Oh Ridley. You’ve gone and done it again. Why oh why do you have to be so darn inconsistent? You’re like that Katy Perry song – hot then cold, yes then no. For every Alien there is a Prometheus. For every Blade Runner there is a GI Jane. For every Gladiator there is an Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Actually that’s perhaps a little unfair. After all, Kingdom of Heaven was a mess in its shorter cut, but the three hour version transformed it into a near masterpiece. Perhaps that will be true of the rumoured full four hour version of this film, but I have my doubts. In the meantime, this pared down cut is wildly uneven, to say the least.
Let’s start with what’s good. Obviously, this being a Ridley Scott film everything looks amazing. Sweeping vistas of Egyptian cities, slave pits, deserts, parting seas, thundering skies and so on are a joy to the retina. But stunning cinematography, art direction, production design and visual effects alone do not make a great film.
The story of Moses freeing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt with a little help from the Almighty has been filmed many times. It’s an immense undertaking for any screenwriter or director, but because it is one of the greatest stories of all time, completely screwing it up is actually something that requires skill. At times it does feel like someone has had a good try at just that – certainly in the edit suite, given how lumpy and rushed the film often feels. Then again the screenplay is to blame too, with its misguided attempt at painting Moses as someone whose beliefs might just be the delusional product of a knock on the head. The resultant recurring visions of God manifested as a boy didn’t bother me in terms of departing from the text, but it does mean the subsequent plagues and miracles, although undeniably impressive, have a nagging sense of could-be-a-coincidence to them. Denying God a proper, unambiguous place in this story means it lacks catharsis, and above all makes it dramatically unsatisfying. Nowhere is this more evident than the Red Sea sequence, in which Ridley seems to be – if you’ll forgive me – all at sea. He doesn’t seem to know quite how to play the sequence. One minute he’s pulling out the stops to make it spectacular, then he appears to gets cold feet and almost feels as though he’s apologising for how spectacular it is, in spite of the more ridiculous extra-Biblical moments. What’s more, there is no pillar of fire stopping the Egyptian army – one of my favourite parts of the entire story.
Don’t misunderstand me – as a Christian I have no problem with challenging or controversial artistic licence. Unlike some of my fellow believers I completely get that a film is not a theological position or a sermon. But messing with any source text, Biblical or otherwise, is only permissible if the result works as a film. Where I admired Darren Aronofsky’s agreeably bonkers take on Noah, Ridley Scott’s take on Moses is nowhere near as fun as the theatrics of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, or better still The Prince of Egypt, my favourite screen version of this story.
There is some A-list acting talent on show here, but rarely A-list acting. Best of the bunch is Joel Edgerton as Ramses, who injects a good dose of hubris into proceedings with his delusional ranting about being a god. In spite of Ramses’ monstrous oppression, Edgerton makes it impossible not to feel sorry for him when the plague on the firstborn strikes. Elsewhere, Christian Bale provides a Biblical variation of his routine growl, Ben Kingsley contributes an occasional blip of dramatic fire, but Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald are completely wasted. Ben Mendelsohn’s corrupt Viceroy provides the only brief moment of light relief in a terribly, terribly sombre and serious film.
In the end, Exodus: Gods and Kings rarely catches fire either as spectacle or as a gripping dramatic narrative. A well-meaning but misguided attempt at making God ambiguous dampens what should be a cracking tale of divine intervention. Sorry Ridley, but once again you blew it.
Simon Dillon, December 2014.