Monday, December 15, 2014


Nobody has made a landmark Biblical movie since Mel Gibson helmed “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.  Mind you, contenders have cropped up, primarily “Noah” (2014) with Russell Crowe, but it amounted to little more than a pretender with its apocryphal allusions to the Books of Enoch with its stone angels.  “Son of God” doesn’t really qualify since its producers re-edited it from The History Channel miniseries “The Bible.”  Sadly, nothing about director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (** OUT OF ****) appears divinely inspired.  Scott, best known for lavish spectacles such as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Prometheus,” has spent $140 million on this sprawling recreation of ancient Egypt.  Admittedly, Scott doesn’t qualify as a saint.  In a recent New York Times interview, Scott said about “Exodus,” “I’ve got it fairly well plotted out. I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.” Not surprisingly, the secular screenplay credited to four scribes, among them “Tower Heist” duo Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, “The Constant Gardner’s” Jeffrey Caine, and “Schindler's List’s” Steven Zaillian, adopts a realistic rather than a scriptural slant to its subject matter.  Moses behaves more like Rambo rather than Charlton Heston, and our hero discovers with considerable chagrin that he isn’t an Egyptian. Comparatively, “Exodus” neither takes its cues from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 or 1956 versions of “The Ten Commandments” nor Mel Gibson’s subtitled “Passion of the Christ.” Certainly, nobody would expect anything less from a luminary like Sir Ridley Scott, whose last two films—“The Counselor” and “Prometheus”--excited as much as mystified audiences. Traditional believers may judge “Exodus” a questionable expense. For example, when Moses initially encounters God on the side of a mountain after a mudslide, the former finds himself dealing with an eleven-year old boy who reads him the riot act.  Later, during a subsequent confrontation with this obnoxious urchin, Scott presents the interview from two perspectives. Again, Moses is conversing to a child.  Meanwhile, Joshua eavesdrops on Moses, but all Joshua sees is Moses addressing a rock with nobody present in either human or divine form. Sure, this resembles the movie “Fight Club” (1999) where narrator Edward Norton argues with Brad Pitt, who turns out all-along to have been nothing but Norton’s hallucination of himself. If this kind of nonsense doesn’t bother you, you may enjoy “Exodus,” but I think that depicting God as a petulant punk undermines the gravity of the film. 

Basically, “Exodus” duplicates virtually everything that DeMille showed in his two “Ten Commandments” outings.  The venerable saga concerns oppression and intolerance.  The Egyptians are proud and powerful, while the Jews are poor and powerless. Moses appears and pleads for the release of his people. Predictably, the Egyptians with their architectural enthusiasm for worshipping themselves with massive monuments balk at turning the Jews loose.  Ramses and Moses remain at odds until God intervenes with ten deadly plagues that make Ramses into a believer. The Egyptian ruler releases the Jews, and they head off for Canaan.  A vindictive Ramses has second thoughts and decides to pursue Moses and his minions. The big showdown occurs at the Red Sea where Moses waves his staff and the waters recede just long enough for his people to cross.  Along rampages Ramses with murder on his mind and his army, but he doesn’t arrive in time to take his toll.  Instead, the toll takes him.  This is the stuff of which Sunday school lessons are taught and most movies about the event have depicted. Scott takes exception to several things.  He doesn’t include the adolescent years when Moses and the future ruler Ramses were playmates.  When “Exodus” unfolds, Moses and Ramses are adults and rivals to the throne.  Of course, Ramses’ noble father Seti (John Turturro of “The Big Lebowski”) thinks that Moses has a better head on his shoulders than his petulant son and confides as much in Moses.  Unfortunately, Seti points out that he cannot appoint Moses over his son.  This relationship resembles a similar relationship in Ridley Scott’s earlier epic “Gladiator” (2000) when the dying Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) preferred Maximus (Russell Crowe) to his repellent son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) for the throne.  During a savage war with the Hittites in 1300, Moses displays his martial ardor and saves the once and future pharaoh from certain death in battle. Moses serves chiefly as Seti and Ramses’ advisor.  In other words, he does all the dirty work with which neither wishes to soil their hands and clashes with a corrupt Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”) who reveals Moses’ genuine origins as a Jew. Moses goes into exile and bids farewell to Ramses. Ramses’ mother Tuya (Sigourney Weaver of “Alien”) isn’t as content as her son to let Moses off as easily and sends a pair of fiendish assassins to finish him off.

“Batman Begins” star Christian Bale and “Star Wars” actor Joel Edgerton generate neither chemistry nor camaraderie respectively as a militant Moses and a ramrod-straight Ramses.  Scott and his scenarists want us to believe that these two grew up together in the same house, but they share little in the way of brotherly affection.  Bale’s Moses relies more on the sword than the staff, and this differentiates this cinematic interpretation from Charlton Heston’s Moses.  Scott surrounds these two with a robust supporting cast, including Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro. Sadly, they make only a minor impression.  Mendelsohn registers best as the slimy villain who gets his just comeuppance in the final reel.  The spectacular computer-generated imagery and the craggy scenery—lensed in Spain and the Canary Islands--qualify as top-drawer assets.  The film generates some unforgettable moments during the ten deadly plagues montage, particularly when the crocodiles crunch on fishermen. Clocking in at a leaden 150 minutes, the lackluster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” fares far better as a special effects extravaganza than a faith-based bonanza. 

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