Monday 8 December 2014

Exodus: Gods And Kings (2014) - Movie Review

It seems that we are in the middle of a major influx of Christian-oriented films: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Son Of God, Heaven Is For Real, the Left Behind remake, the previously thrashed God’s Not Dead, as well as the recent Christmas… anomaly that is Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. I may have a fair bit to catch up on concerning this list but I welcome the experiences faith-based films can offer. Today’s film is possibly the most mainstream yet to come out of this, with veteran director Ridley Scott at the helm.

The plot: Moses (Christian Bale), the adoptive son of an Egyptian pharaoh, is exiled from his home and chosen by God to free the Jews from their lives of slavery, aided by the twelve Biblical plagues. He must save his people and lead them to their Promised Land, while battling with his brother Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) to try and resolve the matter peacefully.

The story of Exodus is one of the more frequently adapted from the Bible, and the backdrop is a very clear reason why as it has a lot of potential for great cinema as The Ten Commandments and The Prince Of Egypt have shown in the past. However, it does pain for me to say that it falls drastically short of that benchmark. The overdramatic and clich├ęd areas of my brain want me to just bill this as a train-wreck of Biblical proportions and that isn’t that far from the truth. I guess the best (or worst, depending on your outlook) place to start would be with the actors. Now, while they give decent performances for the most part, there has been a certain amount of controversy about the ethnicity of the cast. The cast is made up of mostly Caucasian actors who speak in a broad spectrum of accents and styles of speech, making for a disjointed and rather unsettling experience throughout. Ridley has gone on record saying that his casting choices were largely to make sure his film would be funded, a statement that opens up even more uncomfortable questions, but that hardly excuses how much this hurts the overall film.

The biggest problem this raises is how it clashes with the story and the setting: Exodus, at its core, is about racial prejudices and slavery based on said prejudices; having a cast that is this weirdly diverse makes that core muddled and weakens it severely. However, with that said, there is one casting choice here that borders on genius: Isaac Andrews as the representation of God. Having a child actor play God might sound like a very disastrous idea, but hear me out (TRIGGER WARNING: Religious opinions that may not agree with yours): In the Old Testament, God was extremely quick to anger, violent and all-round acted like a petulant child, until the New Testament where he became more merciful and seemed to mature a bit; as such, having God in a tale from the Old Testament be played by a child actor makes sense. Isaac himself actually does a good job with his role, which makes the casting choice work even better.

The characters shown here are pretty one-note, with only Moses and Ramesses getting anything to really work with. But even they are nowhere near as fleshed-out as they should be, especially considering the running time for this movie. The main reason for this has to be because the relationships between the characters are given so little development. The dynamic between Moses and Ramesses, despite giving a faint air that it’s important and has emotional weight to it, is extremely flat with the two coming across more as mild acquaintances rather than brothers who grew up together. A perfect example of this is when Moses tries one last time to convince Ramesses to free his people before the tenth plague hits, as he doesn’t want innocents to die. While all this is clearly the intention, the performances and writing for both characters fail to engage and the scene as a whole flops.

The other glaring non-connection (or at least, the next biggest) is between Moses and Zipporah, which is essentially a drive-by romance; the two have their meet cute moment and then are suddenly married with a kid; that is literally the most development their relationship gets. Because of this, any attempts to wring drama out of Moses’ dilemma of having to leave his family to save his people fall short. Possibly the only relationship that works is between Ramesses and his infant son. Joel Edgerton, who is almost unrecognisable in this role thanks to the makeup work, does a really good job as a loving father to his child and his reaction to the child’s death as part of the tenth plague is the most emotion shown on screen for the entire running time, not to mention his actions following it. No *SPOILER* for that moment, because Exodus just seems to be a story that people learn in-utero.

Actually, speaking of which, one of the major problems with the plot is that it makes assumptions on how much the audience knows about the book of Exodus. This includes minor details about Moses’ sister and mother that are very poorly explained and, once their direct purpose is fulfilled, the characters vanish from the film entirely. Joshua, played by Aaron "Gatorade me, bitch!" Paul and better known as Moses’ assistant, is shown in many a scene but his real purpose isn’t explained on screen either. To add insult to injury, the ‘golden calf’ incident, a rather important part of the original tale that Joshua played a key role in, is noticeably absent, robbing this film of yet another opportunity for narrative depth. While some may argue that this film would inexorably be aimed at Christians who probably the entire Bible inside-and-out and that it can afford to leave some details out, let’s not forget that this is a major Hollywood production meant for a widespread audience, some of whom (like myself, admittedly) aren’t as familiar with the source material. It honestly comes across as trying to have your cake and eat it too when it comes to its target demographic and trying to please everyone, a goal that this film didn’t do so well at.

I will give props to how the Biblical plagues were handled in this movie, however; save for the tenth plague, each one has some form of natural explanation that is shown in-story. Some of the plagues are shown out of order as a means to show a clear progression, and I definitely have to give credit for that kind of thinking. What’s better is that, because of how they’re depicted, it’s very open to interpretation about the God/Nature ratio of involvement; personally, I saw it as God starting the chain of events by turning the Nile River to blood and then several of them followed as aftereffects. It’s a very Creationist view of the plagues. Then again, there is still the factor of the plague of the death of the first borns and how it can’t possibly have had any non-supernatural explanation, which is a bit of a chink in the concept’s armor. Then again again, this leads to something else concerning the plot that is handled really well: The tenth plague itself. Given how we’re talking about child death on screen, something that is exceptionally grim no matter how you slice it, this film takes a rather tasteful approach that is probably the only way it could have been handled in a film like this.

All in all, this has serious structural problems that hinder most of the enjoyment one could get out of it. Sure, there are a few things that it does well (and does so exceptionally well), but they are heavily outweighed by the poor characterisation, stripped writing and narrative clumsiness, and I’d be lying if I said the casting didn’t make it worse. If this were made into a TV miniseries as opposed to a single film, maybe it could have ironed out its problems and brought us a decent adaptation of the epic tale. That said, given how this film clocks in at about two and a half hours, I’d say that should have been more than enough time to make it work without as many glaring issues.

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