‘How would you describe this epic undertaking?’ Ridley Scott is asked at the premiere of his latest blockbuster in Leicester Square on Wednesday night. ‘Epic’, he agrees. As does Christian Bale, Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton, Maria Valverde and all the rest of the cast and crew interviewed on the red carpet. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is an epic film, directed by an epic guy, starring big names and based on perhaps the most epic story of all: the journey of Moses and his people out of Egypt and into the holy land.
It seems to be the only word that anyone can bleat out about the film, as if they have all been snake-charmed into an Egyptian trance, so overwhelming is the size of it. And yes, the movie is visually spectacular on a grand scale for even the Grandaddy of Grandiose, with set pieces helmed by production designer Arthur Max to rival pretty much any historical epic you can think of, including Scott’s own. As usual, his attention to detail (from the Cleopatra-type make up to the golden royal wear to the guerilla slave quarters) could not be more polished. And there’s no other director that can drum up the momentum of a fight scene like Ridley, with the opening battle of EXODUS whip-lashing the viewer straight into frantic-paced action whilst simultaneously rooting it into a clearly contrived brother dynamic (more on that later).
Next to epic, ‘frantic’ would be the other optimum word here. There is something oddly hysterical about the 77 year-old hyperactive filmmaker in general, which is starting to imprint on his films (NB: Do Not See THE COUNSELOR, released last year). Is EXODUS a film about the kind of visual perfection you can achieve with bags of money, a handful of movie stars and Hollywood’s finest reputation, or a true telling of a story for the story’s sake? There are no holes in Scott’s work anymore – no room for the spontaneous magic that elevated his earlier efforts into legend. Increasingly nowadays, it’s all poly-filled with gloss to a meticulous degree.
Alas, all the flame-throwing sword-charging gold pant-wearing gladiators, gods and generals in the world cannot mask what is essentially an offensive re-telling of a story that has already been done pretty well. Thinking of Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1956? Go more musically outfitted and less human. Yes, I talk of THE PRINCE OF EGYPT released in 1998, which, although is an animated children’s film, captured the true spirit of the story perfectly.
Some people might be confused as to where Bale, Edgerton and Kingsley are in this movie. Rest assured that they are there, just under 12 layers of fake tan to make them look more middle-Eastern. Scott’s decision to cast Bale and Edgerton as the leading brothers, Moses and Ramses, which he has claimed was a financial choice in order to secure backing and minimize risk, is hard to ignore, especially as they are surrounded by black and Arab supporting actors. This is further indication that it is less about Moses the man of an oppressed peoples (for surely it would have been respectful to honor his origins?) and more about the peacock-posing Patriarchy of celebrities and our reverence of them that can be reflected in Ramses’ Egyptian court. So the splendor is apt, but the story has been twisted, and we’re coming at it from the wrong starting point.
Nevertheless, EXODUS is a meaty, 3D viewing experience with ceaseless adrenalin-inducing powers. There are some great supporting roles in Team Ramses such as Ben Medelsohn as Hegep, the viciously self-interested viceroy, who brings a homoerotic flamboyance to the court with his suggestive, expressive body language, and Ewen Bremner, conniving and charismatic as he always is as one of the Pharaoh’s advisers. Despite the questionable casting, there is no doubt that the dynamic between Edgerton’s Ramses and Bale’s Moses has been carefully constructed in layers of love, respect and rivalry, adding a believable maturity to their relationship that has never been there before in cinema. The tenuous string of their friendship quivers with strain from the get-go, when Moses saves his step-brother’s life in the battle against Hittites, fulfilling a threatening prophecy that isn’t taken lightly by the uber-superstitious Egyptians. Moses is then cast out from his home, his identity in tatters, and his skeptical view of the God of Israel about to be rebirthed with the help of wise old Nun (Ben Kingsley) and the hard-hide slave Joshua (Aaron Paul).
A truly wowing spectacle unfolds as the plagues of God rain down on Egypt in a forty minute montage. However, I would find it hard to believe that anyone who has glanced at the news in the last 8 months could have watched the ‘death of all firstborns’ scene without being instantly reminded of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It is a emotionally manipulative moment that can’t do justice to the reality of the subject matter, and to me felt tastelessly handled. It is this disconnection to a wider view of how the story of Moses might be relevant now that makes EXODUS seem a self-satisfying project and an exercise in power. More distaste ensues in that all the female characters of the film serve as opulent decoration. It felt bizarre and wrong to see action-heroine Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mute, albeit very regal-looking thanks to Janty Yates costume design, mother Tuya, and Valverde as Moses’ wife Séfora as not the strong mother of the Hebrews but a simpering flower.
So overall, the journey of EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS leads us not to liberation as viewers but to the inevitable truth of power, money and divine right which excludes most. Scott chose to play God, and this is where the film, regardless of how epicly beautiful it is, misses the point and terminally trips itself up.