‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ movie review: Christian Bale in Ridley Scott’s epic misfire


Moses no longer parts the Red Sea; he leads the Jews across it during low tide in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a misguided take on the Old Testament that succeeds in de-mythologizing the biblical story of Moses into something more vaguely “believable”, but loses everything that was interesting about it in the process. 

The definitive version of this story remains Cecil B. Demille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments, which starred Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Ramses, and told a faithful (if condensed) account of the life of Moses. 

It was also an epic if there ever was one, in both scope and storytelling: it featured some of the largest sets and most extras of any film in history, and also managed to convey the presence of God better than almost any other film before or since. In scenes of biblical plague, the merciless wrath of God is almost palpable. 

Exodus, on the other hand, is epic in terms of budget only: this $140-million picture has all but written God out of its proceedings, with such memorable scenes as the parting of the Red Sea non-existent, and the plagues explained as natural phenomenon. The deaths of all first-born children in Egypt, meanwhile, are left strangely unexplained; while Ramses finally accepts the presence of God, screenwriters Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian seem to be less easily convinced.

Gods and Kings opens with the same battle sequence that opens every Ridley Scott historical epic: like Gladiator and Robin Hood before it, we begin in the midst of a large-scale war scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Here, we meet the Prince of Egypt, Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton) and his ‘adopted’ brother and brother-in-arms Moses (Christian Bale), who saves his life on the battlefield – and upstages him in the process. 

Moses, of course, is actually a Jew who will be exiled years later when the truth about his past is revealed. In most other versions of this story, we already know this – Moses’ backstory, of being saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia (here played by Hiam Abbass) as a child after all first-born Hebrews were ordered killed, is told as a prologue. Exodus, meanwhile, handles this revelation as a plot twist that we all know is coming, then stops halfway through the story to dish out the missing exposition. 

Bale and Edgerton are surprisingly good as the two “brothers” at the center of this story: it’s their disintegrating relationship, and not the titular exodus of the Jews from Egypt, that lies at the center of this film. Bale is English and Edgerton is Australian, of course, but against a sea of more authentically-cast extras, they blend in as well as could be expected. 

I cannot say the same for the supporting cast. John Turturro, in full Brooklyn accent, is the Pharaoh Seti – it’s one of the more bizarre casting choices you’ll ever see. Aaron Paul threatens to slip into Breaking Bad mode in his introductory scene as Joshua – he’s wisely hidden under a mane of thick black hair and a beard throughout the rest of the film, and given almost no dialogue.

Ditto Sigourney Weaver, who has just a pair of scenes as Tuya, the Pharaoh’s wife and Ramses’ mother. Tuya, Bithia, and Nefertari (played by Golshifteh Farahani) figure importantly in most versions of this story, but here they’re barely glimpsed. Moses’ Hebrew mother, Yochabel, has been completely removed. 

Character actors Ben Mendelsohn and Ewen Bremner (in full Scottish brogue) play advisors to Ramses’ council; Ben Kingsley is “Nun”, a new character who reveals to Moses his true roots. While the high-profile cast helps draw some interest, it’s worth noting that none of these actors attempts a consistent dialect. 

Still, the biggest failing here is the attempt to strip the religion out of the story – or at least distance itself from its biblical origins. Numerous scenes are included to provide an “answer” to the religious/supernatural aspects of the story – when Joshua sees Moses talking to an invisible God, the film seems to be suggesting that Moses is crazy – but this is a story that needs no explanations. 

Exodus: Gods and Kings might be a more historically accurate version of the Moses story (though the Jews still build the pyramids here, which has been widely disproven), but the relevance of that story has been lost. 

That’s one of the reasons I liked the divisive Noah, this year’s other big biblical epic: while completely off-the-wall in terms of historical accuracy – and best described as sci-fi/fantasy – the underlying theme of an uncompromising God is faithfully represented. Mainstream audience sensibilities may have changed since 1956, but you can’t just take religion out of the bible; it’s like taking The Force out of Star Wars.

Exodus: Gods and Kings


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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