It’s little wonder Ridley Scott’s Gladiator stormed the box office and the Oscars in 2000, considering the dearth of sword and sandal epics in the preceding decades. Scott breathed new life into a genre that reached its peak in the 1950’s and 60’s with dozens of star-studded blockbusters like Cleopatra (1963), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Spartacus (1960), Ben-Hur (1959), and The Ten Commandments (1956). Filmgoers hadn’t seen anything like Gladiator for at least a generation, and it initiated a new era for ancient history/mythology epics that has included Troy, 300 (twice), Clash of the Titans, and this year alone--Pompeii, Hercules, and Noah.
Director: Ridley Scott
Producers: Peter Chernin, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott
Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
Editor: Billy Rich
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Isaac Andrews
US Theatrical Release: December 12, 2014
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Most of those inspired imitations failed both commercially and critically, and with Exodus: Gods and Kings you can almost hear the 77 year-old Scott channel Russell Crowe’s gladiatorial taunt, “Are you not entertained?!”. The three-time Oscar-nominated director is indeed a great entertainer, but his better movies (Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise) have a heart, soul, and personality absent from his lesser ones (Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies, American Gangster, Robin Hood). Exodus falls into the second group, a visually spectacular but emotionally empty exercise in rote storytelling, lacking any bold vision or inspiration that can’t be achieved through computer-generated effects.
Nearly sixty years after Cecil B. Demille’s classic The Ten Commandments, Scott’s update adds basically nothing new to the story. The film takes us through the first third of the Book of Exodus—among the most seminal books in the Christian Bible and also the foundation of the Torah, Judaism’s most important text. After Pharaoh (Joel Edgerton)—identified in Exodus as Ramses, though that’s historically questionable—discovers that his adopted brother Moses (Christian Bale) is actually descended from Hebrew slaves, he banishes Moses to the wilderness.
There Moses eventually encounters God in the form of a burning bush, or in the case of Exodus, the form of a little boy (Scott’s only interesting artistic decision, and a controversial one). God sends Moses back to Egypt to free his fellow Hebrews, and Pharaoh’s rejections of the divine demands bring on plagues, death, and ultimately one of the greatest miracles of all time in the parting of the Red Sea. It’s one of the greatest stories ever told, and still has resonance with modern-day Middle East geopolitics.
The visual effects in Exodus are awe-inspiring, and several scenes—a battle with Hittites, the race to the Red Sea and storming of its beach—are masterstrokes of cinematography, complex direction and staging. Let it be said that no other director in Hollywood can make a rain of arrows as beautifully mesmerizing as Ridley Scott. Speaking of which, the violence and body count in Exodus push the PG-13 rating to its limit, adding essential gravity to the story. Scott’s plagues are much more horrifying than those faced by Yul Brenner in 1956, the bloody Nile bubbling over with vicious crocodiles and decomposing fish, and flies and locusts buzzing and blasting the Egyptians from every side.
But there’s an unscripted plague in Exodus nearly as frightening as the rest: the acting. Much has been made about Scott’s decision to cast white European, Australian, and American actors in every role of significance, tone-deaf not only because it’s 2014, but because DeMille’s film was guilty of the same cinematic sin (albeit in a much different time in society). Scott’s argument is that studios would only bankroll a production featuring recognizable actors, but whatever the reason, it stands out all the more because a.) none of these actors do justice to their roles other than Bale and Ben Kingsley, and b.) there are as many accents heard as there are locusts swarming the city (a Scottish advisor to Pharaoh being my favorite). One could be forgiven for confusing the Exodus story with that of the Tower of Babel.
The production occasionally resembles an amateur student film, with actors excited to dress in costumes and inconsistently applied makeup and ham it up for the camera. Have some fun for yourself and don’t look at the cast list before you see Exodus—just watch it and laugh along as another recognizable face pops up. Nearly as bad as the acting is the film’s screenplay, which is adapted rather faithfully from its scriptural source material but then bogged down with inane exchanges. What’s meant to be tender-hearted pillow talk between Moses and his wife is awkward and anachronistic, though thankfully we’re spared any misplaced sex scenes.
Arriving during the lead up to both Christian and Jewish holidays, Exodus appears primed to do well at the box office. It’s a striking reboot of The Ten Commandments but lacks deeper ambition, featuring more style than substance and achieving no higher level of meaning than Demille’s classic. A new generation may prefer its modern sheen, but years from now Exodus will likely end up in the cinematic Red Sea, swept up in the tide of recent epics ironically loosed by Scott himself.