Exodus: Gods and Kings is not an offensive Hollywood cash-grab, nor is it a particularly inventive revision of the Exodus story.
Exodus: Gods and Kings reimagines the story of Moses as a sword and sandals epic based on key events from Hebrew scripture. In the big screen version, Moses (Christian Bale) and Prince Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) are raised together as “brothers,” eventually fighting side-by-side as generals in the Pharaoh’s army. Even though Rhamses is heir-apparent to the Egyptian throne, King Seti I (John Turturro) regularly confides in Moses and trusts him with Egypt’s most sensitive missions – fostering a bitterness and insecurity in Rhamses.
During a trip to Pithom to confront a corrupt Viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn), Moses meets a local slave who claims “Moishe” was born a Hebrew but raised Egyptian (in order to prevent his murder). Shortly after, rumors of Moses’ true heritage reach the court of (now) King Rhamses. Hardened by his insecurities, the new Pharaoh reluctantly casts his childhood friend out of the Egyptian kingdom – dooming him to uncertain death in the desert.
Moses manages to survive, but following years of exile as a humble shepherd, he’s pulled back into the conflict between Egypt and the enslaved Hebrews. When God appears to Moses and demands he aid the Hebrew people, the former Egyptian general is tasked with his toughest challenge yet – wresting with his place in a battle between a vengeful god and a tyrannical king.
Trailing half-a-year behind Darren Aronofsky’s divisive re-imagining of the Noah story, director Ridley Scott is presenting his own adaptation of a well-known bible story (not to mention classic Charlton Heston movie). Even though Scott’s Exodus movie does not take as many liberties as Aronofsky’s Noah narrative, the film still includes a number of changes that will, without question, be problematic for moviegoers who simply want to see a step-by-step recreation of the classic bible tale on film. Conversely, viewers who enjoyed the unrelenting exploration of Noah as a character in Aronofsky’s movie may feel that Scott’s depiction of Moses isn’t quiet as layered or ambitious. As a result, Exodus lands in a harmless middle ground – a rousing period epic with capable exploration of its main character, sharp visuals, and some interesting adaptations of scriptural touchstones.
The director borrows heavily from earlier sword and sandals stories, pasting a number of familiar elements onto the relationship between Moses and Ramses (e.g., brothers in arms-turned-into enemies) – meaning that viewers at extreme ends of the audience (those hoping for a close adaptation or a drastic reimagining) may find that Scott has either taken too many or not enough liberties with the events of Exodus. The film should be entertaining for casual viewers, but, as indicated, sensitive churchgoers need to prepare for plenty of “it didn’t happen that way” alterations – while non-religious cinephiles should also temper their expectations, since Gods and Kings doesn’t feature a particularly fresh or avant-garde re-imagining of the material.
Aside from a few controversial adjustments that streamline the narrative for a broad movie audience, the Exodus: Gods and Kings storyline is mostly in step with the fundamental message and themes of the Hebrew scriptures – but placing added emphasis on Moses’ personal doubts and the horror of God’s violent crusade to punish the Egyptians. Scott depicts Moses as a man who is daunted by the task (and means of accomplishing it) – rather than blindly following orders. To that end, Exodus: Gods and Kings isn’t just defined by arresting visuals, it’s also a moving tale of relatable faith (where the world isn’t always entirely black and white).
To that end, the filmmaker is careful to ensure that his main players are not flat caricatures and even the Pharaoh is positioned as a flawed ruler – rather than an evil slave-driving king. In fact, the relatable transformation of Ramses from Moses’ “brother” to an impetuous and defiant dictator helps differentiate the core drama from similar films – to the extent that viewers should easily identify with Moses’ conflicted feelings – as he plays his part in God’s vendetta against the Egyptian people.
Bale is suitable in the lead role, portraying Moses as a sharp but sensitive leader, and a capable fighter. Scott takes free license over the character’s backstory (especially the battle-hardened warrior part), but the juxtaposition between his life as an Egyptian general and a conscientious tool for God successfully enhances the central ideas of the bible story, while providing a clever backdrop for exciting pre-plague set pieces in the first act. Similarly, even though the director chose to whitewash an otherwise middle-eastern culture with Caucasian actors, Edgerton gives a strong performance as Ramses, taking full advantage of the king’s complicated feelings about Moses (as well as the challenges of ruling in his father’s shadow). Whereas Hebrew scripture makes mention of God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, the tragedy surrounding Ramses, and how exactly he breaks down over time, is one of the film’s more effective arcs.
That said, every other side character is reduced to one-note outline – despite contributions from top-tier acting talent. Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver’s characters, Joshua and Queen Tuya respectively, are especially underdeveloped – while Ben Kingsley is afforded slightly more as a devout Hebrew, Nun. Given that the theatrical cut of Exodus: Gods and Kings sports a 150 minute runtime, Scott could eventually release a more complete version (one where Joshua and Tuya are allotted enough screen time to warrant portrayal by such well-known names), but was forced to shorten the film and narrow his focus to Moses and Ramses for the box office. Ultimately, Gods and Kings works without fleshing out these supporting players, but several threads are left unwoven – or are simply too ambiguous to do anything more than advance the plot.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is playing in both 2D and 3D theaters, but whether the premium charge is worthwhile will be up to the viewer. The film features a number of visually stunning scenes, but above all else, Scott’s Exodus movie is still a straightforward drama – meaning that the primary focus is on its human characters. Sweeping shots of the Egyptian cities take advantage of 3D immersion but it isn’t until halfway through the movie (once the plagues hit) that viewers will really get to see the full-blown scale and effects work.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is not an offensive Hollywood cash-grab, nor is it a particularly inventive revision of the Exodus story. Instead, Scott has delivered a palatable mix of action, drama, and theological ruminating worthy of casual film viewing. Still, while viewers debate this sword (rather than staff) wielding Moses, Scott succeeds in his primary objective – painting Moses as a man who, for better or worse, wrestles with God, faith, family, and his duty.
Exodus: Gods and Kings runs 150 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. Curious about the changes that Scott made to the Exodus story? Read our Exodus: Gods and Kings: Differences Between the Movie & the Bible feature.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Exodus: Gods and Kings episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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