RIDLEY SCOTT delivers another sword & sandal epic with EXODUS – the story of war general MOSES and the Egyptian Pharaoh RAMSES. The film portrays the events in more historical manner rather than a focus on the Religious aspects.
We still get the grand battles Scott is known for (from previous movies like the Oscar nominated GLADIATOR and the underrated KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), but we also get conflicted characters “wrestling” with the idea of God.
CHRISTIAN BALE stars as Moses. He doesn’t know his backstory like we do, but the familiar tale is kept in tact. We are focused on his adult years, as he leads Egypt into battle against the Hittites. We meet him as a family man. We follow him through his exile, and his return to set his people free.
Bale portrays a Moses who doesn’t follow popular religion. He is a man who may have given up on faith. It isn’t until he learns of his true heritage that he reconsiders his view on the world. We see him wrestle with his own blood. He is raised a proud (and arrogant) Egyptian. He feels superior. He doesn’t want to consider he comes from such a low beginning as a Hebrew.
The inner conflict is demonstrated with Bale’s immense talent. The unspoken moments carry so much more weight due to Bale’s influence. He always seems to inhabit the character’s inner world. As much as he may change his exterior physique, I feel like he focuses just as much energy on the interior aspects.
JOEL EDGERTON portrays the Egyptian Man-God Ramses. For me, he felt like the convenient antagonist he is characterized as. I don’t feel like the role is fully explored in the screenplay. There were a few moments where he could externalize his own inner conflicts, but they were few and far between. We don’t have the high grade villain that JOAQUIN PHOENIX was in Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR. The standout scene for me was when Ramses threatened Moses’ sister with a sword.
Essentially, Ramses is forced by the plagues from God more than Moses’ efforts to free the Israelites. While Moses demands Ramses to “Let my people go”, it seems like the message falls on deaf ears. I liked how Ramses felt there was no way the man he grew up with and fought side by side with could be Hebrew.
I like how he wrestles with his own ego, which has been nurtured into him from a young age. The best moments demonstrate how “brothers” can be so different, and how their opposition can be created by false ideals. Nothing real separates them – only their false egos.
The supporting cast is filled with top notch talent. We have JOHN TURTURRO as Ramses’ father, the sick and dying Pharaoh. We have SIGOURNEY WEAVER in a small role as Ramses’ mother, who thrives for more and more power. We have BEN KINGSLEY as Egyptian engineer and inventor KHNUM, in a role I wish would have been further expanded upon. We also have AARON PAUL (Jesse from BREAKING BAD) in a pivotal but underwritten role as Moses second-hand man. I feel like he definitely has the talent for more screentime here.
I suppose the overly long film was trimmed, and Paul’s role was largely excised in the process. It would have been nice to see a confrontation between him and Moses. I like how he observes Moses talking to God. He seems curious, but we never know how he actually felt.
Much like the rest of the movie, it’s up to us to decide if Moses has gone mad or if he is really communicating with the Divine. I wish we had that confrontation though, Bale vs Paul, talking about the possible madness and the cost of ignoring the Word of God.
Thematically, EXODUS is rather exciting. It is bold in its decision to investigate the reality of history. Moses only speaks to God once he has been injured and knocked unconscious. It is in this limbo, or dreamworld, that he sees the burning bush and meets Him. It’s up to us to decide what happened here. Could God talk to him now that his self-imposed walls of disbelief were knocked down? Now that he was willing to hear the Voice of the Supreme Being, he could.
Regardless, of your faith, it is most compelling to imagine the man that walked the Earth. Moses lived and breathed. If the tales spun after his death many centuries ago have any truth to them, the Man most certainly must have wondered if he was truly talking with God or if he had gone crazy.
The important message here is FREEDOM. Slavery needs to be abolished wherever it may spring up, whether it be Egypt thousands of years ago, or North America yesterday. The important thing is Moses listened to himself. He finally realized (in whatever manner you decide) that Egyptian slavery was wrong. The Hebrews are not to be vilified as lesser due to their beliefs and place of birth. If he stayed where he was born, if he wasn’t sent down the Nile in a basket and raised by Egyptians, he would be building the monuments to his rulers, creations devoted to a Creator of his surrogates. He would be a slave, or worse, dead.
Aside from the message, and inner workings of faith, there are battles to be had. Ridley Scott certainly knows how to set-up and frame a battle. They are exciting moments full of spectacle. While they aren’t as memorable or as visceral as GLADIATOR, they are intense sequences capturing the battles of that region during that time. The opening chariot battle was a real standout.
The second half of the film is filled with a different sort of spectacle: the Plagues of God. Moses sits back and sees what his God can do. Plague after plague is fully envisioned and devoted to its own fair amount of screentime. While some may seem to go overboard, like the orgiastic devouring by crocodiles, they all can be enjoyed from two separate points of view. Scott is sure to give every plague a logical explanation for the more cynical viewer (ie: a realist). It isn’t until one important plague visits the land that we have a more supernatural point of view. I won’t ruin it here, but it seems like Scott is giving some time devoted to the mythological tale.
What I always love about Scott is he never forgets this is a movie. He doesn’t stop himself if the imagery goes against history or familiarity. He is focused on entertainment. He wants us to have a good time, even if he explores darker territory, he wants us to enjoy ourselves with his story. He wants us to think, he wants to illuminate, but he wants us to get excited too.
I love how Scott always tries to include the surreal – whether it’s simply through the visuals or the more complex introspective ideas. I loved his imagining of God as a young child – nearly adolescent. I loved how he showed us the first conversation with Him. Bale is nearly submerged by a landslide, as he listens to this Messenger from Beyond. The effects are disorienting on purpose, and lend the interpretation towards the hallucinatory. Images in Ridley Scott films can always be purposefully viewed from multiple perspectives. I still love talking about BLADE RUNNER and everything that movie means, intentional or not.
The God child of EXODUS seems to suggest this is a young God. He is no longer an infant throwing a tantrum over his disappointing Creation. He is still emotional and reactionary though. He’s not a bully, but he certainly isn’t a nurturing parent at this point in history. His creation of Man is in the same phase – long past the caveman (or early man phase), long past the civilized man from the Cradle of Civilization (modern day IRAQ, along the Euphraytes, when crops were invented), but just enough before the Industrial Revolution. Man and God are adolescents, at this point, unsure of how the world works, and how it treats them. They react to provocation with provocation – much like Moses and Ramses.
It takes time for Moses to understand his place in this world, and the importance of Freedom. Every man should decide their own destiny – they shouldn’t be shackled only to live and die creating a false idol to a false(?) God. The Pyramids were intended to honour the dead, only to be built on the blood of the dead. Where does this fine balance tip?
EXODUS attempts to address these larger ideas we have from a contemporary standpoint. The film addresses what we all fear. What is life? What is death? What is worth giving your life to? Moses decides to risk his own end to see others get a new beginning.
With the actual release of EXODUS I haven’t heard much controversy surrounding the White Wash casting decisions. While Egypt was no doubt an international country, it could have people of all colours visiting or being drawn to the power of this location.
However… Let’s dive into nerdy movie deconstruction mode. How about some Black people starring in a big budget Hollywood historical epic? This is set in Africa right? Maybe IDRIS ELBA (as Ramses) and CHIWETEL EJIOFOR (as Moses) would have been even more interesting and dynamic with the subject matter of slavery.
Performance wise this would definitely be interesting. But it could also change the way Hollywood operates. I notice how many films with a Black cast do amazingly well. There is definitely an audience for a more colourful cast. Look at comedies from KEVIN HART and TYLER PERRY, and dramas or thrillers. They always do well with so-called crossover appeal.
Now imagine how many more people (in general) would go see EXODUS with Elba and Ejiofor. Imagine the supporting cast full of great actors in other Egyptian movies – like Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry, Kerry Washington (CLEOPATRA?), Jamie Foxx, Don Cheadle, and Forest Whitaker? Imagine these historical epics with a star like DENZEL Washington? It’s time. I want to see the best story never told – that of OSIRIS, SET, and ISIS – with an all-star cast of Black actors. But I digress…
By the end of EXODUS, we have the final confrontation on the shores of the Red Sea. We all know what will happen. But we still enjoy the journey. We get a great performance from Christian Bale in the lead role of Moses. And we also get Ridley Scott guiding us through an incredible journey, making just enough important stops along the way to illuminate our own understanding on history and life.
What did you think?
Do you like the historical imaginging of this familiar tale?
Would you rather this movie focused on the religious ideals?
Did you find it dragged on too long? Was there NOT enough action for your liking?
Did they try and cram too much in by the end? Did they show too much of this man’s life?
Did you want some more historical exploration into Moses’ Hebrew parents?
Would you rather have had modern Egyptian actors? Or something like IDRIS ELBA (as Ramses) and CHIWETEL EJIOFOR (as Moses) ?
It’s not like there weren’t any Egyptian actors. Actually, Moses’ wife was captivating emotionally, religiously, and mesmerizingly beautiful.