Earlier this year we had Noah so, with the Old Testament being the must-adapt book of the moment, Exodus: Gods And Kings seems a logical step. Because while millions of people may read The Hunger Games and 50 Shades Of Grey they’re not stories that are etched in human consciousness, maybe because they don’t involve Gods And Kings.
Exodus tells of Moses (Christian Bale) as he fights side-by-side with his adopted brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), the son of Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). But when a high priestess’ prediction that Moses will become a great leader begins to come true Ramses is worried and appalled to learn that Moses is in fact one of the Hebrews he exploits as slaves. Cast out of Egypt Moses learns the truth about his heritage and with the aid of a determined yet vengeful God sets about freeing his people from the whips and chains of Ramses.
Director Ridley Scott is a world builder, he has been his whole career. Here is a director who doesn’t just set a film in a particular place or era, he takes you there, transporting you utterly to the point where upon leaving the cinema you find yourself disorientated. Exodus is no exception, as with Gladiator you are in Moses’ world; a world of vast, sprawling landscapes, deserts of scorched earth and the opulence of Egypt under the Pharaohs.
This is not modern day filmmaking. This is epic, as big as the eye and imagination can cope with, it’s Ben Hur style filmmaking with the help of smartly executed CGI to enhance rather than completely create the visuals. An opening battle sequence allows Scott to start wide as two vast armies, the kind that make the opening scene of Gladiator look like a small skirmish, square-off against each other before taking us into the grit and violence of the hand-to-hand combat.
More than anything else Exodus is an absolute orgy for the eyes. It wouldn’t be surprising in years to come for people to be freeze-framing large portions of the shots in the film and selling them as fine art. It really is that epic, indeed biblical, in its execution. Scott, aided by the majestic cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, paints on the biggest canvas imaginable, littering his shots with preying vultures and apocalyptic clouds moody enough to make John Constable quiver with fear. And all this before a single plague has engulfed Egypt, because when they do Scott cranks it up to eleven, unleashing flies, locusts, blood-rivers and the rest on such a scale you’ll find yourself mesmerised by the sheer ambition of it all.
As with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Exodus takes a few minor liberties with it’s Bible origins but only so far as to allow it to tell a grander story. While the narrative may sometimes lag, the introduction of Moses’ wife does little to really add much to the film, the themes on offer are enormous and always thrilling to witness. In particular the idea that God is personified as a petulant child rings true when mirrored with Ramses’ similar attitude of screaming “I am a god”. It’s a theme and concept that may offend some but resonates powerfully throughout and, given the modern audience, explores the idea that power is a corrupting element in anyone’s hands.
So with Scott bringing the epic, God making us quake and the ever-so-slightly camp Egyptians making us smile it’s left to Christian Bale to ground us in a reality we can believe in. And in Exodus more than any of his previous work he has you transfixed in his ability to carry a story. His Moses is at first cocky, a dashing leader who titters at his adopted family’s belief in false prophecies and superstition. But as his faith is slowly awoken so he becomes a tormented, often conflicted man. Opposite him Joel Edgerton is typically dependable. His Ramses is never a boo-hiss villain but a power-hungry despot anxious to be rid of the niggle that Mosses could usurp him. When the plagues arrive Edgerton treads a fantastic line between anxious leader, worried parent and stubborn General. Watching Bale and Edgerton go toe-to-toe, mentally rather than physically, is a genuine treat, the unstoppable force coming up against the immovable object.
The kind of grand, epic, jaw-dropping film that would make David Lean delight, Exodus: Gods And Kings is worthy of both its subjects thanks to Ridley Scott’s staggering, ambitious and breath-taking visuals.