An Indistinct Sound of Shouting
As you may surmise, I turned up to see Ridley Scott's new-style biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings in keen expectation of an energetically bad movie. As chance would have it, I happened to see it at the Blackpool branch of Odeon. This will be my final visit to this particular cinema, and I must confess the occasion was not without a degree of emotion – I have been watching films there for over fifteen years, on and off, and the place did play a small but significant role in keeping me sane during what I suppose I should call my wilderness years. Not having been there for a while, I was somewhat dismayed to find the cinema showing every sign of struggling – no sign of a ticket desk at all, with punters obliged to use the concessions counter, tickets themselves going for insanely low prices, and no allocated seating either. I was saddened, to be honest.
The very first film I saw there was Payback, starring Mel Gibson back when he was acceptable, and Exodus is, if nothing else, rather better than that. Although, to be honest, my enjoyment of the film was given an unexpected spin by the fact I'd unwittingly turned up to a subtitled showing. The subtitling was rather zealously done, with every vocalisation from every performer painstakingly committed to the screen – a lot of (sigh), (exhale), (incoherent scream), and so on. As a result of this I can be very certain when I tell you that the defining sound of Exodus is (indistinct shouting).
Based on the book of the same name by some guys in Babylon, this is the stirring tale of stuff going on in ancient Egypt and the surrounding area. Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro in a brave choice of hat) is in charge, though he does a lot of delegating to his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton, sadly looking not unlike Ricky Gervais in drag) and adopted son Moses (Christian Bale, looking not unlike Christian Bale with a beard). Seti secretly thinks Moses is a safer bet as a future leader, partly because the self-regarding Ramses spends much of his spare time stroking his python, but this is not to be. Especially not when Moses discovers his secret heritage as a member of the Hebrew slave underclass.
A life-long atheist, this makes no difference to Moses, but when Ramses ascends the throne it forms a good enough pretext for the new boss to have Moses exiled. Moses does not seem to take this very personally and trades in being a top Egyptian court official and general for shepherding and being a loving family man. However, one day he receives a bang on the head and finds himself confronted with the vision of a burning bush and a surly ten-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews), who is actually God. God tells Moses to go and get the Hebrews out of Egypt toot-sweet, and – not without a degree of justified grumbling – Moses heads off to get on with the job...
Well, I will be astounded if Exodus wins any major awards, but I did not find it to be the artistic failure or absurd fiasco some of the reviews I've seen suggested. Then again, I am the kind of person for whom the word 'absurd' does not necessarily carry wholly negative connotations, and parts of this movie are definitely absurd. We are spared the climactic sword-fight between Moses and Pharaoh on the bed of the Red Sea, though it's a close thing, but one of the final scenes of the film is set in a cave up Mount Sinai, with Moses hard at work with hammer and chisel on some stone tablets, God fixing the pair of them some drinks, and the duo idly bickering about the Ten Commandments. If that's not the most ridiculous scene to appear in a serious film this year, I don't know what is.
It's certainly an odd choice for a film which must, on some level, have hoped to tap into a religiously-motivated audience for some of its ticket sales. Then again, there are plenty of others – the film is specifically dated to 1300 BCE, not BC, and there's a half-hearted attempt at providing a rational explanation for all the apparently miraculous events that occur. As I mentioned, Moses gets a crack on the head before his first meeting with God, and even he admits he sounds like a delusional person. Ewen Bremner comes on as a Scottish-Egyptian clever-clogs who explains the Plagues as a quasi-scientifically based series of events.
To be honest the whole Plagues sequence is the closest the film comes to toppling over into Monty Python silliness, although it also includes some fun CGI crocodiles and frogs: the various Egyptian characters initially react with annoyance and exasperation rather than anything more serious, at least until God sends in the Angel of Death to slay all the first-born. (This at least is a rather effective and well-mounted sequence.)
On the other hand, it doesn't exactly present God in the most flattering light: He's not really the Almighty, He's a very naughty boy, petulant and petty throughout. Having packed Moses off to lead the Hebrews in their struggle for freedom, He then turns up to give our hero a rollocking for taking too long about it. 'They've been slaves here for 400 years! Why are you in such a hurry now?' cries Moses periphrastically. 'Just am,' sniffs God, and brings on the CGI carnage.
Oh well. I suppose you shouldn't expect very much more from a film which presents the revelation of Moses' Hebrew roots as some sort of unexpected plot twist – it often seems to have little idea who its target audience is, or indeed what it's fundamentally about. Is it about the relationship between the heroic Moses and the resentful, lesser Ramses, two men who grew up together but were forced into conflict? (Shades of Ben-Hur – not to mention Gladiator, in places.) Is it about Moses coming to terms with being a Hebrew? Or is it about an atheist who finds himself forced into faith? The film plays with all of these things and more, but usually just settles for another show-stopping CGI sequence.
This being a Ridley Scott film, of course, he at least gives good epic – Scott throws in a pretty big battle just to get things warmed up, and never spares the spectacle. I know that in the past I've criticised him for being much more interested in arty, beautiful visuals than in actually telling a coherent story, but he keeps everything under control here, and events – while frequently a bit bonkers – are always easy to follow.
There is a lot to enjoy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, provided you don't take any of it too seriously and are prepared to engage with the film on its own terms. It's never dull and it always looks good, even if bits of it are silly, it squanders some of its most capable cast members, and it doesn't seem to really have much idea of what it's actually supposed to be about. Whatever it is, it's vague, and rather loud: indistinct shouting, indeed.