Hope it’s not just coincidence, but it looks like reimagining the Bible with Hollywood’s leading men of machismo is the new directorial du jour. After Aronofsky’s post-catastrophe family drama of “Noah” earlier this year, Ridley Scott now takes the helm on this ginormous, old school epic with nearly a thousand extras to pen a love letter to his late brother Tony Scott.
We all know the hoary-headed Ridley Scott from such other spectacles as “Gladiator”, the “Alien” franchise and “Prometheus”, and we all know about the story of Moses, images of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea with his stave of God and Old Testament scenes taken from the Book of Exodus still fresh in the heads of anybody who’s had to sit through 10 Commandments during Holy Week.
This adventure anchors those sweeping game changers in the story of a reluctant prophet’s daring and courage to take on the might of the vast empire on the Nile: Moses as Prince of Egypt, as brother to Ramses, unwitting Hebrew, and later as exile and eventual revolutionary.
Using state of the art visual effects and 3D immersion, Scott and co bring to life the defiant leader Moses (Christian Bale) as he makes like a community organizer and rouses the Hebrews against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), setting 400,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape. Scott saw the Exodus from Egypt as the original and definitive heroic saga and gives it its due in cinematic vision and pounding action sequences.
Much political bickering, hanging, and terrifying cycle of deadly plagues occur in between. You can really feel the rivers running red and all those other plagues (locusts and froggies, yeah) in the 3D grit of it.
It’s also, incidentally, a powerful and personal narrative rich with emotion, rivalry and betrayal and an undying quest for freedom. I mean, if you’ve ever imagined how Moses felt when he found out he was Hebrew, and the whole being floated down the river in a basket thing, you can rest assured this movie has it covered.
It’s complex, but you can boil it down to two major relationships intertwining and impacting their nation and their people: the one with Moses and Ramses, a familial bond that also happens to be a royal one, and a relationship wrecked by political strife and pressured by bickering from their relatives; and there’s Moses and God, which is an interaction so lopsided that it’s burdened by divine fury and mission that mortal quandaries and ethical dilemmas constrain it frustratingly, and yet it is exactly Moses’s humanity that allows it to take shape — albeit it is the mortal concerns of good and evil that often hold it back.
Scott has so far chosen to embody the Hebrew God of antediluvian times as a child, a sheep herder often petulant and with an attitude problem, who has a proclivity for making tea and issuing menacing demands.
In any case both relationships affect the Hebrews and the Egyptians. One of my favorite scenes is Moses accosting Ramses in the Egyptian stables post-exile, where Moses delivers God’s ultimatum with a diplomatic visit, proposing the liberation of the slaves…or else; and Ramses replies in all honesty, without malice: “That would be problematic right now because of the economy .” It’s a tongue in cheek joke that made everyone with even a passing interest in market bullishness or bearishness chuckle, but it also illuminated Ramses’s state of mind at the time – that it wasn’t at all personal, just a King looking out for the financial stability of his country.
The supporting cast is also stellar with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in the mix, but the surprise scene stealer is “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul as, well, Aaron, who is given his due as a Hebrew toughie and Moses’s go-to lieutenant.
What shines here is a Scott specialty: the slaughter, the close-quarters combat, and the sweeping army versus army sequences where filigreed Egyptian chariots collide against Hittite shields and spears. If you’ve seen Gladiator, then this is Moses and Ramses getting the Maximus treatment.
As uneven and novelistic as it is with a running time of more than two hours that can be a tough sit-through, there’s a lot to love in the ambition of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and even the non-Catholics in the audience can be rest assured of a few hours of entertainment at the suffering of the Hebrews, the stubbornness of Coptic royalty, and how rough it must have been in a time of slavery building the pyramids and pretty much all the monuments of Egypt.
8. God, Etc According To Ridley Scott
“Moses’ life is one of the greatest adventures and spiritual quests of all time,” said Scott. From its opening battle where 15,000 Egyptian soldiers attack a Hittite encampment, to the towering structures, a terrifying series of plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea, Scott brings his signature vision to one of our most cherished and important stories.
“I love anything larger-than-life,” he continued. “I knew what to do with Gladiator – how to make it really breathe, live and feel like people did in that era. With EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, I wanted to similarly bring to life the Egyptian culture and the Exodus in a way never before possible.”
7. Batman Does Moses
“Christian has a very powerful physical presence on screen,” noted director Ridley Scott.
Before shooting EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Bale had starred in the Scott Free production “Out of the Furnace,” playing a steel worker. To Scott, that role, in a way, presaged the actor’s turn as the Hebrew prophet and liberator. “Moses is much more like a steel worker than a Pharaoh – he’s a modest man with common sense.” Scott described Bale’s performance as “an inside job. He gets right into the character and you are staring at a passionate leader. I enjoyed working with Christian as much as I have with anyone; he surprised me every day. I expected a lot, and I got more.”
There was certainly much to explore with the character, for Scott. “Moses is an iconic figure who at the same time has to be played as a real person,” he said. “He’s the film’s heroic center and its emotional core.”
6. Ramses Also Rises
Joel Edgerton has risen to become one of the most versatile dark horse leading men of the past few years, what with vacillating sympathetic and villainous roles in Warrior, the Great Gatsby, and other big movies, he has often said he relishes complex characters.
“The most fascinating villain is someone who, in their own movie, would be the hero,” he explained. “I always feel if you can understand the bad guy, you can cheer for the hero even more. So I wanted to find that balance between doing my job as the villain of the piece, but give him humanity. Amidst all the epic scenes of warfare, the big conflict here is the battle of wills between Ramses and Moses.”
Edgerton admitted that Ramses has a huge ego, as expected from someone brought up to believe he is a living god. “He is unreasonable and lacks empathy,” said the actor. “Ramses is a tyrant and a dictator, but that was part of the beliefs of the times.”
5. Oi, Brother, Free My Peeps!
The central relationship of EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is between Moses and Ramses, who grew up as brothers. Ramses becomes Pharaoh and Moses his most trusted advisor and second in command. But when Ramses learns that Moses is actually a Hebrew, he expels his “brother” into the desert and to an almost certain death.
“Ramses personifies how absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Joel Edgerton, who plays Ramses. “Ramses starts to believe he actually is a god, which creates a wonderful dynamic between Moses and him.”
Ramses is the story’s principal antagonist, but Scott and Edgerton wanted to give the character nuances and complexities that transcend stock villainy. “Ramses has a strong , brotherly connection to Moses, so he’s very conflicted when Moses is revealed to be a Hebrew. He also loves his wife Nefertari, and his young son, so that gives him important emotional shadings,” said the director.
4. Pyramid Schemes: Supporting Cast
The supporting cast of EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is comprised of numerous award winners, and hails from a wide range of countries. Because of this Scott and co didn’t shy away from casting a wide array of nationalities: John Turturro stars as Seti, Ben Kingsley as Nun, and Aaron Paul as Joshua.
As Ridley Scott explained, “Egypt was – as it is now – a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We cast actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture – from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs. There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people, and we had many discussions about how to best represent the culture. In bringing to life a story that has roots in many religions and is important to people across the world, we also looked to cast actors who could, through their vivid performances, do justice to a universal story.”
3. Wow Plagues, Much Death
When Ramses rejects Moses’ pleas to let the prophet’s people go, Egypt is hit by a series of plagues and pestilences and it’s in these scenes that Scott really put his visual gravel to the task. Ramses’ advisors offer science-based explanations for the phenomena – spectacles that are both thrilling and horrifying.
The first of 10 plagues comes after crocodiles in the Nile begin attacking each other, along with several seafaring Egyptians, in a vicious feeding frenzy. The bloody, roiling water turns the Nile red, leading to a carpet of dead, oxygen-deprived fish floating atop the surface. Frogs swarm over the city of Pi-Ramses, and even into Ramses’ palace, searching for food.
For that amphibious scene, 400 hundred frogs were called to set, with six frog handlers, a frog handler dog and a one meter high frog fence. In this scene, Golshifteh Farahani, playing Nefertari, showed her bravery over several takes by pretending to be asleep, knowing that a large bag of live frogs was being emptied over her head, and becoming entangled in her long hair.
After the amphibians die, flies swarm from their rotting, maggot-filled bodies, and the streets of the city Ramses has built in tribute to himself becomes invisible through a black curtain of flies. Said visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang: “We took the plagues to a new and different kind of level. The flies become very distinctive and thick in their movements, and locusts become even more troubling in the way they move and swarm.”
Next, lesions and boils mar the bodies of almost all Egyptians. Night brings hailstones the size of rocks, followed by a massive swarm of locusts. Laws of nature, taken to their extreme – and perhaps with divine intervention – can explain these plagues.
But then the final scourge transcends nature: The firstborn sons of Egypt are killed overnight, including the Pharaoh’s own child. When Ramses realizes that no Hebrew slave children have died, he orders them to leave Egypt – but shortly thereafter leads his army to pursue and kill the fleeing Hebrews.
2. Tea With The Old Testament Guy
The journey of Moses as religious prophet from exiled Prince is a long arc and one that is depicted in the movie much like a shamanistic journey. One of the things to watch out for is Moses becoming a married man, tying the knot with Zipporah (portrayed by the beautiful and exotic beauty Maria Valverde). You can see he’s happy there, for a time, shepherding goats and sheep; all before the burning bush and the angry Hebrew God comes into his life to charge him with mission.
1. Canaan Or Bust!
I won’t spoil the last act where 400,000 slaves are pursued by Ramses’s army through the Red Sea. Suffice it to say Scott and his CGI people did not disappoint.
All photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox.