If the ending of the saga of Middle Earth left you pining for epic cinema adaptations of fantasy literature, you didn’t have to wait too long for the next one to come along. Sir Ridley Scott’s contribution to the Biblical cinematic oeuvre is a mediocre, overly solemn and thematically muddled retelling of elements of the book of Exodus.
In Ancient Egypt, the great Pharaoh Seti I’s reign is drawing to an end and as his son Ramesses II prepares for the succession, he grows jealous of his father’s preference for his adopted ‘brother’ Moses. When Moses’ heritage comes to light, he is cast out from the kingdom to wander in the wilderness but eventually he encounters God who commands him to return to Egypt and save his people. When Ramesses refuses Moses’ request, things get properly Biblical.
Like “Noah”, this film lifts elements from the Biblical text and elements from historical fact and blends them together with an enormous amount of artistic licence in the attempt to create a sweeping action adventure film. Ramesses II is only one of a handful of candidates to have been the supposed pharaoh of the exodus but this film is content to follow in the footsteps of previous films, notably Cecil B DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and animated movie “The Prince Of Egypt” on the identity of the ruler who lost the slaves. Unfortunately, the script is more focussed on ticking the boxes of showing the bits that everyone knows/ is waiting to see than in giving any depth to the characters. Instead, we get paper-thin caricatures, with actions and motivations buffeted around by the requirements to get the story to the next plot point.
It doesn’t help that the film is woefully miscast, predicated on the belief that all it takes to play Egyptian or Hebrew is a bottle of fake tan and to go heavy on the eyeliner. When John Turturro playing a noble and wise Egyptian Pharaoh isn’t the most awkward and distracting thing in your movie, you know that something’s gone very wrong with the casting process. Joel Egerton is just awful as the capricious and weak willed Pharaoh (casting doubt on how could ever turn out to be Ramesses The Great, one of Ancient Egypt’s longest reigning monarchs) but it’s not his fault given what he has to work with. Christian Bale is typically committed in his po-faced, humourless take on Moses. You get the impression that Bale didn’t like the character very much and that comes across in his brutal and ruthless portrayal. Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, Ewan Bremner, Tara Fitzgerald and Ken Bones (among many others) are all wasted in minor roles which require far too much make-up.
It’s not that Ridley Scott doesn’t try to present a new or different point of view on things. Some of Moses’ early attempts to free the slaves are unambiguously presented as acts of terrorism, and Bale’s Moses is determined to fight a war of attrition to grind the Egyptians down. There’s also an attempt to present many of the plagues as the natural follow-on from each other, as one disaster begets another. But Scott’s most interesting choice is arguably his decision to portray God as a petulant and vengeful child, literally (although there is an escape clause built in when Moses complains of being tired of speaking to a ‘messenger’, the overwhelming majority of the dialogue suggests that the boy Malak is God). The God of the Old Testament really does not come out of this movie well.
The necessary grandeur and splendour of Ancient Egypt and the famous plagues visited upon it are expansively and lavishly rendered but in this age of CGI the film shows us nothing that we haven’t seen before. Disappointingly, there are some points where the CGI work is adequate at best but the film hits a major bump in the road when God visits his final plague on the people of Egypt and kills all the children. The final plague is shown in such a heart-breaking and extended fashion and makes it nigh-on impossible not to have at least some sympathy with the Pharaoh and his people. I guess Scott was making a point about how far you can support a political and social rebellion and what do you do when the side you support goes too far but couching it in such a dogma-driven fable obscures the point and just makes it uncomfortable viewing.
Ultimately this is a hollow, pointless remake which offers special effects and sweeping vistas instead of insight and substance. It’s theological junk food for the superficial soul. Given that earlier last year, we had “Noah” from the book of Genesis, and now this, I shudder at the idea that Michael Bay’s “Leviticus” is just around the corner.