Tuesday, December 16, 2014

EXODUS Is Dazzling But Ultimately Hollow Biblical Epic


- Let me start with this: Ridley Scott is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His list of stone-cold classics is long - he's directed not only some of the best, but most influential movies ever made: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator. The guy is a legend (and he also directed Legend), and yet, in my opinion, he rarely gets a fair shake these days. People seem eager to take him down a peg, and critics seemed all-too-eager to bash his latest, EXODUS, before they'd seen it. There was a lot of early talk about the film's seemingly whitewashed cast, a controversy that continued up to and through the film's release. And Scott did himself and his movie no favors with his gruff, ill-advised response to the criticisms. Here's my thought: the casting in this film feels decidedly "off," and it is an issue that filmmakers need to seriously look at as they go into production on a movie. In 2014, we are more than ready for more diverse casts - in general, and notably in situations where the setting and characters are *supposed* to be non-white. It's strange and slightly troubling that all of the key Egyptian characters in EXODUS are played by white actors. That said, I also don't think that this is an issue that needs to completely dominate discussion of the film. Sadly, diversity (or lack thereof) is an issue that plagues many, many movies. I could start any number of reviews with a dissection of the film's casting from a diversity-perspective, but going down that road can often lead to an exercise in absurdity. Clearly, there are cases where casting crosses a line of inappropriateness. But where, exactly, is that line? EXODUS arguably toes it - but I also am not sure that it crosses it in egregious enough fashion to warrant true outrage, calls for boycotts, etc. I won't go into my exact reasons here. I'll simply say this: Scott and the rest of his team could have done better - they could have created this movie with more of an eye towards diverse and appropriate casting. But I also don't think that that these concerns need to negate all other discussion of the film. There's plenty more to talk about, and from here on out ... that's what I'll attempt to do. I'll just end with this: I suppose my original thought here was - as a huge fan of Scott, I'm not yet ready to burn him at the stake for some ill-advised decisions and comments. The man has done great films with diverse casts in the past. He helped bring to life one of the greatest female action heroes in cinematic history in Ellen Ripley. I think he can and will do better.

So ... EXODUS. In a year in which we've already seen one epic retelling of an apocalyptic bible story in Noah, Exodus arrives clearly ready to awe us with big, blockbuster visuals and a fantasy-epic take on the story of Moses. As compared to the trippy, surreal Noah, EXODUS is by far the more straightforward of the two films. The problem is it may be *too* straightforward. The film goes to some very dark thematic places, and poses a lot of tough questions about the nature of the old-testament God and the justness of the devastation he wreaks upon the Egyptians. But the film barrels forward at such a determined clip - trying to cover as much ground as possible in its 2 1/2 hour running time - that it rarely pauses to fully address the complicated questions of morality and faith it puts out there to us (Noah, in contrast, is almost fully *about* grappling with these questions).

In EXODUS, God takes the form of a wide-eyed ten-year-old British boy, who speaks to Moses in visions with an ominous, anger-laced, almost eerie sense of righteousness. This is a God who doesn't mince words, who shows no mercy, no quarter, and no pity, and who seems to spite the Egyptians for the fact that they worship other, false gods. In other versions of the Exodus story (i.e. The 10 Commandments), the Egyptians' faith in their gods seems affirmed by magical abilities (see: the famous scene, drawn from the bible, in which the Pharoah's magicians turn their staffs into serpents). But in EXODUS, the Egyptian gods are shown to be false: there are no magic powers, prayers to them prove ineffectual, and even the Egyptians seem less-than-confident in their potency. In fact, the Egyptians prefer science over faith - as the ten plagues devastate their people, Ramses II listens intently as a scientist provides logic-based explanations for the various afflictions befalling their people. Only when the plagues escalate - culminating with the killing of the Egyptians' first born - is there no denying that the plagues are in fact the works of a vengeful, all-powerful god.

In Noah, the devastation of the flood took on a new horror thanks to the visual force of modern f/x. The same is true here, as the plagues truly feel horrific and bloody and nightmarish. It's one thing to read vague bible verses listing out the plagues in sequential order. But to see rivers run red with blood, locusts devouring crops, total darkness, and firstborn children dying suddenly in the night ... well, it's a lot. Scott assaults us with the plagues, and does so without interjections in which Moses is shown asking Ramses to "let my people go." And so, the plagues come off as a merciless, genocidal punishment. Sporadically, Moses does question their ferocity.

But only sporadically, and soon enough, the questioning stops - Moses becomes God's loyal messenger, and the film seems to stop grappling with the concepts it had previously put out there. Ultimately, EXODUS comes across as thematically thin - we don't get a great sense of what drives Moses, what drives Ramses II, and what drives this version of God who is the film's most intriguing, yet elusive, character.

Christian Bale is excellent as Moses. Bale was born to do epic, and so he's a natural to be this most epic of characters. Bale gives a great sense of gravitas to numerous scenes - whether it's stopping an accusatory Ramses from lobbing off his sister's hand, to training the Hebrews to fight as an army, to commanding his people to have faith and cross the seemingly-uncrossable Red Sea. Moses is most intriguing though in the film's early going, when the script takes its time and effectively establishes the strong but slowly fraying relationship between Ramses and his adopted brother Moses. This entire early portion of the film is perhaps its strongest - early on, the movie takes its time and builds up the relationship and rivalry between Moses and Ramses, and this unique look at their relationship is compelling stuff. Later, however, the film leapfrogs through large portions of Moses' story. His relationship with his eventual wife, Tziporah, for example - Moses meets her while in exile, she gives him some furtive glances, and moments later they're exchanging vows and declaring their undying love for each other. Also rushed through is Moses' reaction to meeting his long-lost brother, Aaron - there is none, really. It's indicative of the movie's tendency to present something tantalizing but then brush over it without a real narrative or emotional payoff.

Joel Edgerton is getting the most flack from industry-watchers for being cast as Ramses II. He's a pale Australian playing an Egyptian pharaoh. However, that issue aside, he's great in the film. He plays Ramses II as a preening narcissist, a dude who broods whilst wrapped in a giant python. Edgerton has quickly become a favorite actor - I'd yet to see him play a villain, but he excels at it here, and is a co-MVP of the film along with Bale. Whitewashing aside though, the movie does have some oddball casting going on. Notable actors like the great Sigourney Weaver pop up (in her case, as Ramses' stone-faced mother), but barely make an impact. Same goes for Aaron Paul as Moses' right-hand-man Joshua, whose role is more extended cameo than anything of substance. Ben Mendelsohn is good as a corrupt Egyptian viceroy - a source of some rare humor in the film. But even Ben Kingsley seems adrift as an elder Hebrew, whose main role is to reveal to Moses his true origins.

This is, ultimately, the story of Bale's Moses vs. Edgerton's Ramses. And the movie does a nice job of setting both up for a battle of wills, culminating in a truly epic confrontation in the midst of the parting Red Sea. And Bale and Edgerton make for great adversaries - both act the hell out of their parts. The problem is that the bigger story around them gets glossed over -, and the larger themes raised by the story largely ignored - so that the film can focus primarily on its central brother vs. brother confrontation. It's a fine angle to take on the story. But this story, I think, demands something more. It's one of the defining stories about a vengeful God in the old testament. And Moses' role as God's messenger feels like it isn't explored to its fullest potential here. The fact is, the biblical story is in many ways a head-scratcher. And so part of the purpose, to me, of re-imagining this sort of story is to attempt to make sense of the narrative's lessons. How are these ancient stories relevant to us today? To reduce this story - with all of its complex questions of morality, faith, etc. - to a more standard war epic makes this movie feel less-than-necessary. The bible is allegory, and the allegory seems mostly lost here. And so, those looking for insight or meaning in this movie may not find much of it.

What they will find is a film that is truly eye-popping from a visual perspective. Scott is a master of creating rich, evocative visuals - and this movie looks amazing. In 3D, in particularly, the Egyptian landscapes come to life with towering structures, sweeping deserts, massive crowds filled with all manner of lavish costuming, and ornately-decorated palaces and halls that make Game of Thrones look like Days of Our Lives. This is old-school epicness, and the grandeur is often awe-inspiring. Scott also delivers big-time on the big f/x. The plagues are visceral and haunting. The precursor to the plague of Blood involves packs of rabid crocodiles chomping down on people and animals and leaving the water red with their remains - all conveyed in a fantastically-realized sequence. The parting of the Red Sea here feels truly, awesomely epic. Everything in EXODUS looks like a million bucks, and every penny of the film's budget is seemingly there on screen.

Scott is still the absolute best in the biz at epic visuals - even when burdened with problematic scripts, a Ridley Scott epic is always worth seeing on as big a screen as possible. Strangely, that's why a comparison between EXODUS and Prometheus may be warranted. Like Prometheus, EXODUS is mesmerizing to look at. But also like Prometheus, the film introduces *big* questions that it sort of shies away from as the movie progresses - leaving the film feeling oddly hollow.

Like I said, I am not about to count out Ridley Scott - either as a filmmaker or as a person worthy of admiration. EXODUS nails the visuals, but, like a few of other Scott's recent films, a combination of script and overall storytelling issues keeps the movie from achieving the iconic thematic resonance of classics like Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. Still, Scott's visual imagination makes his movies must-sees for film fans - even when not firing on all cylinders, there is enough here to remind us why he's one of the best.

My Grade: B

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