This review is also up at Channel 24.
What it's about
You know the story. Sent down the Nile river in a basket to avoid Pharoah's decree of the drowning of all baby boys new-born to their Jewish (or “Israelite”) slaves, Moses was saved by Pharaoh's daughter who raised him as her own in Pharaoh's court. As he grows older though, Moses is made aware of his alien lineage and through a particularly uncanny encounter with a burning bush, his destiny is revealed to him: to stand up and lead his nation out of their bondage in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan.
What we thought
As a practicing Jew, I am, shall we say, quite familiar with the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. It's an event that is seen as perhaps the crucial moment in the formation of the Jewish people and is not only alluded to constantly in Jewish prayers, it is something we retell in its entirety on Seder night (or on two consecutive Seder nights for those of us living outside of Israel) every single year. But then, it's hardly only Jews that are intimately familiar with this particularly archetypal story: even die-hard atheists would no doubt have come across the story of Moses countless times in their lives. Whether it's catching the Ten Commandments on your generic Classic Movies channel or reading a Superman comic book, this story has permeated Western culture in a way that arguably nothing – save perhaps for the not too dissimilar tale of Jesus Christ – has before or since.
With this in mind then, any attempt to bring this very well-tread story to the big screen once again does need a certain amount of novelty – or, at the very least, visceral power – for it to have a chance of making any sort of impact at all. Sadly, while Ridley Scoot's Exodus: Gods and Kings offers beautiful visuals, strong performances and an epic scale, it really doesn't offer anything to stop this particular retelling from feeling very, very old hat.
In contrast to Darren Aronofsky's Noah, which – love it or hate it – offered a decidedly fresh and audacious take on that particular Biblical tale by treating it first and foremost as myth and by drawing on everything from ancient Midrashic texts to the most modern liberal interpretations of the lessons implicit in the story of Noah and the Ark, Scott's telling of the Exodus could hardly be blander.
While it would be disingenuous to claim that that Exodus: Gods and Kings is simply a literal, word-for-word retelling of the Biblical story, Scott has almost done something worse. Going in completely the opposite direction to Aronofsky, Scott has bled out every last drop of both the mythical and the religious from the story and instead presents a quite unbelievable and undoubtedly anemic historical and “realistic” take on these events.
Whether you view the story of the Exodus as a historical event or not, its real power - like all Biblical stories, come to think of it – comes from its mythological and religious aspects. This is a story that uses magnificent, larger-than-life imagery and a particularly singular heroic figure to tell us profound things about what it is to be human (again, there's a reason why Superman is cut out of exactly the same cloth as Moses) and, on more religious levels, to offer us a glimpse into how God interacts with the world – ya know, if you believe that sort of thing.
Obviously, it would be ridiculous to expect or want a sermon from a major Hollywood film but Scott's decision to drain all that is mythic from this story (see: his half-hearted “scientific” depiction of the plagues to his hilariously daft representation of God) robs it of nearly all its power. As for Moses himself, Scott reduces a compellingly interesting figure who was neither a warrior, nor a natural leader (the Biblical Moses suffered from a major speech impediment his whole life) into, would you know it, a slightly crazed warrior and grand speech-giver. Only Moses' (kind of altered) reluctance to lead remains in place. Christian bale does a fine job with the role as he is, undoubtedly, a very, very fine actor but he really isn't given very much to work with here.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is admittedly a major step up from the jaw-dropping awfulness of Ridley Scott's last film, the Counsellor, but I very strongly doubt if it will rate as much more than a footnote in the legacy of this archetypal Biblical story.