Moses wants Ramesses to let his people go. Plagues ensue.
The more films I see by Ridley Scott, the more he feels like a criminally overrated director.
The Duellists is a fine starting point and Alien is undoubtedly seminal but I’ve never been that taken with Blade Runner, beyond its obviously influential style. And since then its s decidedly mixed bag – Gladiator is a trashy fun and I’m very fond of the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, which might be the most gorgeous movie ever filmed but otherwise it’s a big pile of meh.
On the one hand, given his experience with spectacle, I understand why he was called up to bring the tale of Exodus to the big screen but on the other hand… I reiterate my meh.
There’s scale to spare in this vision of the bible story, in the fashion of the long lost sword and sandal epics. The cast of thousands spreads across the very wide screen and the plagues are thrust forward at the audience – perhaps notable this is Scott’s first 3D feature.
There are big characters too, most obviously Christian Bale’s Moses who does good beard, goes nuts and really gets behind the notion of slave emancipation after finding out he’s a bit Hebrew. And Bale really goes for it, matching the kind of level you need to compete with the often decent special effects.
On the other side you have Joel Edgerton, who essays Ramesses as the kind of dude you might quite like to have a beer with. Soft-spoken and fairly reasonable, even if he’s blinkered by his privileged position, he seems genuinely concerned and confused by what’s happening with his former brother, especially when the plagues start to come full force.
This disconnect is indicative of the generally piecemeal feel behind Exodus. The script goes out of its way to give real-world explanations for horrific plagues but they’re still pointedly seen to have been started by God – who for some reason is embodied as a child called Malak.
And what is the point of the experience? Are we seeing what Scott thinks actually happened during the reign of Ramesses II? Is it history or parable? Blockbusting spectacle or a film designed to make you think about religion and the good and evil of zealotry.
But if you can brush all that aside (which will be a bigger ask for some people than others) Exodus is actually kind of fun. It’s rare to see spectacle on this scale nowadays, and the evocation of 1300 B.C. Egypt is detailed and often awe-inspiring. Taken in the right light, the shifts in tone are kind of amusing, especially if you try to imagine what the entire experience is like from the perspective of poor old Ramesses.
Scott conjures up a few stirring images throughout – though less than you might think at the Red Sea – and the performances are committed but Exodus is ultimately too vapid to linger long in the memory. Perhaps the inevitable director’s cut will be an improvement.