Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) – Review

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings is a grand epic of spectacle, built around the changing relationship between two brothers and impressive visuals.

The film is about Moses and Ramses. Pharaoh Seti found baby Moses abandoned in a basket along the Nile river, deciding to raise him as his own along with his natural son Ramses. The two brothers grew up as princes, relying on it other in battle and life; however, as the brothers come into their own, Moses learns about his past – that he is actually of Jewish decent (a downtrodden people who are greatly abused as slaves by the Egyptians) – a truth he refuses to believe. Once Pharaoh Seti has died of illness and Ramses becomes leader of Egypt, enemies of Moses expose his secret. Always slightly fearing Moses’s power and the love his father showed him, Ramses ceases the opportunity to banish Moses. Far from Egypt, Moses struggles to accept the truth about himself and the new mission his people’s god has anointed him with – to set the Jewish people free in Egypt. Moses, now with newfound purpose, returns to Egypt to do just that, but Ramses will not make it easy on him.

Director Ridley Scott’s biblical epic feels very similar to his other religious epic Kingdom on Heaven. Exodus: Gods and Kings features impressive visuals, a massive scale and scope and very good central performances. Yet, like Kingdom of Heaven’s theatrical release, which was gutted of most of its character moments in favor of a shorter runtime, this film too seems to lack needed character moments for its supporting cast. Moses and Ramses have their moments, and the story does serve them well, but no one else is really given much to do (while the film still runs for around 150 minutes), leading me to believe that this too was streamlined for its theatrical release and somewhat expect a fuller, longer version of the film to be released for home consumption – keeping the runtime under a certain length allows the film to screen more times in a day, which theoretically translates to more box office, at the expense of creative expression/integrity (because Hollywood moviemaking is a business first, and that is especially true for massive blockbusters like this film). It is just too bad, as the film would have played a lot stronger with its supporting characters fleshed out and overall narrative given time to breath, allowing the emotion and drama to be more fully realized. As it is, the film works solely thanks to its impressive aesthetics and great leading performances.

Even at 150 minutes, the film is paced rather briskly (presumably thanks to much of the extra dramatic meat being cut out of Scott’s initial version). Time passes in chunks in between scenes in many instances, requiring viewers to pay extra attention or lose their place.

Scott is a very skilled filmmaker, and that is clear again with Exodus: Gods and Kings. Aesthetically, the film showcases the stark juxtaposition between the wealthy Egyptian lords and the impoverished slaves – possibly drawing comparisons to the ever-widening wealth gap in the western world (let alone the rest of the world). Some fear that if the struggling classes ever really found out how the very wealthy live, there would be a revolution. Maybe that sounds dramatic and far-fetched, but history shows us that it has happen again and again throughout time – this film detailing one of the most famous (along with its overlying religious aspects).

Scott takes a very evenhanded approach to religion in Kingdom of Heaven, treating Islam with respect and fairness, when many films focus more on the negative factions (something that seems to tinge many, if not all, religions). Here, Scott is less so. The Egyptians are portrayed as many villains are in many films of this nature – entitled, ambivalent and uncaring. The slaves are just that, not deserving a second thought. The slaves are a subspecies in their minds, existing only to benefit their interests, and thus do not deserve the same rights and freedoms. When the Jewish god unleashes the plagues upon the Egyptian people. They are bewildered, refusing to accept that this god is more powerful than their own, that these people should be set free. Ramses sees himself as a god on Earth. He just cannot accept that to be untrue, as it crushes his whole way of life, his whole belief system. The brisk pacing does not give Scott the opportunity to explore the Egyptians any further, leaving them mostly as seemingly out-of-touch, arrogant villains – even though there are certainly strong hints that Scott intended much more depth.

The portrayal of god in the film, as a young boy, is an interesting choice. In the story, god must do great and terrible things to the Egyptians. Things that seem cruel and viscous, but they are done because the Egyptians (and Ramses) just will not accept the truth of the circumstances, because it goes against everything they believe. I think Scott chose god to be seen as a small child to juxtapose the terror he must rain upon the Egyptians with the innocence of a small child. Although, at the same time, young children can also be the most cruel and vicious when left to their own devices. Without societal pressures and laws obstructing them, children have been shown to act sometimes without compassion (think of the classic example: Lord of the Flies), exhibiting our natural tendencies for survival, stronger oppressing the weaker. A childlike god, though capable of love and compassion, might also act when angered with unabated rage and cruelty.

In many ways, Exodus; Gods and Kings is a disappointing film, as Scott’s films always have so much promise (based on the great works of his past). It features all the ingredients to be something special and yet it is lacking – namely in dramatic weight and fuller supporting characters. Scott does do a good job with the central drama of the film, as Moses and Ramses are fleshed out and their narrative is compelling, but everything else feels incomplete – and it probably has do to with the film being revised down from its original longer version for theatrical release. As I said above, it is too bad. But, hopefully, the film as it was initially intended will be released later (as Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner’s director’s cut eventually were).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ridley Scott makes fantastically impressive visual films. Exodus: Gods and Kings follows in that tradition. Visually speaking, it is quite entertaining on a spectacle level with a grand scope and scale. Scott also garners very good performances as well, and this too is true of this film. Despites the film’s commercial and critical failings, I do hope to see Scott’s director’s cut at some point (assuming it is released) and his next film The Martian, coming next year.

On a quick side note, with Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah. It is interesting to see biblical stories being portrayed in a darker manner, stripping away some of the overly rosy arbitrage and getting right at the heart of what is actually transpiring. In each story, god’s actions directly result in the death of thousands (millions in Noah’s case) of people. The films do not just focus on the justification of these actions (be them teaching humanity a lesson or helping his people find freedom) but also on the gravity of the actions, which is much more compelling.

Back to the aesthetics, composer Alberto Iglesias provides a score for the film that tonally fits well and captures the flavor of the time and place. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s photography is very good, as he uses mostly a more washed out color palate, which too fits the darker tone the film has. His work, along with production designer Arthur Max’s (whose sets, as always, are brilliant), also highlights the striking economic differences between the Egyptian lords, who are covered in clean whites and gold jewelry, inhabiting expansive homes, and the slaves, who are packed in dirty, crowded, cramped environments. The Egyptians are all very manicured and without facial hair (assuming I remember correctly) while the slaves are bearded and somewhat unkempt. Interestingly, Moses has a beard from the start, but it is much more groomed than any of the slaves’ beards. As he comes to accept his place among them as their leader, his beard becomes more unwieldy.

There are quite a few name actors in the film who have had their roles essentially cut out due to most of the supporting character work and excess drama being taken out. Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley almost have nothing to do in the film (outside of a scene, here or there).  Indira Varma, Maria Valverde and John Turturro are good in small supporting roles. Ewen Bremner plays a scientist of sorts in the Egyptian court, explaining the logic behind the plagues, assuring that they are not acts from an angry god. He is just fantastic and goofy in the small role. Ben Mendelsohn, also in a small role, playing the corrupt Egyptian Viceroy Hegep, who outs Moses to Ramses, is wonderful as well. He is so smarmy and slimy. He is a great character actor – one of the best currently. Joel Edgerton is very good as Ramses, bringing the right mix of entitlement, compassion and utter bewilderment about what is happening to the role. In lesser hands, Ramses would have been a one dimensional, boring villain, but here he is a full character. Christian Bale is excellent as Moses (as he generally is in everything he does). He is able to convey the heartbreak of his deteriorating relationship with his brother and the pain of finding out the truth about himself. The scenes with god could have played as being a bit odd, Moses conversing with a young boy, but Bale plays the scenes with complete commitment. Despite the gutting the film seems to have gone through during its final edit, it still works thanks in most part of Bale’s great performance.

Summary & score: Exodus: Gods and Kings lacks emotional and dramatic depth, and yet it is still an entertaining, visually compelling and overall solid epic due to Ridley Scott’s fine directing and strong central characters (and great leading performances), overcoming its shortcomings. 7/10

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