Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings / **½ (PG-13)

Moses: Christian Bale
Ramses: Joel Edgerton
Seti: John Turturro
Joshua: Aaron Paul
Viceroy Hegep: Ben Mendelsohn
Zipporah: María Valverde
Nun: Ben Kingsley

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Running time: 150 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence including battle sequences and intense images).

“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.”
― Stanley Kubrick

The films of Ridley Scott always strive for greatness. He directs almost everything on such a grand scale that it is inevitable that every once and a while he will, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is one of those times when Scott’s visionary scope has him biting off a little more than he can chew, or more accurately more than has been chewed for him by his screenwriters.

“Exodus” joins the growing population of Christian-themed movies filling our metroplexes of late. Although, it may not truly be as Christian-themed as the Christian-produced movies that take place in modern times, such as “God is Not Dead” and “Heaven is Real”. Like Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” earlier this year, “Exodus” is not so much about being Christian as it uses the Bible as a source material for a special effects extravaganza. Also like “Noah”, it changes a great deal of its source material. In doing so, it seems to have forgotten to transport much of the depth of Moses’s story.

We meet Ramses and Moses, acting as generals in the Pharaoh Seti’s empire. Ramses is Seti’s son and heir; Seti raised Moses as if he were a son. The two are more like best friends than brothers, however Seti admits to Moses early on that he might make a better Pharaoh. Moses takes an assignment placed on Ramses because it is seen as beneath royalty. It involves investigating the potential uprising of slaves against Viceroy Hegep and turns into an investigation of an abuse of power by the viceroy. During his investigation, the group of Hebrews claiming the abuse informs Moses that he is one of them. They tell him of how he came to be in a house of royalty, sending his mind reeling. Upon his return to the royal residence, the viceroy has told Ramses of Moses’s true heritage, and Moses is banished from Egypt.

The first mistake of director Scott and his screenwriters is their attempt to make this a story about the brotherhood/friendship of Moses and Ramses. Due to how their stories end, it doesn’t have any place to go and feels more like a Hollywood screenplay school trick to add tension rather than an element that develops naturally from the story. This is the story of Moses; it should be kept as such. The brotherhood between protagonist and antagonist is a distraction from the elements that draw audiences to this story—the rebellion of the Hebrew people against the oppressive Egyptians and acts of God.

I’m not a terribly religious person, but it seems to me that it is Moses’s relationship with God that would hold the most interest for modern audiences. People have great trouble understanding those Old Testament relationships today. What Scott and his writing team do with that here is actually rather interesting. God (or his emissary—the film leaves this in question) is represented as a young boy about 10 years of age. This seems to be a choice by the deity based on Moses’s own relationship with his son of about the same age, whom he must leave to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. I understand this is different than how the Bible depicts it, but it adds an emotional level to all of Moses’s decisions that only a parent can understand. Since God is humanity’s parent, there’s good logic at work here.

I like that Moses and God don’t always see eye to eye. They both have different plans to free the Egyptians, and Moses gets first try. When his strategic terrorist tactics fail to work quickly enough, God brings his plagues. The brotherhood Moses and Ramses share feeds into Moses’s disapproval of God’s extreme tactics, but I don’t think the their relationship is necessary for Moses to sympathize with any man, Egyptian or otherwise.

The seven plagues allow Scott to give audiences the expected special effects extravaganza of an epic story. He uses the 3D format well, but it only serves to emphasize to me how useless 3D is. The movie looks great, but when I think back to remember the sequences, my memory of them is in 2D. 3D has absolutely no impact on the storytelling elements of a movie, even in the most capable director’s vision. It is all gimmick with no substance.

Of course, the film climaxes with another special effect sequence, which is rendered just as impressively as it can be. The parting of the Red Sea is a massive sequence that inspires one of the surprisingly few moments of awe to be found here. Unfortunately, it is all rendered almost moot by yet another ill-considered insistence by the screenplay that this moment be about the Moses and Ramses relationship. As the tide waters close in and the Hebrews dash for their side of the sea, while the Egyptians turn back for their shore, Moses and Ramses inexplicably leave all impulses of self-preservation behind and meet in the middle to have a moment. Cue audible rolling of the audiences eyes. Why? Why is this necessary? Moreover, how could they possibly survive such an act of stupidity? I mean this is a story of miracles, but shouldn’t God have just let them both die right there for such audacity against his power?

Not only could this movie have worked without some sort of dogged adherence to overused convention, but also Scott could have made it a modern Biblical epic on the level of “Spartacus” or “Ben Hur”. Instead, he squanders his gifts for filming excellent costume pictures, gritty battle sequences and mystical special effects with near cornball storytelling clichés. He has a powerful cast that is saddled with lines mostly consisting of commands and exclamations. And when all is said and done, the whole thing feels empty. Good intensions melted away in explosions and silly dramatic tradition. 

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