Okay, full disclosure: I signed up to review Exodus: Gods and Kings because I’ve done two film reviews for this magazine and they’ve both been for movies I basically liked. It’s rare you go into a cinema hoping not to enjoy yourself, but in a perverse way I actually wanted this film to fail. I wanted something I could sink my critical teeth into and draw blood, and with its dodgy racial casting, awkward title, and enticingly low Rotten Tomatoes score, Exodus looked perfect.
The only problem is, I actually liked it.
A retelling of the story of Moses, Exodus joins Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in a new wave of biblical epics made by people who don’t seem to give a shit about the Bible. Its director Ridley Scott identifies as Atheist, and Christian Bale, its Moses, has described his character as “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life” and “likely schizophrenic”.
Songs of Praise this is not, and it’s a sensibility that manifests in the movie. While it might alienate religious viewers, the film’s reluctance to justify God’s actions (particularly the murder of Egypt’s children, portrayed as legitimately horrific) gives the proceedings a moral greyscale that biblical cinema often lacks. On the technical side, Scott makes use of his high production values to infuse shots with his detailed visual flair, creating fittingly spectacular scenes of battles and plagues.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have major issues. It’s a long sit, and, like with Prometheus, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Scott doesn’t have as much to say about religion as he thinks he does – though at least Exodus has characters that act like human beings. And that casting is dodgy; even beyond the obvious problems of pretending a load of white guys are Egyptian, Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul are both wasted while Sigourney Weaver is inexplicably the only person in the film with an American accent.
But overall, the film’s strong visuals and two compelling leads keep it well above Scott’s weakest work – though it remains perhaps equally far from his strongest.