In one way, it’s been a great year for religious and spiritual films, with 2014 already having given us Noah, Heaven is for Real, Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Mom’s Night Out, Persecuted, When the Game Stands Tall, The Identical, and The Book of Life. In another way, though, it’s been a terrible year for faith-based films, as almost all of the aforementioned movies were bad, if not outright terrible. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings may be another Biblical movie in a long string of them, but it’s also better than most.
The story of Moses and his journey from the Pharaoh’s brother to the freer of the Israelites is one of the most cinematically fertile in the Bible, and Ridley Scott knows just how to tell it. Exodus: Gods and Kings walks the same ground as 1956’s The Ten Commandments and 1998’s The Prince of Egypt, but is arguably the best telling of the tale on film.
The movie begins with Moses (Christian Bale) fully grown, a military general and adopted brother to Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). The pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro) tells them of a prophecy that one will save the other and become a leader. (Three-thousand-year-old spoiler alert: It’s Moses.)
Moses is informed during a visit to the mining city of Pithom that he was actually born to Hebrew parents who were forced to give him up to save him from a slaughter of first-borns. When Ramesses finds out the truth of Moses’s lineage, he exiles Moses in the desert, where he finds both love and God.
Most people know the story of the burning bush awakening Moses’s faith, of his quest to free the Israelites, of the ten plagues unleashed upon the Egyptians, and of the parting of the Red Sea. It’s one thing to know the tale, though, and another to witness it realized on the broad canvas of a movie screen. Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments did an admirable job for 1956 standards, and The Prince of Egypt used animation to give a grander scale than live-action could afford in 1998, but Exodus: Gods and Kings is the most visually impressive depiction of the Book of Exodus there’s ever been.
Bale holds the screen with his Moses, but while he does what he does well, it’s all ground he’s covered in other roles. Edgerton is effective as the iniquitous Ramesses, but never rises above being a two-dimensional villain. Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, and Sigourney Weaver inject their characters with better performances than they deserve, but all are underutilized.
The biggest issue with the movie is that it’s either 30 minutes too long or 30 minutes too short. Frankly, it never flags, but despite its 150-minute running time, it feels like some scenes end too soon. If any Biblical story warrants at least a three-hour running time, it’s the story of Moses and the ten plagues (as The Ten Commandments already proved); Exodus: Gods and Kings would have been a stronger movie if it had had more time to tell its tale. Either that, or it should have been cut down even more, to tell a pared-down version of the story, a la The Prince of Egypt.
That problem is not a critical one, though. Exodus: Gods and Kings is a gripping and evocative telling of Moses’s divine mission and does the story justice. The visual effects are top-notch, Ridley Scott’s direction is sharp and masterful, and the narrative is well told. In a year of weak competition from faith-based films, it’s not hard to be the best religious movie of 2014, but even in a stronger year, Exodus: Gods and Kings would stand taller than most of its brethren.