Strap on your sandals and unsheath your swords! Ridley Scott has cinematically traversed ancient Rome with Gladiator (2000) and the crusades with the abysmal Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), now he invites audiences to ancient Egypt, to recount the Old Testament in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). As ever, he achieves technical proficiency, but fails to move forward from the biblical epics of old. Earlier this year, Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinatory rendition of Noah’s flood was a mind-bending experience, which can arguably claim to be one of the most expensive arthouse films of recent years. Scott takes a traditional route, in the mould of Cecil B. DeMille, with the apparent goal of impressing us with architectural grandeur.
The world he crafts (with the help of a lot of CGI), populated with pimped up pyramids and palaces larger than those that ever actually existed, arguably creates an awe-inspiring sense of scale. Nor does he shy away from a full-blooded sense of Old Testament wrath in a world which, even before “The Great I Am” enters, is full of blood and carnage. Much has been made of Scott’s near all-white casting of Exodus, admittedly not helped when a certain media giant waded in to comment. In reality, this is a problem endemic of the Hollywood system and not limited to this film. One shouldn’t forget that it was a white Russell Crowe, and not someone of Middle Eastern heritage, playing Noah in Aronofsky’s film. Playing the part of Moses is Christian Bale, as the adopted brother of Ramses (Joel Edgerton), the heir to Pharaoh.
The story opens with the two brothers happily fighting in dynamic battle sequences, and both showing a penchant for guy-liner, all in an effort to please their father Seti, who rules over the Hebrew slaves with an iron fist. Played by John Turturo, this particular ruler appears to have been inspired by Al Pacino’s Herod from his recent play/film/documentary Salomé (2013) – camp, upper-class accent and all. However, Moses and Ramses’ brotherly love doesn’t last for long after Moses discovers that he is a Jew and the key to a prophecy to lead his people out of slavery. This leads to Moses spending time in the desert and finding God, here represented as a petulant child – oddly reminiscent of the spoon obsessed child from The Matrix (1999). The tone of the film is admittedly baffling, and exists somewhere between the somber notes of Gladiator and the high camp of Carry On Cleo (1964). A bald Edgerton shows off his love of snakes, whilst Sigourney Weaver briefly gives us a turn as the wicked mother.
Meanwhile Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor, mainly serving the purpose of incredulously staring at Bale, as he talks into thin air to God. Whilst the tone is off, and the talent cast wasted, Exodus is, at times highly entertaining, albeit unintentionally. There is a degree of ambiguity throughout as to whether Moses is truly speaking to The Almighty or is just suffering the effects of being bashed on the head. Even the plagues, which allow Scott to go full throttle with the blood and guts, are given quasi-scientific explanations. However, it is impossible to get away from the director’s over indulgence in bloodlust, in particular a series of disturbing extended scenes following a visit from the tenth plague, the angel of death, where Ramses stalks the halls of his palace with the floppy corpse of his first born baby. In terms of sheer scale, Ridley has succeeded in his endeavours. But the question remains as to whether there is an appetite from audiences for retellings of these biblical epics, which only differ from the silver age of their Hollywood counterparts because the visual effects have improved, but their ideological imperfections remain.