egypt seem beautiful and luxurious.  Most movies that are filmed in ancient times focus on the crudeness of the age.  But you really felt the splendor and tranquility of the Egyptian pharaohs.  This was nicely juxtaposed to the squalor of the Hebrews.

The special effects also are top-of-the-line and there is a visible spectacle.  As I wrote, if you get beyond the above annoyances, the film is fairly enjoyable.  Scott has lost none of his potency as a film director.

If only he used those skills to tell a better version of this great story.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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