By HOWARD BARBANEL
Ridley Scott is no Cecil B. DeMille. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What it means is that Scott’s new epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is as much a product of our high-tech new-millennium era as The Ten Commandments was of the Eisenhower gray-flannel suit period.
Scott has crafted a big picture — and not just because of the excellent 3-D effects (this film really ought to be seen in 3-D) — but because it tackles one of history’s most dramatic events with the scope, breadth and grandeur it calls for. To the viewer it seems as though no expense was spared in recreating ancient Egypt, right down to every pyramid, sword, sandal and piece of body armor. The verisimilitude is so exact that in this respect, DeMille’s sets seem cheap by comparison and DeMille spent a fortune.
Scott (and DeMille) tells us the story of Moses from the Bible’s Book of Exodus, from his early years as a prince of Egypt through the giving of the Ten Commandments. Scott takes great dramatic liberties with the biblical narrative. For Bible literati, Scott’s deviations and interpretations from the actual text can be maddeningly frustrating. Like DeMille, Scott relegates Moses’ brother Aaron to a peripheral role. Aaron just can’t get any respect in these cinematic versions of the Exodus story. Scott does away with a lot of the face-to-face confrontations between Moses and Ramses during the plagues period and he dispenses entirely with the pillar of cloud and fire that was one of the analog special effects masterpieces of the DeMille film and that is a critical part of the written story.
Moses’ first encounter with God is depicted agnostically, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not. Moses gets hit in the head by a big rock and awakens to what his wife tells him later was a hallucination from a probable concussion. The Almighty is depicted throughout the film as a cherubic messenger in the form of a little boy with a thick English accent that only Moses can see — this is another major divergence from the written account.
Initially, Moses returns to Egypt from Midian intent on mounting a guerilla-style insurrection against Pharaoh. While this notion of partisans battling the fascists is very romantic and will probably play well in certain Israeli precincts, this never happened. God (in the form of the little British boy) has to convince Moses to let him do the heavy lifting in the form of the Ten Plagues.
The Plagues are where Scott’s movie shines brightest. His crocodiles, frogs, boils, hail; locusts, darkness and smiting the Nile with blood are all exceptionally well imagined and executed. The final plague of the killing of the Egyptian first born is probably the only one that falls short, with DeMille’s green fog representing the Angel of Death having greater dramatic and visual impact. Given that Scott had today’s computer generated graphics and effects at his disposal only enhances my admiration for DeMille’s hand-made plagues and effects that were often crafted out of whole cloth or painted in frame by frame.
The apex of the movie (as it should be) is the splitting of the Red Sea. Here, Scott is true to the biblical account of a strong wind gradually blowing the water aside and his depiction of the crashing down of the sea on the Egyptian soldiers and their chariots is masterful.
Christian Bale is probably the best celluloid Moses since Charlton Heston. He’s dashing. He’s manly. He’s smart. He’s heroic. He can also remind you of Batman (one of his prior screen roles) in that he’s got the same somber moralistic tone in both parts. Bale has been playing a bunch of Jews lately. As New York Jewish con man Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle he gives a tour de force performance of a despicable Jew whereas in Exodus he shows us the diametric, idealized opposite.
Scott reaches back to his 2000 masterpiece Gladiator for the casting and presentation of the Pharaoh Ramses the Great played by Joel Edgerton in what can only be described as full Joaquin Phoenix mode. Nothing Yul Brenner-ish about him. Edgerton’s Pharaoh could easily be mistaken for Phoenix’s Emperor Commodus, right down to the dynamic between him, his father Seti I and Moses (in the same way as it was between Commodus, Marcus Aurelius and Russell Crowe’s Maximus). No one who unworthily inherits the crown can be expected to be noble and he will get his comeuppance. Our hero will have his revenge either in this world or the next.
The great thespian surprise of the film is John Turturro as Pharaoh Seti I — this role is a significant departure from Turturro’s typical performances and shows that Turturro actually has great range and ability beyond the quirky roles of Barton Fink or as Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski. Turturro plays a very believable Pharaoh and helps ground the first part of the film.
What Exodus lacks is the plethora of character actors who populated DeMille’s film — people like Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, and Anne Baxter as the leering, venal and narcissistic Neferteri. Scott’s bringing in of Ben Kingsley (dull) and Sigourney Weaver (playing a stiff WASP matron in Egypt) isn’t enough to give Exodus a dash of wit. At nearly two and a half hours, Exodus needs some humor and light moments and seems to run longer than the actually much lengthier Ten Commandments.
Is Exodus worth seeing? Absolutely. A great film for our time? You bet. Something that we’ll be watching every year as a ritual some 50 or more years from now like the DeMille film? Probably not. Will it hold up as well as Gladiator? Maybe not. But it’s worth the price of admission just for the plagues and the Red Sea in 3-D.