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Entries in Exodus: Gods and Kings [2014] (1)

Saturday
Dec132014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Don't Believe a Word

It's been a great year for the Bible. Love it or hate it, the Good Book has enjoyed some A-list cinematic scrutiny in 2014, beginning with with Darren Aronofsky's Noah,continuing with John Michael McDonagh's Calvary, and rounding out the holidays with Exodus: Gods and Kings--directed by none other than Genre Jesus himself, Sir Ridley Scott.

Contrary to what you may have heard, this two-and-a-half-hour CGI spectacle is not a reading from the Book of Prometheus. Sure, parts of it are distracting and stilted, but Scott and screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zallian have more on their mind than sandals-and-salvation disaster porn. I wrote something similar in my Noah review, but it's a point worth underscoring, in light of the cynicism with which Exodus has been met.

If you haven't read the Old Testament, I assume you've seen The Ten Commandments--or at least seen it parodied on The Simpsons. If not, here's the plot in broad strokes: in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh's (John Turturro) top commander, Moses (Christian Bale), grows a conscience regarding the ruling class's treatment of its slave-labor force. This radical idea pits him against Ramses (Joel Edgerton), his proud but slightly dim adoptive brother--who doesn't want to deal with discontentment once he ascends to the throne. Moses is exiled, and encounters a gypsy tribe and a burning bush in the desert; one renews his spirit, the other orders him to rise up against his former kingdom and free the slaves.

Cue Ramses' defiance, followed by plagues, pestilence, and rivers of bloody water. Scott and company throw in an interesting rebel subplot, wherein Moses trains his lower-class compatriots to fight, to ambush, to believe in the power of their numbers. It all leads to the climactic parting of the Red Sea, in which Moses leads half a million people out of Egypt and into the promised land, with Ramses' army chasing them closely behind.

You may find it challenging to enjoying Exodus on its own terms, due to some unfair criticism and expectations that have been leveled at it. I’ll do my best to dispel these as a means of A) encouraging you to check out the film before it disappears from theatres and B) doing so without any media-bullshit baggage.

First, there's the casting controversy. Many have fussed over Fox's hiring a bunch of Caucasians to play ancient Egyptians. I’ll confess, it took about a half hour for me to get over the hodgepodge of Brit, faux-Brit, and nakedly American accents—along with the WTF shock of seeing Turturro as the Pharaoh.* 

Thankfully, Bale is a great actor. It can be tricky to remember beyond the Dark Knight trilogy and that Godawful Terminator sequel, but beneath the movie star glam and lights-smashing ego is a gifted performer who effortlessly sells Moses’ journey from conflicted leader to identity-challenged wanderer to reluctant head of a chosen nation. For his part, Edgerton paints a simultaneously compelling and pathetic Ramses, an essentially good but gullible fool who was raised as a god. His hubris in the face of genuine miracles and constant upstaging by his illegitimate brother are understandable, if not exactly relatable, and Edgerton's villain proudly maintains cinema's fine tradition of dangerous idiots.

Sure, it would be great if any of the hundreds of equally gifted, ethnically diverse actors worldwide got a shot at playing these marquee parts. But no studio is going to spend tens of millions of dollars to make and promote a sprawling, star-free blockbuster—because they’re aware of the slim-to-none odds of enough people showing up in order for their film to make a profit. If you’re truly concerned with the “whitewashing” of Hollywood, vote with your wallet and use your social networking skills to mass-boycott the next dozen Transformers and Marvel movies. Make record-breakers out of Selma, instead--or Get On Up, or any of the other “minority"-headlined films you’ve never heard of. Then set your sights on foreign films (“Eeew, subtitles!”), and maybe we’ll get somewhere.

Next, let's look at the myth that Exodus is nothing more than computer-generated spectacle. It's easy to pick on the shpynx with Edgerton's face; the rolling storm clouds and thousand-foot-tall Red Sea walls from the trailer; or the fact that the swarm of locusts were very clearly Z-ordered onto footage of actors directed to swat frantically (and badly, at that). But one should not take for granted the practical artistry on display here. The costumes are magnificent, and there are more practical sets than you'd expect--all of which help create a truly immersive Egypt, one whose ruling and slave classes are drawn in gloriously evocative contrast.

With a $140,000,000 budget, one would expect that Scott to have all the toys at his disposal, but Exodus swings for the visual fences, top to bottom. The attention to detail speaks to the kind of movie the filmmakers thought they were making, which is to say, artful rather than disposable.

And about those CG effects: how can you not marvel at the climactic chariot pursuit through that narrow mountain pass? As the cliffs crumble away and men and horses plummet to their bone-cracking doom, Scott and his team of effects artists create a couple minutes of genuine horror and drama. I knew that I wasn't seeing anything real, but there was a moment when I caught myself asking, "How did they do that?"

The same goes for the dramatic Red Sea set piece, in which Moses and his people must scramble across miles of jagged beach to escape Ramses' forces. Instead of simply rendering a clear pathway, Scott oversees a spooky confluence of divine wrath that includes tornadoes, lightning, and impossibly high, pregnant walls of water. There's a keen orchestration between the visual effects and the emotional showdown between Moses and Ramses that signifies a director engaged--a man who, it seems, has settled for a digital solution in lieu of the power to actually control the weather.

Lastly, Exodus is not an endorsement of religion. It's an interpretation of a religious story and, like Noah, the material benefits from a secular approach and three-dimensional thought on the part of the filmmakers. This will no doubt be a polarizing movie, and may even be a money-losing proposition for Fox. Fundamentalists may tune out when the burning bush doesn't talk to Moses. Non-religious people will use the two-and-a-half hours they would have spent with Exodus bitching in forums about how Ridley Scott has lost his touch and/or sold out to the imaginary Christian ruling class.

Again, it's essential that you look at the film on its own merits. For an example of the richness therein, let's talk about that burning bush. When Moses awakens from an avalanche that's knocked him unconscious, he sees the famous illuminated shrub. Between him and the ostensible voice of God sits a sour-faced little boy (Isaac Andrews). The boy speaks, the bush does not. In this disorienting moment, we're left to wonder if perhaps the writers have inserted the Devil between man and God.

We learn very quickly that the boy is God, and that Moses finds himself taking orders from an omnipotent but very petty and vengeful deity--the God of the Old Testament. They have many encounters throughout the film, some of which are meant to make us wonder if those rocks hit Moses a little too hard. In the end, God's vision is one of peace for "His" people, but the road to freedom is paved with mountains of corpses, on both sides--not to mention the sticky question of how and where 600,000 refugees can settle in a land that already has an indigenous population.

Exodus looks at faith from several angles, and asks us to really consider what we believe or don't believe. Though you'll be hard pressed to find any atheists in the story, cosmic doubters teem behind the scenes, raising lots of interesting questions about what it means to devote one's life to interpretations of myth. Ramses bows to a polytheistic cadre of absentee golden gods; Moses follows an inconsistent but undeniably powerful destroyer of worlds; Moses's gypsy wife (Maria Valverde) insists that the god of her people would never ask a man to leave behind his family in order to go to war.

This rivalry of uncertainty isn't confined to the past,; it persists today in a world still eating itself over beliefs, resources, and countless cults of personality. The true secrets of the universe and the meaning of life elude us, just as an ant knows relatively nothing of the iPhone it crawls across. In the grand scheme of things, who's to say if there's any meaning to the Exodus's events--and, if there is, what that meaning actually...um, means?

Exodus is a not a particularly moving experience (thanks to some of the blocks to immersion mentioned above), but it can be a mentally engaging one and a feast for the eyes. This is Ridley Scott getting back to ideas wrapped in visual splendor, rather than hanging his hat on branding (Robin Hood, anyone?). Your reaction to those ideas, or even your ability to recognize them, largely depends on what you bring with you into the theatre. My advice for maximum enjoyment: don't believe everything you read--even this review.

*Things got so grim that I drifted into “Six Degrees of Alien”, in which I connected Scott to Sigourney Weaver, with a dotted line to Ewan Bremner from AvP.