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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 12:01 am

Spectacle, redemption propel Exodus

Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings.


Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to bringing epic visions to the screen. From the sci-fi sagas Blade Runner and Prometheus to the grand ancient tales Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, the filmmaker has consistently risen to the challenge of creating scenes that are meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible. He is today’s Cecil B. DeMille, so it stands to reason that he would take on one the veteran filmmaker’s classics, giving us an update of The Ten Commandments with Exodus: Gods and Kings. What with modern digital effects and an army of computer graphics artists at his disposal, Scott has more than enough tools to convincingly bring a series of plagues and the parting of the Red Sea convincingly to the big screen. He succeeds handsomely in rendering sequences worthy of this epic tale but what gives these moments emotional heft is the time spent fleshing out the story of two men raised as brothers whose destinies lead to a kingdom being ripped asunder and a race freed from slavery.  

The time is 1300 B.C.E. and the kingdom of Egypt holds sway over North Africa. Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) oversees an ever-expanding realm whose economy is dependent on a system of slavery that’s been in place for over 400 years in which the Hebrews are kept in abject poverty and worked literally to death. However, a change in this system is in the wind and it will have its birth in Seti’s own palace as, after his death, it’s revealed that his adopted son Moses (Christian Bale) is a Hebrew, something that’s been kept from him all of his life. His stepbrother, and now pharaoh, Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), reluctantly banishes him, setting him on a journey of self-discovery in which he will ultimately embrace his heritage and lead his people out of slavery.

There are few surprises narratively as the screenplay, fashioned by four different writers, adheres to the same basic story found in the Bible and DeMille’s 1956 version, though it does contain a truncated ending that some may find off-putting. It would be tempting to say that the raison d’etre of the film is to simply have its magnificent set pieces rendered with modern special effects. To be sure, as envisioned by Scott, the 10 plagues that befall Egypt when Rhamses refuses to free his slaves are a horrific wonder to behold, as they are engineered on a grand scale and presented as an interconnected set of events, one begetting the other until nothing is left in their wake. Equally impressive is the parting of the Red Sea, the basis for the film’s extended climax. Sure, it’s a digital trick, but the sheer scope of this effect as well as the way it seamlessly folds into the action between the Egyptian warriors and the fleeing Hebrews results in an emotionally resonant, awe-inspiring sight.

However, there’s more at play here than a display of cutting-edge visual effects. Bale’s Moses is seen as not only a practical man but one wracked with doubt, dismissive of anything that might suggest the existence of God or anything beyond this world. He accepts only that which can be based on reason and logic, leading him not only to scoff at the notion of God but also deny his origins. His conversion to true believer and liberator of his people is a slow one and Bale does an excellent job of sincerely conveying Moses’ doubt and confusion, resisting all the while, making his ultimate redemption all the more satisfying. This human take on this larger-than-life figure is a welcome access point while Edgerton’s portrayal of Rhamses, though not as complex, is not one based strictly in terms of black-and-white, as the actor actually elicits our sympathy when a horrific tragedy befalls him.

While some would consider it a backhanded compliment to call Exodus the best biblical film of the year (it’s not as confused as Noah and trumps Son of God in terms of scale), it is a movie that stands on its own in terms of achieving an epic vision as well as a moving account of one man’s path to salvation. Few filmmakers set out to realize as much as Scott does here, and while he may pull up a bit short in the end, what he manages to bring to life is impressive and at times rousing.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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