Despite being one of the most well respected directors in the movie industry, Ridley Scott is known for having just as many misfires as he does hits. For every Alien, Blade Runner or Prometheus, he makes a film like last year’s The Counselor which received overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics. His latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, has also generated a mostly negative reaction, but I’m actually in the minority on this one. I thought that this retelling of the story of Moses was a hugely entertaining epic with topnotch production values. The script is admittedly pretty mediocre, but Scott’s great direction is able to salvage the film and actually turn it into a worthwhile experience.

The year is 1300 BC. After saving the life of the Pharaoh’s son Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) in battle, Moses (Christian Bale) is sent to oversee the Hebrew slaves. While there, he discovers the awful conditions that the slaves are living in and also discovers that he is a Hebrew himself. After his father dies, Ramesses becomes Pharaoh and learns that Moses is actually a Hebrew. He decides to banish Moses out of the kingdom and Moses is forced to wander the desert alone. He eventually meets a woman named Zipporah (María Valverde), who he later marries and has a son with. Years later, Moses has a vision of a burning bush and a young boy who serves as a representation of God. God tells Moses that he must return to Egypt and rescue his people from slavery. Moses then leaves his family and returns to Egypt to confront Ramesses and he brings the power of God along with him.

Exodus does have a shaky start, beginning with a generic medieval battle that feels way too similar to Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. Even after this battle, the pacing of the film grinds to a halt as we’re forced to watch Moses meet with Viceroy Hegep and oversee the slaves. These scenes are not very interesting and Scott’s assured direction can only carry the film so far. But once Moses returns to the kingdom and Ramesses finds out about Moses’ true lineage, things pick up for the better. Joel Edgerton’s Ramesses doesn’t start out as evil at the film’s onset. He’s conflicted when he finds out that one of his closest advisors is a Hebrew and he doesn’t know what to do. His mother urges Ramesses to execute Moses, but he simply can’t bring himself to kill someone that he was so close to. It’s great to watch Ramesses wrestle with this dilemma and it paints him as a fully formed character and not just a one-note villain.

But it’s not until Moses returns to Egypt and brings about the plagues that things become really great. Each plague is astounding to watch and Scott and his team of filmmakers use modern day visual effects to show us these plagues like never before. For example, the first plague of water turning into blood doesn’t just happen instantaneously. Instead, we get to watch a large group of crocodiles devour everything in their path, which causes enough blood to spill and turn the entire river red. Anyone who is looking for an exact retelling of the story in the bible probably won’t be happy with changes like these, but I found them to be incredibly exciting and unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.

All of these plagues eventually lead to the parting of the Red Sea, which is such a hugely satisfying finale to witness. The waters don’t immediately separate into two giant walls like in previous adaptations. Here the water slowly drains away until there’s no liquid anywhere in sight. For a brief moment it seems like this adaptation won’t show any large walls of water, but then Ramesses and his men attempt to cross and all of the water comes rushing back in a monster sized wave. It’s a truly awesome sight and watching it on a large movie theater screen is enough to make your jaw drop.

Even with a nearly two and a half hour runtime, the film is over before you know it, mostly because everything in the second half is so enthralling. As Moses, Christian Bale never completely disappears into the role, but he does allow this larger than life figure to feel sympathetic and relatable. The brief subplot involving his wife and son may feel extraneous initially, but it’s got a great resolution that ends the film on a surprisingly emotional note. This is far from the most biblically accurate retelling of the story of Exodus, but it’s almost always exciting and beautiful to look at. Ridley Scott doesn’t always make great films, but this one is far from a misfire. I doubt people will still be watching Exodus: Gods and Kings 50 years from now like they do with The Ten Commandments, but it’s still well worth checking out.

Exodus: Gods and Kings receives 3/4

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