Review: big-screen reinvention of Exodus story is empty like the parted Red Sea

Click photo to download. Caption: Christian Bale as Moses in a battle scene in "Exodus: Gods and Kings." Credit: 20th Century Fox.

By Jason Stack/JNS.org

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations.

Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses (Christian Bale) saves the life of his adoptive brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) during a battle with a Hittite army, recalling an earlier prophecy that the skeptic Moses laughed off. He learns of his lineage from Nun (Sir Ben Kingsley), which leads to his exile by the now-Pharaoh Ramses II. During this nine-year exile, Moses has a child with Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and climbs a forbidden mountain—only to hit his head, see a burning bush, and get a request from a child messenger of God. Moses’s return to Memphis (Lower Egypt’s capital, not the hometown of Elvis) and demand for Ramses to pay the slaves or let them go leads to guerrilla warfare, hangings and arson by Ramses, and the Ten (Attempted To Be Rationally Explained) Plagues from God. Ramses relents and Moses gets the freed slaves to safety across the gradually receding Red Sea before a tsunami of epic proportions fills the sea—rather than the sea being parted.

There’s nothing to spoil about a film like “Exodus.” It’s in the same camp as Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.” The plots of both films have been in the public consciousness for centuries, so there’s little that reinvention or “fresh” adaptations can accomplish. Instead, “Exodus” yields an awkward experiment with trying to rationalize supernatural biblical events like the burning bush, the messenger, the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. The bush and the messenger are treated throughout the film as psychosis from Moses’s head injury, an advisor to Pharaoh works to connect six of the 10 plagues, and the sea-level changes are attributed to an underwater earthquake (inspired by a similar real-life incident, according to Scott). 

Click photo to download. Caption: Christian Bale as Moses in a battle scene in "Exodus: Gods and Kings." Credit: 20th Century Fox.

The film itself is full of holes and missed opportunities in its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Characters go unnamed, Moses’s speech impediment from the Midrash is left out, and the talents of big-name actors Sir Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, and Aaron Paul are wasted. And that doesn’t even touch upon Scott’s controversial decision to cast white actors to play Middle Eastern and North African biblical figures, which garnered talk of boycotting the film late last summer, or the inconsistent accents.

“Exodus” is a competent film with epic intentions and scale, but doesn’t live up to its potential. The practical side of depicting the biblical story shows in the costumes and sets, but that gets overshadowed by the CGI (computer-generated imagery) armies, animals, and tsunami. The at-times bombastic choral film score of composer Alberto Iglesias is fitting, but doesn’t do anything to stand out from similar scores. As for the acting, there are unfortunately no standouts—even from the Welsh and Australian leading men (Bale and Edgerton).

Like others before it in recent years, Scott’s attempt to bring the biblical epic back to the big screen falls flat. If Passover comes and you’re looking for a filmic version of the story of Exodus to watch, I’d go as far as recommending “The Prince of Egypt” and leaving “Exodus: Gods and Kings” to flounder in the Red Sea.

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Posted on December 21, 2014 and filed under Arts, U.S..