Here’s the thing: if you assume your audience already knows the story – in this case, that of Moses (Christian Bale) and the freeing of the Hebrews from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh Ramses the Great (Joel Edgerton) – then you’d better make sure your version knocks every other version they’ve seen out of the cinema ballpark. Because everyone is going to be comparing your incarnation to all the rest, with a proverbial mental checklist of what they expect: key moments, iconic scenes and some kind of fresh, new approach.
Scott definitely succeeds with regard to the approach and some of the iconic scenes. The CGI effects are spectacular (billions of locusts! breathtaking vistas filled with armies! ancient Egypt recreated down to every dusty detail!), and allow the filmmakers to bring to life previously unfilmable elements of the Moses story in astonishingly realistic ways.
But, unfortunately, a number of key moments are either glossed over or completely omitted – not the least of which is the entire receiving of the Ten Commandments, which is relegated to a brief throwaway scene – resulting in a story that only works if you already know it… and how it ends. Otherwise, you leave the theater with more questions than answers: where is Moses going? how much time has passed? what’s he chiseling on that stone? WHY does his hair keep getting longer and whiter with each passing scene? and who’s that rather angry British kid who keeps appearing with a tea kettle (no joke) and yelling at Moses? (It’s God, and is one of the creative liberties the filmmakers take with the tale.)
Speaking of British, whose idea was it to have the cast – made up of Americans, Brits, Aussies, Scots and assorted other nationals – all adopt British accents? Was it for uniformity? Oh, save for Sigourney Weaver, that is. She only has one for about three seconds and then it vanishes. (Much like she does – I think she has two lines of dialogue, and about as many minutes of screen time, in the entire film. Why is she even here?)
Bale, as Moses, is all grit and determination, and his performance is okay. But he’s far, far outshone by co-star Edgerton, who has the flashier, meatier role as Ramses. Edgerton’s character, with all his fear-tinged hubris, is wonderfully three- dimensional and fascinating and fun to watch; by contrast, Bale’s Moses is kind of… bland and uninteresting.
A caveat for anyone heading to a theater to check out Exodus, though: it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and 90 minutes of that is backstory. The actual exodus, with all its plagues and sea-parting and such, is crammed into the final hour, with the biggest set pieces relegated to the last 30 minutes. The first 2/3 of the film are rich and beautifully paced, and then the last third feels like a mad scramble to get to the finish line. I actually checked my watch at the 2:15 mark because I had no idea how the filmmakers were going to wrap up the rest of the story and hit all the final marks in time for the impending credits. The answer? They don’t, really.
The Blu-ray released includes a feature commentary by director/producer Ridley Scott and co-screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, as well as nine deleted and extended scenes, and the Exodus Historical Guide, which offers a feature-length trivia track, so that you, too can win the next Bible Trivia Night at your local pub.