Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ridley Scott casts Christian Bale into the blockbuster wilderness.

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Exodus
Twentieth Century Fox

Ridley Scott has been getting a lot of stick lately for his ethnically incorrect casting of Exodus: Gods and Kings. But that's not the movie's real problem. Real Egyptian actors were even thinner on the ground in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille's 1956 take on the same Biblical tale treated here. De Mille had no reservations about casting such outlanders as Cedric Hardwicke and Yvonne De Carlo in his film, and, in the central role of Moses, the definitively incorrect Charlton Heston. But then De Mille was operating in an industry in which established stars were seen as a necessary hedge against the expenditure of vast sums of money. This sort of bottom-line calculation became a Hollywood tradition. It may now be outdated, but it seems a little unfair to come down too hard on Scott for continuing it in support of a picture that's said to have cost some $140-million. In any case, the movie's other shortcomings are more crucial.

The story is so familiar that cynics might wonder why a pressing need was felt to retell it. It's set in 1300 BC, in the Egyptian capital of Memphis, and recounts the life of Moses (Christian Bale), a Hebrew foundling unwittingly adopted as a baby by the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), who raises him alongside his biological son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Growing into manhood, Moses becomes troubled by the misery of the stateless Hebrews who have been enslaved by the Egyptians for 400 years. When his own Hebrew heritage is uncovered, Moses is cast out into the desert, where he is visited by the God of the Israelites and commanded to return to Egypt to free his people and lead them to the Promised Land.

The actors are famously talented, and they engage with their characters as best they can. But their performance styles are at odds throughout, and the story's overtones of Sunday-school pageantry are hard to dispel (at some points, everyone seems to be playing dress-up). Bale is an unmistakably contemporary presence; and Edgerton, with his shaved head, kohl-rimmed eyes and melancholy pout, suggests a drag queen who's misplaced his wig. Turturro brings an easy warmth to his portrayal of Seti, but he's handicapped, through no fault of his own, by our realization that he is John Turturro, and he's playing an ancient pharaoh, and it's a little weird. There are also peripheral appearances by Ben Kingsley, as a tiresomely murmurous Hebrew elder, and, in a truly thankless role, Sigourney Weaver as the overdressed Queen Tuya, upon whose head a blue-feathered bird appears to have settled and died.

The actors are further challenged by some of the dialogue, which has been worked up by four different writers. When Moses implores Ramses to set the Hebrews free, Ramses, who prizes their slave labor, replies, "From an economic standpoint, what you're asking is problematic at least." Clearly we're not in Memphis anymore.

The movie's pacing manages to be both sluggish and hurried at the same time. Scott is most at home with big set-piece action scenes featuring complex camerawork and elaborate digital effects, and there's plenty of that here. When Ramses and Moses lead Egyptian forces into an early battle with the Hittites, we're given a wild 3D onslaught of careening chariots, clanging swords and swarms of arrows flying through the sky. Later, when God brings down a series of plagues upon the Egyptians, the director really hits his stride, unleashing hordes of frogs and locusts and man-eating crocodiles that turn the Nile red with the blood of their victims. (Unfortunately, while the parting of the Red Sea—the famous event toward which all this tumult is leading—is an impressive CGI workout, it's also oddly underwhelming: Moses cleaves the waters by tossing his sword into them, and then there's a really big wave.)

A lot of this is great stuff. But there's so much of it that the basic Moses story has to be tightly compressed, presumably to keep the movie's run-time down to an already overlong two and a half hours. After Moses is exiled from the Pharaoh's palace, we see him wandering in the desert. He comes to an oasis, meets a beautiful girl named Zipporah (Maria Valverde), and in very short order they marry and have a child, who in even shorter order grows into adolescence and warns his father not to climb a certain sacred mountain.

Scott makes an interesting choice here. Moses does climb the mountain, of course, but the God he meets upon it doesn't take the traditional form of a burning bush; instead we find Him incarnated by a 10-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews). This works, I think—the glowering Andrews is a very Old Testament tyke. Not everyone may buy it, though. And when the movie tosses off the story's concluding business with the stone tablets and the Ten Commandments as little more than an afterthought, even long-term Ridley Scott admirers may find themselves suffering a loss of faith.

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  1. First there was Noah the action hero.

    Now we have Moses the action hero.

    Coming soon, Sampson the action hero. “Bitch set me up!”

    1. Starring the Rock.

      With a wig of course.

    2. That’s a pretty good point. Except that the story of Sampson is an action hero story.

      More like Samuel: Action Hero! A political advisor’s story.

    3. The movie I’d actually like to see is something about the conquest of the “promised land”. I think that has some cinematic potential that hasn’t been explored too much. But that might end up being a bit controversial.

      1. Directed by Michael Bay.

        As they march around Jericho and blow their trumpets… KABOOM! FLAMES! FIRE! EXPLOSIONS! MUSHROOM CLOUDS! TOWERING INFERNO!

        1. perfect

          Also – Michael Bay’s “Sodom and Gomorrah – 3D”. MOAR assplosions and meteor showers!

          1. Is that drone up there?….

      2. As long as they show the Yahweh sanctioned baby murders and mass rapes, I’d love to see the moral indignation flow. Then the Christian apologists will get to explain how Hollywood was putting all that infanticide in a bad light without showing all the positive benefits of murdering children and raping their mothers.

        1. That’s just the controversial stuff I was thinking of. Basically (if the story is taken literally), the Israelites committed genocide and war crimes on an unbelievable scale (with lots of cajoling from YHVH).

          I find it a little bit ironic and amusing that the great foundational myth of the Jews involves lots of genocide and baby-killing.

          1. That’s just the controversial stuff I was thinking of. Basically (if the story is taken literally), the Israelites committed genocide and war crimes on an unbelievable scale (with lots of cajoling from YHVH).

            There is no other way to take these narratives unless murdering babies is an old timey allusion to something innocuous. It’s not so much that this sort of stuff happened in the ancient world, it’s that it was divinely commanded by an infallible deity that literally sets the moral standards Christians are supposed to regard as absolute.

          2. I find it a little bit ironic and amusing that the great foundational myth of the Jews involves lots of genocide and baby-killing

            The Bible worth nothing if not for it’s historical accounting of the times and places described. I have little doubt that the records of such barbarism are not nearly as mythical as the burning bush.

            1. Oh, I’m sure that is the sort of thing that went on, though I’m not going to assume that any of it is reliable history. But probably not with the direct help and encouragement of a supernatural being.

              1. You don’t have to assume. Archaeology and cross-references can demonstrate that a good deal of the historical information is more or less accurate. “This village was razed by the Israelites…” we can find evidence of that stuff. But the validity of the nonsupernatural data of course does not validate the supernatural claims.

                But for people to base their morality on these supernatural claims is nothing short of appalling, be the stories of genocide true or false they shouldn’t be the basis of any moral compass.

                1. “Archaeology and cross-references can demonstrate that a good deal of the historical information is more or less accurate.”

                  Except that the subject of this movie, that the Jews were Egyptian slaves and were led on a mass exodus out of Egypt, *has no historical basis in fact*. They looked, and the evidence is not there where it should be. It’s pure myth. But that’s religion for ya.

  2. If Ridley wanted to make a biblical film, it’s too bad he didn’t choose this.

    I would definitely have gone to see THAT.

    1. Yeah, that’s the one I want to see. I want to read your book, too, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

      1. Wait, Fluffy wrote that? this weekend, I need to go on amazon/goodreads and give it maximum stars/likes…

        1. Hmm, it’s $2.99 right now. Perhaps Fluffy could do a promo for the weekend so we can download it for free and add our enthusiastic reviews to those of his mother and his 10 fake Amazon accounts.

  3. Moses as an action hero. No thanks.

    1. I assume Moses as an action figure would be more to your liking. Then we could all play out that fantasy we all have… Moses vs. Spiderman. Perhaps Ridley Scott and Stan Lee would be interested in a sequel?

  4. And when the movie tosses off the story’s concluding business with the stone tablets and the Ten Commandments […]

    What? Tablets? With Commandments? Couldn’t you give us a spoiler alert, Mr. Loder?

  5. When Moses implores Ramses to set the Hebrews free, Ramses, who prizes their slave labor, replies, “From an economic standpoint, what you’re asking is problematic at least.” Clearly we’re not in Memphis anymore.

    “I’ve achieved full employment! What have you achieved for the country?”

    1. +1

      “Ramses, the taxpayers suffer under the burden of your levies! Perhaps a lower marginal rate will stimulate investment in new beer-making technologies.”

      1. Ramses: Look at the creations enabled by my power! Great cities, works and pyramids!

        Moses: That pyramid? YOU didn’t build that…

        1. Ramses: I suppose you want to live in Somalia.

          1. Moses: Now look. You built a slave empire and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – Isis bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next slaver who comes along.

            1. Moses’ Flock: Now we see the violence inherent in the system!

    2. But what would those people do if they weren’t building the pyramids!!!

      1. Spread rape culture?

        1. You’re probably right.

    3. Sorry Moses, that would clearly reduce aggregate demand which would negatively impact currency exchange rates vis a vis the Hittite Empire and create a trade imbalance in the myrrh and frankincense futures market and cause the landed costs of embalming and mummification goods to price out of the market.

  6. What’s up with all the big-budget religious themed movies in the last few years? Are they desparate for an audience and have to court the Christian fundamentalists? I’ve noticed a lot of this crap lately.

    The movie studios seems to be in serious trouble. Steven Soderberg prefers making television shows, which is where all the action is now, on Netflix and Amazon.

    I think the era of the 2-hour stand alone blockbuster may be at an end. A 10-hour series is more immersive, and allows for better story telling, especially when it is all written in advance, so you don’t have the old problems of TV shows changing the script every week to cater to ratings.

    The movie studios havn’t been able to respond with anything except to try to create bigger blockbusters with more special effects. And now lowest-common-demoninator crap like bible stories.

    1. Personally, I think it’s simply an attempt to win over the religious types into The Singularity. The MSM has been big into trumpeting our boys and girls in uniform etc etc. I think this is just the Big Hollywood/MSM trying to suck in and control every meme from left to right into one unified mass of meaninglessness.

    2. Are they desparate for an audience and have to court the Christian fundamentalists?

      I don’t think that’s it. Conservative Christians probably wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about many of the liberties Hollywood takes with these stories, and it’s not as if Hollywood is partial to pleasing conservative Christians. I didn’t see “Noah” but I remember hearing there was sort of a climate change theme thrown in there. Some directors are simply interested in filming epic stories, and these are epic stories that have opportunities for good movies in the directors’ minds.

      1. This. I mean, there’s been no shortage of films based on Greek mythology in the past few years, either. I can think of five off the top of my head.

      2. The Noah movie was based on Gnostic ideas, which is why it was so confusing to Believers who went to see it.

        It had Noah considering child murder. Yeah, THAT’S going to go over well with people who believe the Bible.

        1. Well, there is a lot of that sort of thing in the Bible.

    3. What’s up with all the big-budget religious themed movies in the last few years? Are they desparate for an audience and have to court the Christian fundamentalists?

      Partly, yeah. Even though the industry pretty much loathes everything about the average Christian church-goer, there are several factors at work here:

      1) The Bible is in the public domain. No wrangling over story rights.

      2) A fairly rich vein of stories to be mined. Whether one is a Christian or not, there are many excellent stories in the Bible that cover the range of human drama.

      3) Hollywood loves money. LOVES MONEY. And the industry is starting to feel the effects of things like Netflix and pirating on their bottom lines. If that means putting out some films to get the squares into the multiplex, they’ll hold their nose and make that sacrifice.

      With all that said, I’m not sure I’ll go see this. It’s just not the same without Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner trying to outdo each other on the scenery chewing or De Mille’s unique ability to convey spectacle.

      And Bible stories are hardly “lowest common-demoninator crap”–some of Hollywood’s most memorable films have been Biblical epics. Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, The Robe–like it or not, there is a heritage of creating landmark films using the Bible. That remark comes off more as unwarranted snobbery than anything else.

      1. Quo Vadis was based on which book of the bible? Honestly how is this kind of error made by someone speaking in such a pontificating manner. You might as well say Stigmata was based on a biblical book.

        1. Quo Vadis was based on which book of the bible? Honestly how is this kind of error made by someone speaking in such a pontificating manner.

          Quo Vadis is based on a book that used both Biblical and historical narratives (the Great Fire of Rome was described in Acts, if you’ve ever actually read the Bible), and is thus considered a Biblical epic as well as historical epic.

          If you’re going to be pedantic about the definitions of Hollywood film genres, you might want to broaden your thinking beyond your own limited perspectives first.

        2. The major studios produced fewer epics during the 1940s due in part to wartime scarcity of resources. After the war, some of Hollywood’s highest grossing films were religious epics produced as vehicles for its biggest stars.[2] “Samson and Delilah” was the biggest moneymaking movie of 1949 and is considered the picture that sparked the biblical-epic film craze of the 1950s.[3] It was followed by two of 1951’s biggest box-office hits, “Quo Vadis” and “David and Bathsheba”. Charlton Heston starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur”.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bible_in_film

          I guess by your logic, Ben-Hur isn’t a Biblical epic either.

      2. Personally, I think Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments don’t stand up well today.
        The chariot race in Ben Hur, in retrospect, seems kind of ridiculous. And the constant need to inject proper religious sensibilities gets in the way of telling a decent story.
        Ben Hur would have been a perfectly decent revenge drama but they had to go fuck it up with the Jesus Christian forgiveness and miracles bullshit at the end.

        1. And the constant need to inject proper religious sensibilities gets in the way of telling a decent story.

          This really seems to be more of a personal animus against religion in general than a measured critique of the movie itself. The argument that a religious story can’t be decent is just begging the question.

          Ben-Hur’s plot is a rip-off of the Count of Monte Cristo. The idea that a Roman general would adopt a Jew as his son just for keeping him from mistakenly committing suicide is a hell of a lot more ridiculous than the chariot race.

    4. What’s up with all the big-budget religious themed movies in the last few years?

      They make money.

      End of story.

  7. A friend of mine mentioned the absolute oddities of Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul (is that his name?–you know, “Jesse” from “Breaking Bad”) in the movie. I was considering giving it a view, but it’d probably be better to spend my money elsewhere, having read this review.

  8. Moses should have met Jesus.

    1. And then fought a tag-team match against Satan and Saddam.

    2. He did. It was called the transfiguration.

  9. So it shall be written. So it shall be done.

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  14. 1. odd no one has commented on the barely-mentioned premise which i totally disagree with, *and* *think* it is something of the point ridley scott was making when he dismissed cavils regarding the casting choices: that is, a role of _____ can ONLY be played by a person of _______…
    2. REGARDLESS of whether egyptian/etc actors are/are not available, regardless of whether the casting choices were made for box office reasons, it is the director’s (etc) artistic decisions to make whatever casting choices they want for whatever reason(s) they want… *that* is part of the essence of making a movie/etc which has THEIR artistic vision, personal interpretation applied to the work…
    otherwise, all we do are line-for-line recreations of original productions, no deviation allowed ? ? ? idiocy…
    3. *WHETHER* said actors portray their roles well, whether the director’s vision holds up as an interesting interpretation, whether the audience understands and appreciates the actors and director’s decisions in their roles, is quite another thing…
    but this uber-PC insistence of ONLY a person WHO IS _____ can portray _____ is preposterous, and defeats the essential point of acting itself…

    you may now resume your normal inane insider insults and chatter…

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  16. Thought actors and effects were great. Other than that it shows that the writer does not see in our lord. It used ideas that I heard from the history channel trying to explain the plague, and that is was not an event from any god. However sicence can not understand why even the wine and the water that was not touched by the river changed. They say some red kelp stuff which the Egyptian had no understanding of back then was the explaination for the rivers but t he did not depict the wine in the pharos hand and the water in the pails that was fresh and drinkable change. It did not show the staffs changing and the storms of fire stopping the egyotion army. I thank it is disgraceful to alter any religions writings from islam to Christianity. And the director held the truth of the story due to his fears when he could have shown it in its full intent which would have been great with the special effects we can do today. I prey someone does another version exactly as it is written to illustrate the writers failure.

    1. Science. Sorry typo . I appreciate science.

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