Neither Gladiator, nor Last Temptation of Christ
Not quite wielding a Promethian level of stupidity, but also not boasting the same entertaining experience; not coasting on Robin Hood sub-standards, but still eschewing fantasy spectacle in favour of an ill-advised attempt at documenting a fantastical OT story.Dedicating the movie to his late brother, Ridley Scott clearly wanted Exodus to be something particularly special; an epic tale of two brothers-from-different-mothers who both strive to lead their people, and, inevitably, end up at odds with one another in the process.
As the great Pharoah comes to the end of his time, his untrustworthy son Ramses, and his most trusted lieutenant Moses, must navigate the quagmire of a potential slave uprising. But as Ramses ascends to the throne, Moses finds himself exiled; called upon by God himself to take the battle to the Egyptians, and free a people who have been enslaved for hundreds of years. With Moses constrained by human limitations, however, it's up to God to summon his superpowers and throw a few plagues at the new Pharoah to show just what a real God is capable of.Kick-starting with a suitably stunning battle against the Hittites, Scott reminds us of his skills at managing epic set-pieces with seeming ease. It's amidst his best; staged with an eye for detail, whilst the aerial views constantly remind us of the bigger picture, as chariots trample and swords clash. It's fantastic.
Indeed, most of the first hour of Exodus is well-paced and well-developed. Both Moses and Ramses are given time to breathe, and the political machinations that conspire to tear them apart are given just enough time to boil over.
It basically all starts very Gladiator - in a good way - but, unfortunately, it's only downhill from there.
Scott loses control of his narrative once he starts to get into the meat of the Moses story, attempting to take a Last Temptation of Christ angle when it comes to Moses being visited by God and struggling with the breadth of the task ahead of him. There are sparks of surreal fantasy, much like Aronofsky wielded more effectively in the similarly Old Testament Noah, but it soon turns all too Biblical, only in a documentary fashion, taking the bullet-points of the familiar tale, but failing to evoke either a sense of wonder, or a sense of realism. It's clear Scott is aiming for the latter, which, when dealing with a tale so impossibly fantastical, was a massive misstep, and only ends up being counter-productive; it makes you feel sympathy for the villain of the piece, and only find the actions of an OT God even more deplorable.
Hinted at in the dialogue, you have to wonder at the logic of an OT God waiting to unleash the 10-plague justice he could have easily used to free the slaves hundreds of years before.
It's curious that Scott appears, on the face of it, to be attempting to stay religiously 'faithful' - and certainly there's nothing here that's wantonly controversial - whilst actually having the reverse effect in terms of how you feel about the tale afterwards. The petty, nasty villainy of Ramses pales into insignificance when juxtaposed with the absurdly grotesque actions of God. Did Scott mean to make this such an anti-Old Testament piece? It's a lot of effort to put into a production if that's the subversive line that he wanted to take. Ironically, a film like The Last Temptation of Christ, effectively crucified for being ostensibly controversial, is actually a whole lot more spiritual than anything Exodus has to offer.
A plethora of supporting cast members try their best but are almost universally wasted - Sigourney Weaver barely speaks and is utterly unnecessary, John Turturro doesn't have enough screentime, Aaron Paul is at least tolerable, but largely pointless, and Ben Kingsley is obviously brought in for heavyweight status but does very little either - and you have to wonder whether Scott's trademark extended cut, which reportedly runs at over 4 hours, would do them more justice (even though Scott maintains that it will never be released; take that with a pinch of salt once the Studios decide they want more buck for their bang), but his streamlined 150-minute Theatrical Cut is still the nuts-and-bolts of what he wanted to say. Which is not a great deal that we didn't already know.
Bale and Edgerton are still very good in the lead roles; they own the picture almost more than Scott does. But the director's level of professionalism is still unquestionable. He handles epic set pieces and thousands-and-thousands of (CG-enhanced) extras with aplomb. And it's still nice to see him invested in these swords-and-sandals epics, even if this is far from his magnum opus, Gladiator. But the Old Testament is a dangerous place to tread. And it takes someone braver than Scott to walk that path and deliver something that can be spiritual without being stupid; that can be believable without lacking imagination. Exodus isn't a bad attempt at bringing Moses to the Big Screen. It's just a largely unremarkable one.
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