What is most striking about, and undoubtedly the first thing you’ll notice when watching, Exodus: Gods and Kings, the latest film from Ridley Scott, is that it is big. In fact, it is perhaps Scott’s biggest film to date, and for a director who made the lavish epics Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, that’s really saying something. Enormous physical sets coincide with hundreds upon hundreds of extras to create the kind of old-school scale that cinema has only very rarely seen since the early ‘60s. Fittingly, much like the grand epics of Golden Age Hollywood, Exodus is a desert story, retelling the immediately familiar tale of Moses (Christian Bale) leading the Jews out of Egypt. The sheer scope of the film is almost overwhelming, but through well-marshalled action sequences, incredible effects, and a knowing sense of campiness, Scott manages to avoid any boredom, which one may justifiably associate with a two and a half hour Old Testament adaptation.
Far more conventional and faithful to its source than the other Biblical film of 2014, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Exodus opens with Moses and the Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton) on very good terms. They were raised as brothers, to the point where Moses is actually the preferred son of his adoptive father (John Turturro) and they fight by each others’ sides in combat. That is until Ramses discovers that Moses is actually of Hebrew descent, which awakens in him a paranoia, exiling his brother to the east. From there it’s a story which many are innately familiar with – burning bush, deadly plagues, Red Sea. It’s all handled with expert vision and confidence by Scott, as one would expect of such a seasoned director, even if his recent output has been underwhelming. The battle scenes inject a great change of pace from the film’s more political and spiritual segments, although those moments are also engaging thanks to the fantastic lead duo. Whilst whitewashing accusations can be made against the film’s casting, Bale and Edgerton are both great actors, and the star power of Bale in particular would be sorely missed in his absence.
The combination of massive sets and on-location shooting makes for superb battle scenes, with the sheer scope of the action impressive enough to hold my attention at all points. Moses as a warrior is a slightly less well explored part of the Exodus story, but it lends extra believability to his ascent to the position of Hebrew leader. However, this being a Biblical tale, his most powerful asset is that he has a direct line to God, who asserts Himself with the imperious phrase, ‘I Am’. Represented here as a petulant child (played by Issac Andrews), the personification of the Old Testament Lord is one of Exodus’ more subversive characteristics. He’s vengeful, violent, and stubborn, all traits very much present in the Bible, but rarely presented as character flaws, as they are here. The plagues he unleashes, aided by state of the art VFX, are astoundingly grim, from the rivers of blood to the boils to the very distressing sequence of all the firstborn sons being killed in their sleep. Even though Moses himself remains a heroic figure, it’s hard to see God as a protagonist as all the parents of Egypt wail with grief.
In amongst all the sorrow and the stabbings, however, Scott allows himself the occasional wry smile. Ramses’ court is never taken fully seriously, from Ben Mendelsohn’s camp Viceroy Hegep to Ewen Bremner as the idiotic self-proclaimed ‘expert’ attempting to scientifically explain God’s wrath. Exodus is Ridley Scott’s best film in years, miles ahead of the confused Counsellor and deathly dull Robin Hood. Although his finest film remains Alien, he’s truly adept at crafting enormous worlds in which epics can take place. Even though you can really feel that there’s still a director’s cut to come (Aaron Paul, for example, is given far too little to do), Exodus is still a thoroughly engaging, unconventional modern epic. Every inch of it is awesome in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and when the Red Sea is finally parted, you’ll be left with a sense of wonder.