It’s impossible not to compare Ridley Scott’s new Moses biopic “Exodus: Gods and Kings” to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Technicolor classic, “The Ten Commandments.”
Like Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” earlier this year, “Exodus” is a darker retelling, practically absent color.
Also absent is reverence. None of the traditional, “Let my people go.” Scott’s Moses (Christian Bale) is a general leading a slave uprising. “If Pharaoh won’t free you,” he tells them, “then attack the Egyptians’ property and comforts so the people will pressure Pharaoh to free you via an executive papyrus.” OK, someone behind me whispered that last part.
It’s hard to say if Scott is leaking his contempt for religion or simply pandering to an audience much more agnostic than those of DeMille’s era. Here many of the plagues are waved off with the “science” of the day. Pharaoh’s advisers reckon a crocodile frenzy whipped-up red clay to turn the Nile crimson, which killed sea life and had downstream consequences like an unchecked population of frogs, which brought locusts and so on.
And, in an exchange with Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) with whom he grew-up, Bale appeals to the Pharaoh’s sense of social justice, “Pay them or set them free,” he says with none of the enthusiasm or gravitas of Charlton Heston. So much for a divine mission.
At times it’s not even clear if Bale’s Moses believes in God or readily submits to His will. The child figure he meets near the burning bush with whom he spars throughout the film is referred to as “a messenger” whom no one else sees. Is He just a figment of the imagination of someone who’s been in the desert too long? Later Moses is seen chiseling the stone tablets himself. A curious take on the traditional interpretation.
As one of the Hebrew elders, Ben Kingsley helps unfold the prophesy but there is regrettably very little of him or, for that matter, other enablers like Joshua (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) or brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet), as if Moses went it alone.
Some epic battles from this director of “Gladiator” and solid special effects, but too much deviation from the venerated narrative is undermining.
Thou shalt not see.
Med City Movie Guy’s rating: 2 Honks
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Hollywood has a fascination with ancient Egypt that can’t all be attributed to Elizabeth Taylor skinning-dipping in a milk bath. Here are a few films depicting the era that I rate “4 Scarabs”:
History of the World, Part I. Probably the only Mel Brooks movie that I enjoy, this 1981 comedy features the director as Moses bringing down three tablets. “The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen … (drops one) … Oy! Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey.
The Mummy (1999). Apologies to Boris Karloff, this Brendan Fraser resurrection is hands-down the best take on the story. Fun and chock full of great effects. Co-stars Rachel Weisz and Kevin J. O’Connor as the breakout favorite Beni. Fun fact, O’Connor and I are both alums of the Chicago-area St. Laurence High School.
Cleopatra (1963). She’s been the subject (or object) of big screen treatment on many occasions including one in 1934 by DeMille but to many film fans, Taylor will forever be the Queen of the Nile. Lavish sets and budget overruns nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox; adjusting for inflation it was the second-most expensive film to produce all-time. At four hours it’s an effort, but well worth it.