Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images

I had few hopes for Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott's take on Moses leading the Hebrews from Egypt to freedom, but I still wasn't expecting it to be out-and-out bad. How did this happen? Scott's a great director who, despite having been on a slump the last few years, has still shown himself capable of pulling together a good movie (Prometheus had its problems, but Scott's directing wasn't one of them), and this one had an all-star cast of some of the biggest actors of yesterday and today. But the few interesting ideas it comes up with are buried under some surprisingly poor acting, terrible writing, dull characters, a painfully slow first half that only improves slightly as the film goes on, and an overall lack of the epic feel that the story demanded. This ain't Noah, it ain't The Ten Commandments, and it ain't The Prince of Egypt -- in fact, if it weren't for the flashy-yet-empty CG effects, it'd barely be in the same caliber as a Sunday-school production of the Book of Exodus.

But before I send this film to the bottom of the Red Sea, let me get out of the way the one decent thing that I actually sort-of liked: the film's take on the Ten Plagues of Egypt. It goes with a naturalistic explanation for them, depicting God as working through natural phenomena rather than raining down holy terror, and for the first six or so, it actually worked. The first plague, the Nile turning into blood, is explained with God aggravating the crocodiles in the river to kill everyone who sets foot anywhere near it, causing their blood to turn the river red and kill the crops and the fish. The frogs (plague 2), however, are able to flee the river and pour into the cities of Egypt, and when they die of thirst from being out of the water for too long, they start rotting in the streets, leading to swarms of lice and flies (plagues 3 and 4) that spread disease (plagues 5 and 6). Seeing all of them connected and piling up like that was very creative, perhaps the only point of creativity in the whole film.

Unfortunately, once it reaches the seventh plague, the storm, it starts to run out of steam, continuing with the attempt at a "realistic" depiction of the plagues in terms of style but no longer bothering to try and make the substance of them feel realistic in any way. At this point, the film should've gone all-out, with God lashing out at the Egyptians for continuing to reject Moses' call for freedom and cutting loose with the fire and brimstone after holding back with the early warning shots. And don't even get me started on the crossing of the Red Sea, which the film can't seem to decide what to do with. First, it brings up the commonly-accepted historical explanation (crossing a narrow, shallow point on the Red Sea at low tide), but then it goes for an attempt at spectacle by depicting the "parting" as the water receding in advance of a tsunami, giving the Hebrews enough time to reach the Sinai while the Pharaoh's army is swept away trying to follow them. Either way, it fails at such. It's a problem that bedevils the film from start to finish -- it wants to be a darker, grittier, more realistic retelling of the Exodus story, but at the same time, it wants to be a biblical epic in the grand tradition of Cecil B. DeMille. These two sides both detract from one another, creating a dull, gray wash of empty (if reasonably well-shot) action scenes. For a sword-and-sandal flick about gods and kings, it felt much too small.

So that leaves the characters, and unfortunately, they have the same problem. The Pharaoh Ramesses II should be a larger-than-life figure, someone who's worshiped by his people as a living god, but Joel Edgerton doesn't have nearly the presence needed to pull it off. He didn't even try to own the screen, playing it much too small to command my attention. Everyone else barely registered, all of them seeming either bored or stilted. Only Christian Bale as Moses himself gave an acceptable performance, and even then, he wasn't much to write home about. Worse, the characters get next to no development, with important moments like Moses' birth mother Miriam and his relationship with Zipporah, the woman he meets and marries while in exile from Egypt, are treated as afterthoughts, mere items on the biblical checklist for the film to scratch off. The golden calf and the friggin' Ten Commandments get just five minutes at the end! The only point where it seems that the film might do something interesting is when Ramesses agonizes over exiling his brother after finding out that he's actually of Hebrew blood, but this is never built upon, instead focusing on scenes of Moses training the Hebrews in combat and guerrilla warfare for scenes that serve little purpose beyond adding some more action.

And that leaves this film's greatest, all-consuming flaw: how empty and shallow it is. It feels ashamed to be an epic, refusing to give us well-rounded characters or lavish spectacle beyond hollow CGI. It's just as muddled on religion -- the Hebrews could be any bunch of slaves, and the clash between the Hebrews' God and the Egyptians' gods and magic is only touched upon and never explored. It's a film that wants to be all things to all people, but instead, it's a big ball of nothing.

(And because everyone else has mentioned it: seriously? Everyone in ancient Egypt, save for the half-Indian Ben Kingsley who only gets, like, ten minutes, was white Anglo-Saxon? You couldn't at least have thrown in some swarthy Italian or Greek actors? Come on, Christian Bale doesn't even look Jewish! Of all the things that you missed about the great epics of Golden Age Hollywood, to think that that is the one thing you manage to copy...)

Score: 1 out of 5

A passionless, half-hearted attempt at a Biblical epic that has no reason to exist, and serves as a low point in the increasingly checkered career of Ridley Scott. Watch one of those films I mentioned in the opening paragraph instead.

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