I still don’t know how a pharaoh talks

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is this giant Ridley Scott biblical epic and although it’s not ludicrous it somehow doesn’t impress either. You don’t know what’s real and what’s just pixels until finally you assume it’s all pixels. In fact they built quite a lot. It’s all colour-corrected to within an inch of its life, or beyond. Watching the extras was a breath of fresh air, suddenly things had their own colours and existence, of which they’re deprived in the movie itself.

The cast seem either clinically depressed or else just underused. Aaron Paul is introduced as a man who feels no pain, and then this never comes into play again. Sigourney Weaver has nothing to do. Christian Bayle — does he exist? His lack of personhood really comes across onscreen: maybe his best casting was VELVET GOLDMINE, which imagined its Bowie-figure as a shapeshifter with a void at the centre. In his interviews in the extras, Bayle speaks with the same gruff mockney accent he uses for Moses and which Russell Crowe used in GLADIATOR.

Joel Edgerton’s Ramses is based not on the Book of Exodus or Yul Brynner but on Joaquin Phoenix in the earlier hit. Phoenix’s confrontation with his father, Richard Harris, already echoed BLADE RUNNER’s meet-up between replicant Roy and his progenitor Tyrrel. It’s hard to decide if the echoes are deliberate, a recurrent theme as beloved of auteurists, or simply a case of Scott repeating a commercial formula that worked.

The movie is dedicated to Tony Scott, who took his life in 2012. As a tale of brothers, E:GAK is an odd tribute. Firstly, they’re not really brothers. Exactly as in GLADIATOR, the pharaoh (John Turturro)/emperor (Richard Harris) has a young warrior he wishes were his son. His natural son is a twisted egomaniac, lacking the competence of Moses/Maximus. The script’s only addition to Biblical lore that seems to resonate with the Scott brothers’ lives, in a way that isn’t grotesque, is Moses/Ridley trying to save Ramses/Tony from the annihilating Red Sea tsunami, which in this context would represent whatever depression or despair led Tony Scott to jump. But I don’t know if this was a conscious echo.

I also don’t know to what extent the film is deliberately right-wing. Scott films often seem to land in such terrain, but you can never get a sense of intent. Still, the movie is more concerned with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, rather than their founding of their own land, so the film’s semi-namesake Preminger film is not evoked, and the film stops just short of being nakedly Zionist in a modern sense.

Scott in interviews appears tongue-tied, unfamiliar with basic figures of speech, at sea in anything resembling abstract concepts. His brains only work at full capacity when directed through his eyes, and then his design sense and imagery are often dazzling. But his colour sense, which always tends towards filtration, desaturisation, monochrome, has overlaid everything in a deadening glaze. Admittedly, this would be less of an issue in 3D, and I ought to have gone to see it on the big screen, if the lovely dimensional-environmental work in THE MARTIAN is anything to go by. But THE MARTIAN was far more involving on a human level.

The dialogue is functional. They avoid making the past seem like another country, they’re trying to make it seem like wherever we are now. I’m not sure this is a good call. I feel shortchanged — like I paid for a holiday and the plane never took off. The characters don’t feel like people you could know, which would be the advantage of robbing them of ancient world alienness. They just feel like movie cliches.

The real false good idea — apart from remaking De Mille, which apparently didn’t inspire the public with the desire to submit to spectacle — is the idea of demythologising the good book. The plagues of ancient Egypt are presented as natural phenomena. Moses communes with God via dreams, and even then, the burning bush doesn’t speak. Somebody stands in front of it and speaks. The dreams are quite scary and Lynchian, but devoid of magic. And the parting of the Red Sea is a tsunami where the tide goes out and rushes back in. Well staged, but you don’t get suspended walls of water. I think, just as the public wasn’t particularly drawn to Sir Rid’s dowdy ROBIN HOOD, a dowdy, unswashbuckled version with a chunky Robin, they weren’t enchanted by the idea of a Red Sea that doesn’t part, but just goes away.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS stars Patrick Bateman; Tom Buchanan; Barton Fink, Jesse Pinkman; Orson Krennic; Lucrecia Borgia; Ellen Ripley; Mahatma Gandhi; Halliday 7 Years Old; Freysa; Maya; Shansa; Saladin; Selyse Baratheon; Qotho; and Spud.

5 Responses to “I still don’t know how a pharaoh talks”

  1. I think Velvet Goldmine had Christiban Ale as a music journalist? Jonathan Rhys Myers was the preening void, CB was just a regular void.

  2. Ah you’re right. I’d forgotten JRM existed. CB has one great bit in VG, the “That’s ME!” when he first sees his glam idol on telly.

    I guess we have to call him Judeo-Christian Bale now.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    A remake of the climatic scene of the first part od Cecil B. Demented’s masterpiece “The Ten Commandments (1956 version) and like most Scott films it’s a beautifully-wrapped package with noting inside. Scott got off to a smashing start with “The Duellist” followed by “Alien, ” “Thelma and Louise,” and “Blade Runner” but so far there’s been no worthwhile follow-up to that trio of masterpieces. The “Alien” sequels he made are all deadly dull (as are Cameron’s and Fincher’s) All his films are professionally assembled. Consequently while he looked like a budding auteur it’s clear he’s a lot closer to Michael Curtiz.

    “The Ten Commandment’s” had Charlton Axiom of the Cinema, and Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter as Mr. and Mrs. Pharoah — precursors of George and Martha of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Regarding “Velvet Goldmine” you’re confusing Christian Bale with Jonathan Rhys-Myers who plays the Bowie-inspire character “Brian Slade” Magnificently!, . Bale plays the television reporter (modeled after the unseen one in “Citizen Kane”) who is now older, disillusioned and longing to return to his youth. He has the film’s key scene where on seeing “Brian Slade” on TV yells out to his parents “THAT’S ME!!!” Anyone who has ever gotten hung up on a rock star know precisely what he means.

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