Thursday, December 18, 2014

Casting, Religion, and the Inevitable Director's Cut: A Tentative Review of "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Exodus: Gods and Kings
There are three issues that need to be addressed immediately for Exodus: Gods and Kings. First, the "controversy" over the cast. Many have cried foul about white actors and actresses like Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, and Ben Kingsley (by the way, I had no clue Weaver, Paul, and Turturro were in this until they showed up onscreen) playing Middle Eastern characters. Director Ridley Scott has been generally criticized for responding to the casting saying that (and I'm paraphrasing) a film this expensive could not be made with lesser known middle eastern actors. Now I'm all for realism in movies, and yes, the casting is distracting at times (most notably Australian Joel Edgerton as an Egyptian pharaoh), but some things can't, or shouldn't, be helped. This strikes me as another pointless thing to be outraged about, and it gives moviegoers and critics alike an easy reason to bash the film. When you think about it, however, it's hypocritical to condemn a movie for unrealistic casting because the film world is based on unreality. Where do we stop? How about the fact that all the characters speak English, a language that didn't exist back then? Or what about the use of computer effects? The plagues of the Bible were not computer generated! You see my point. It's not as if someone suffered because of the casting of this movie, and if it really bothers you that much, just don't watch it. As for me, the casting definitely seemed odd at first, but by the end I had accepted each actor in their role.

The second issue that must be addressed is religion. As with Noah, the filmmakers have not created a word-for-word faithful adaptation from the Bible. This is an interpretation of the story. The screenwriters (Steven Zaillian, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, and Jeffrey Caine) adapted the story so that it features God and is certainly religious but can also be seen from the secular viewpoint (for instance, only Moses actually sees God, to others it appears that Moses is talking to himself). This is actually something that I like because it leaves the story open to a bit of interpretation. It tends to anger the very religious and the very anti-religious, though. By presenting both sides, the more devout viewers will cry foul that it isn't religious enough or that it is too religious. Viewers who are simply wanting to watch a movie, however, should be fine.
"Son, listen closely, I only have three lines of dialogue."

The third issue is the inevitable director's cut of this film. When I reflected back on the cast of this film, it seemed strange that such high-profile actors like Weaver and Kingsley were in the film when they played such a minimal role (seriously, Weaver is barely in this movie). I then remembered Kingdom of Heaven, Scott's other religious-themed epic. That film (which I actually liked in the theater) was butchered from 190 to 144 minutes for the theaters losing the majority of the character development of that film. (You can read my complete thoughts about it here.) Exodus is 150 minutes long, and a number of characters are one-note or one-scene. I am almost certain that a director's cut closer to, if not over, 180 minutes will be released in a few months. If that is the case, I plan on reviewing this film again. For now, let's consider this my tentative review of Exodus. But seriously, Hollywood, just let Scott release what he wants at this point; what's another 30 minutes?

As for the movie itself, Exodus tells a compelling story, and it looks great. While the source material is only the inspiration for the story, most people will still be aware of all the main points of the narrative. This is Moses's story: raised as an Egyptian priest, he was destined to lead his people, the Hebrews, out of bondage. As I stated earlier, this isn't a word-for-word adaptation, but you know the story. The most important addition to the story is the relationship between the pharaoh, Ramses (Edgerton), and Moses. They are like brothers, which adds a bit more conflict to Moses's fight for freedom. It felt a little too reminiscent of the rivalry between Maximus and Commodus in another Scott epic, Gladiator. But I suppose a little extra drama doesn't hurt.

"I'm in this movie too, bitch!"
Exodus goes through the Biblical epic checklist. There are battles, spectacles, plagues, etc. As far as all that goes, there's no new ground broken here. The film in general has the look we've come to expect from Scott, which is to say it looks great. It's hard to praise the film on a purely visual level, though. It's good, but there's nothing particularly special here. I definitely felt the PG-13 rating in the battles, though. A Ridley Scott battle needs to have plenty of blood; the gore of his battles makes his films beautiful. When you take that away, his battle sequences are honestly kind of boring because he has to do all these quick cuts that shy away from bloodshed. It's all too tame. Once again, here's hoping for that director's cut.

It would appear that I'm a bit lukewarm when it comes to this film, but I honestly did enjoy it. Nothing blew me away, but Christian Bale's performance won me over. Many have complained about how the film slows down in the middle, but that is when the film becomes Moses's story. Bale is a great actor to watch struggle with things like family and faith. Others may find it boring, but that middle section is where his character gets to come to life, which is more than you can say for pretty much every other character in the film. (Something that could be fixed in a director's cut, perhaps?) 

The true journey of the film is Moses's acceptance of "his people." There is a great moment near the end of the film that addresses this (and the film should have ended there, by the way, instead of going on like Return of the King for another ten minutes), but it didn't really feel earned...not completely, anyway. Moses begins as an Egyptian and seems not to care for the Hebrews, and then he's told he is one, and he just kind of accepts it. Sure, there was the divine intervention, but I wanted to see him suffer with his people or identify with them a bit more. Instead, it seems like he just shows up and is the leader. This problem could have been used to create more conflict. More Hebrews should have questioned Moses. Moses should have stressed more about how he feels for both the Hebrews and the Egyptians who were suffering. To be fair, there are hints to this conflict, but it is never fleshed out. I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I am willing to bet there are specific scenes that were cut that would have added exactly what I'm missing. For instance, Moses is introduced to his long-lost brother who welcomes him very cynically. And that's it. Nothing is explained. There is no more interaction between them. That is really the biggest problem with Exodus. Plenty of very interesting conflicts are hinted at but never come to fruition…director’s cut!

Perhaps I am giving Ridley Scott too much credit for what isn't here. Honestly, though, I truly enjoyed this film despite all the issues or missed opportunities throughout. I believe there is an amazing film to be edited out of this. Still, as is, Exodus is much better than anyone is giving it credit for. Hopefully I am right about a director's cut, then everyone can see what Exodus can and should be. Until then, my tentative opinion is that it's good for now, but let's see what an extra half hour can do.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

So Ewen Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting) is in this as well, playing a character called, according to IMDb, "Expert." He basically has a scientific explanation for every plague that strikes Egypt. His casting shows that his part is meant to be comedic relief. Surprisingly, I was okay with this. Even his execution is played for laughs. Maybe it was because it was nice to see some comedy in such a serious film, but I honestly enjoyed it, even though it's kind of ridiculous and not in keeping with the rest of the film at all.

Also, I actually liked Edgerton's over-the-top performance. Once you get past the Australian accent the Egyptian pharaoh has, you can see Edgerton really getting into this role. I can only assume that he thought this would be nominated for awards and this was his shot at some supporting actor awards. He's not going to get any nominations (and probably shouldn't), but he certainly makes his scenes more interesting than they may have been with another, more low-key actor.

One last thing I hope for in a director's cut: a more dickish Moses. In the film he is very dismissive of the Hebrews in an early scene, and he's offended at the thought of actually being one, but his change would be even more powerful if he is a bit more awful to them. I wish he had a revelation about the Hebrews from his own actions. Instead, he takes up with them because he gets kicked out of Egypt, and God just flat out tells him to join them. He argues with God plenty later in the film, so why is he so accepting at first. Just give me one moment where Moses seems to realize they are his people.

Exodus: Gods and Kings receives a:

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