The Biblical epic made a sudden comeback last year with two major studio films taking on stories from the Old Testament, ground no studio had tackled in a very long time. The first, Darren Aronofsky’s spectacular ‘Noah’ was a daring piece of filmmaking, refusing to stick to convention and aggressively deconstructing the story it was based on. We’re here to talk about the second, though: Ridley Scott’s gargantuan retelling of the story of Moses. But while ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ is the definition of an epic, does it ever become anything more than a visual feast?
The story is essentially the same as the age-old tale, with Moses (Christian Bale), once an adopted Egyptian prince, now fighting for the liberation of his Hebrew people from the tyrannical power of Pharaoh Ramases (Joel Edgerton), who he once thought of as a brother. Conceptually, the approach to the story is surprisingly fresh, somehow managing to balance a gritty realism with the unavoidable presence of a divine power. The problem is, concepts are all well and good, but if they aren’t executed well, they don’t amount to much, and ‘Exodus’ fails where it really doesn’t need to. The screenplay is a bit of a mess, hampered down by hammy dialogue and badly developed characters. It has a number of hands all over it, not least of all Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian, and I suspect the more intelligent elements (such as Moses’ surprisingly unnerving debates with God) are thanks to him, but these are jewels among the mud. What could have been a really exciting and intelligent retelling just ends up as something conventional and uninspiring.
SWITCH: 'EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS' TRAILER
The casting doesn’t help either. Much has been written about the problematic racial casting of the film in regards to the Egyptians, but even without bring up the racial issues, casting Joel Edgerton or Ben Mendelsohn as Egyptians just isn’t believable in the slightest and becomes a real problem. Edgerton does the best he can, but he just looks lost in the scale of the film, but Mendelsohn is shockingly, almost offensively, awful. Christian Bale is actually a surprisingly fantastic Moses, giving one of his better performances. The supporting cast however are totally wasted, actors like Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul basically given nothing to do. Apart from Bale, everyone just seems horribly miscast, which just makes the short fallings in the screenplay even more frustrating.
But let’s be honest, there’s only one reason anyone would want to see this film, and that’s Ridley Scott, and this is where ‘Exodus’ saves itself. Scott is one of the few directors who can execute the epic style with any kind of skill or artistry, and ‘Exodus’ is amongst his most impressive work. The film is a visual marvel, lush cinematography and production design complemented by spectacular visual effects. In fact, where the film truly sings is where the performances and screenplay are swept aside and Scott can do what he does best. The plagues sequence is an absolute corker, daring and unforgiving, and the climactic Red Sea sequence is an enormous visual achievement. His recent films haven’t always been that great, but Scott is still a master craftsman, and even amongst its mess, ‘Exodus’ has many moments of genuine grace and artistry that only make its flaws more distressing.
It’s impossible to ignore the problems in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, only a fraction of which I’ve been able to cover, but if you’re able to find a way to look past them, it still has a lot going for it. Then again, did we really need another film about the story of Moses? Perhaps its biggest flaw is that it never fully answers that question. It might be another example of how impressive a visual storyteller Ridley Scott is, but it’s also another of how little he seems to have to say anymore. Watch for the gob-smacking visuals but don’t expect much else.
It’s impossible to ignore the problems, but if you’re able to find a way to look past them, it still has a lot going for it.
PICTURE & SOUND
"Gob-smacking" is a pretty good description of Fox’s Blu-ray presentation of ‘Exodus’. The 1080p 2.40:1 transfer is partially flawless, as you would expect from a film shot digitally like this one. The detail and clarity is stunning, and the muted colours look beautiful in high definition. The 3D presentation is also very impressive, but Scott hasn’t taken as full advantage of the medium as one would expect, so while it’s technically impressive it doesn’t add much artistically to the film. There’s also the thunderous DTS-HD MA 7.1 track that throws everything at the audience. The dialogue and score might be forgettable, but the track at least gives it respect and takes full advantage of the remarkable sound design.
If there’s any one reason to get your hands on this 3-disc Collector's Edition set, it’s for the special features - over five hours of material. Scott has maintained a strong working relationship with documentary maker Charles de Lauzirika, who with most of Scott’s films, has complemented it with remarkable behind-the-scenes material. His work on ‘Exodus’ is no exception, the centrepiece being the mammoth documentary ‘Keeper of the Covenant - Making Exodus: Gods and Kings’. At over two and a half hours, it covers every aspect of the production in stunning detail, combining behind-the-scenes footage with interviews with the cast and crew. There’s also a series of enhancement pods which add an extra 45-minutes of material. In many ways, it’s more fascinating than the film itself.
That’s just one highlight of the set though. There’s extensive galleries of images and material covering every aspect of the production, a documentary on the historical importance of Moses, a series of deleted scenes and an excellent audio commentary with Scott and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine. With most major Blu-ray releases falling short in terms of the material they offer fans of the film, this set is an example of how it really should be done.