Release Date(s)2014 (March 17, 2015)
Studio(s)Scott Free (20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A+
Exodus: Gods and Kings is among the more frustrating film viewing experiences I’ve had in recent years, and the reasons for it sadden me. There was a time when I eagerly awaited new Ridley Scott films. This is, after all, the director of Blade Runner and Alien, two legitimately great science fiction films. In fact, I think you can make a serious argument that Blade Runner is one of the two best examples of the genre ever, alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there’s Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Legend, Thelma and Louise, and The Duelists. Clearly, Scott’s made some terrific films in his day. But the truth is, he hasn’t made a good one since the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. I mentioned Kubrick a moment ago, and for a reason: Today’s Ridley Scott reminds me much of late-period Kubrick, a visual filmmaker once way ahead of his time but who had difficulty adjusting when his peers finally caught up. There was a time when nobody was building visually stunning and epic worlds on film like Ridley Scott. Now it seems that everyone is doing it. Building an epic world just isn’t enough anymore.
The subject matter of Exodus: Gods and Kings presents an additional problem. Here we have a story that nearly everyone on the planet is already familiar with, religious or not, and Christian, Muslim, or Jew. The tale of Moses is among the oldest in recorded history. We’ve seen it told and re-told on film many times before, nearly always associated with epic spectacle, and seldom offering surprises in the re-telling. The story, of course, features Moses leading thousands of Jews to freedom from slavery after God sends a series of plagues to punish their slave-masters in Egypt. The problem is, the suffering of thousands of people tends to be an abstraction on film and cinematic plagues are just run-of-the-mill CG wizardry these days. So how do you make this story feel new and fresh for contemporary filmgoers?
Here’s how: You hang that epic story on an intimate one. You make the characters of Moses and Ramses so familiar and relatable that your audience connects with them… invests in them. This is the story of two men, raised from infancy as brothers and friends, who ultimately betray one another. You should feel the emotional impact of that breaking friendship strongly enough that all of the later plot and spectacle are carried by it. You do this through careful casting, good writing, and by giving the relationship the necessary screen time to develop.
The shame is, Exodus: Gods and Kings actually starts to do this. The first half-hour of the film is much stronger than I was expecting from early reviews. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton are good together as Moses and Ramses, and there are a couple nice moments with John Turturro as Ramses’ father Seti. But just as you’re starting to buy into these characters and their relationship, all of that character building – all of the emotional groundwork that needs to be laid for this film to earn its emotional payoffs – just stops. What you get instead then is paint-by-numbers plotting and CG spectacle. As was the case with the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven, it feels like all of the most important bits are missing here. For example, Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver are in this film but I can’t begin to fathom why, because blink and you’ll miss them. The shame of it is, there was a truly good and satisfying film to be made here. While all the requisite production values are certainly here, as you’d expect from any Ridley Scott film, the story just isn’t.
The 2D Blu-ray offers the film in 1080p HD resolution at the 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The video and audio presentation here is absolutely reference quality. The image offers terrific color accuracy, contrast, detail, and texturing. The presentation is nicely film-like and never looks digital. I should note that I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D version, but all indications are that it delivers a fine experience too. Audio is available in 7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio, with additional audio in 5.1 English Descriptive Audio, and 5.1 Spanish and French Dolby Digital. The main DTS track is exceptional in its dynamic range, with a broad and expansive soundstage, and enveloping surround immersion. Optional film subtitles are available in English (for the deaf and hard of hearing) and French.
Produced as always by Scott’s longtime collaborator (and my friend of many years now) Charles de Lauzirika, the supplemental experience begins on Disc One with The Exodus Historical Guide, an enhanced viewing mode that offers pieces of on-screen background information that enhance your appreciation of the story. The flow of information is fairly steady throughout the film, appearing in pop-up boxes at the bottom of the screen. These details are actually more interesting than you might expect, as they parse out the various nuances of what’s actually historically known and provable about the story and what’s speculative, apart from any faith-based belief in the Biblical story itself. There’s also a collection of nine Deleted and Extended Scenes (14:57). They’re all in full HD, though some don’t have finished visual effects. A few of them are actually quite good, including a little more screen time with Sigourney Weaver. My favorite is a scene where Ramses asks Moses to serve as his chief advisor. It’s a light moment, showing the respect, friendship, and easiness between these two characters early in the film – exactly the kind of scene the film needed a lot more of. Strangely, though, it’s really the only such scene here. You begin to wonder if there were ever many of them in the script to begin with. Naturally, Disc One also includes a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine. Ridley talks mostly about the various nuances of the production, while the writer details his historical research and how that impacted his choices. Caine does discuss some of his intentions related to the character development between Ramses and Moses, and Scott contributes a bit too. So while the commentary helps fill in the gaps, the problem is that not enough of it actually appears on screen. It’s worth noting that there are also English subtitles for the commentary, which is a great and welcome touch.
The lion’s share of the bonus features appears on Disc Two in this set, which is only available in the Blu-ray 3D Deluxe Edition. It starts with another of Lauzirika’s fantastic and feature-length production documentaries, Keepers of the Covenant – Making Exodus: Gods and Kings (153:15). It’s full HD of course and is actually three minutes longer than the film itself. The documentary is constructed in seven parts, which include The Word Above All: Research and Development (16:17), A Call to Action: Direction and Design (22:08), Holy Warriors: Characters and Costumes (21:35), Sanctuary Before the Storm: Pinewood Studios, UK (18:35), Glory of the Empire: Almeria, Spain (23:59), The Rising Tide: Fuerteventura, Canary Islands (23:12), and The Great Deliverance: Visual Effects and Post-Production (27:26). This is the complete Lauzirika experience that you’ve come to expect, covering every aspect of this production soup to nuts with the kind of unrivaled access allowed only through the trust built over years of collaboration. It’s simply terrific. There’s no point in describing every little detail here. You should just watch it. It’s actually more interesting than the film itself. But if that’s not enough for you, there’s also an enhanced viewing mode that allows you to branch out during the main documentary into a number of short supplemental Enhancement Pods (48:07) for an even more detailed look at various aspects of the production – a Lauzirika staple since his work on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray. There are fourteen of these, and you can watch them as part of the enhanced mode, individually, or via a “play all” option. They include Weapons of Freedom (3:00), Next Gen Sculpting (3:58), Wardrobe Walkthrough (4:36), The Plagues: Frogs (4:26), Enter the Serpentarium (3:05), Sword Duty (3:02), The Plagues: Hailstorm (4:11), The Plagues: Crocodiles (3:21), Filming the Firstborn (1:54), The Art of Chariots (3:23), Wings and Whiskers (3:35), Ancient Agriculture (3:03), The Plagues: Locusts (2:03), and The Man in the Mud (4:22). Still not enough for you? There’s also The Lawgiver’s Legacy: Moses Throughout History (23:14), which offers interesting interviews with Biblical scholars about Moses. Then there’s The Gods and Kings Archive. This is broken into three multi-media sections. Pre-Production includes a Ridleygrams gallery and The Art of Exodus: Gods and Kings gallery (Costume Design, Concept Art, and Storyboards). Production includes RidleyVision (13:28 – a fun piece with Ridley wearing Google Glass on set) and a Unit Photography gallery (Pinewood Studios, UK, Almeria, Spain, and Fuerteventura, Canary Islands). And Post-Production and Release includes both domestic and international Promotional Featurettes (20:03 in all), the HBO: First Look special (12:14), and a Marketing Gallery featuring a full collection of Trailers and TV Spots, plus a gallery of Social Media images. The video material on this disc includes optional English subtitles (for the deaf and hard of hearing) – another great touch. Of course, you also get the additional Blu-ray 3D version of the film on its own disc, and there’s a paper insert in the packaging that allows access to a Digital Copy too. What more anyone could want in terms of bonus content is simply beyond me, through it should be noted that Best Buy has a retail-exclusive version of this Deluxe Edition that offers an additional half-hour of Red Sea visual effects footage. Be sure to look for the “Only at Best Buy” sticker, though, because they also sell the Deluxe Edition without the retail exclusive.
I truly hope that Ridley Scott returns to form with his next film, The Martian. I think there’s ample reason to be optimistic. For one thing, the story features no scenes of thousand-man armies, no space battles, and no complicated character subplots that could be lost on the cutting room floor. The Martian is an intensely focused and personal tale of one astronaut struggling to survive on Mars. Its spectacle lies in the contrast of that astronaut set against an epic landscape. What’s more, the film’s spaceflight tech is of the near-future variety, rather than the fantastical. So there’s lots that Scott should excel at, with few potential distractions. In any case, that’s for the future.
As it stands here, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a regrettably hollow and forgettable film experience. Some of you may be hoping that a Director’s Extended Cut of this film will be released, but in the documentary Ridley himself says no. This is apparently the cut he prefers. Indeed, having gone though all these extras, it seems likely that the scenes the film needed to be a better experience – whether they were ever written or not – simply weren’t shot to begin with. Nevertheless, its disappointing film aside, this Blu-ray 3D Deluxe Edition is still worth adding to your collection, if only on the strength of Lauzirika’s special features. Let’s be honest: If you’re a true cinephile, a great Blu-ray special edition is always worth diving into. And Lauzirika’s special editions are always great.
- Bill Hunt