I’ll tell you one thing about Christian Bale, the guy can rock a formidable beard when he wants to. It is telling when my first comment about Ridley Scott’s latest swords and sandals epic is a quip about Bale’s beard. Before I go on an extended rant of sorts it’s worth saying first, Exodus: Gods and Kings is not a bad film, but it does suffer from a few factors that have (no pun intended) plagued a few films in recent years.
The primary factor driving this plague is director power. People like Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott… they’ve got to points in their careers where they can do as they please. Whether that’s story, casting, characters, or simply indulging in the things that they seemingly love the most about making movies. (For Tarantino it’s overblown dialogue, for Scott and Jackson it’s superfluous special effects.)
With Exodus it appears Scott has passed the point of no return. I’ve been convinced his star has been on the wane for years. (I mean, at what point can you continue to ride the success of Gladiator? It’s fifteen years old now.) For this one we all know the story: Moses (Christian Bale) gets visions from God and, following plagues and more inflicted on the Egyptians, he leads his people from slavery to freedom via a crossing of the Red Sea.
Before he becomes a shepherd and starts with the visions, he begins the film as an Egyptian General, fighting battles alongside his buddy Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). After the death of his father Seti (John Turturro) Ramesses assumes power and starts to show much more of his evil side. Following certain events Ramesses finds out Moses is a Hebrew and banishes him. Thereafter begins Moses: The Shepherd Years.
To return to an earlier point, the parallels between Exodus and Gladiator are clear to see and numerous. Both films have a General that is banished/exiled by an increasingly deranged leader. Both have lead characters that had to deal with the death of a father figure. The comparisons go on, but if you watch the film you’ll see for yourself.
For a bit of balance it’s worth noting, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s not all bad. Scott does give us a smattering of scenes that explore the nature of faith and belief. With each plague that rains down upon the evil Egyptians we’re left wondering, do they deserve it? And Edgerton’s Ramesses, whilst clearly misguided and straight up evil in some ways, gives us glimpses of his softer, more human side. He’s a caring father and simply cannot comprehend why bad things keep happening. If you believe you’re a God and slaves are slaves, why would you think any different?
Sticking with casting though, other than Bale and Edgerton, the rest of this top-notch cast get very, very little to do. Sigourney Weaver has maybe two lines, as does Ben Mendelsohn and Aaron Paul. Sir Ben Kingsley does the best of the supporting cast, he gets about five lines.
The overwhelming impression I got from this film, was that Scott was more interested in showing us special effects than he was about exploring character (criminal really, given the cast list) and the nature of faith and belief. By all means, show us spectacle. Give us action. But do it to support your story and your characters. Otherwise it’s just window dressing.