Release Date(s)2014 (February 22, 2016)
Studio(s)Scott Free (20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: This is our fourth Ultra HD Blu-ray review here at The Bits. As UHD BD is a brand new format, much is still to be settled in terms of establishing a proper display calibration baseline for evaluating 4K UHD content. So what follows will be our best attempt to offer specific impressions on the format’s A/V quality improvements given those constraints. Note that the display used for this review is Samsung’s UN65JS9500, which is compliant with the full HDR10/Rec.2020 “Ultra HD Premium” specification, driven by Samsung’s UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.]
Exodus: Gods and Kings was among the more frustrating film viewing experiences I’ve had in recent years. When you think of director Ridley Scott, you think immediately of Blade Runner and Alien, two legitimately great science fiction films. In fact, 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, until The Martian last year, Scott hadn’t made a great one since the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. There was a time when nobody could build an epic, visually stunning world on film like Ridley Scott. Now that seemingly 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, whether 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 grand 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 the 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 bond 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 quite 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 in evidence, as you’d expect from any Ridley Scott film, the story’s heart simply isn’t.
A quick word of note before we get to the A/V quality: Don’t judge this UHD release by the appearance of its menus. While the interface is fine, it seems that the video images underlying it are simply upconverted from regular HD but not properly timed for High Dynamic Range. So the brightest areas of the picture appear to be completely blown out. Rest assured the actual film is not so affected.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is presented in 4K (2160p) on UHD in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It was shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski primarily in Redcode RAW format (at 5K resolution) using Red Epic MX Dragon cameras. (3ality Technica rigs were also used to capture imagery in 3D.) Post production and visual effects were done in 2K and the film was released to theaters via 2K Digital Intermediate. For this UHD presentation, the 2K DI was upconverted to 4K and a new HDR color timing pass was done at that resolution.
The previous Blu-ray version of Exodus offered reference quality video. The visual presentation here is certainly enhanced beyond this by the unique capabilities of UHD, but not dramatically so. As was the case with Fox’s The Martian on UHD, the upconversion process offers a noticeable improvement in resolution, though obviously not as much as you’d get with native 4K video. You see this in evidence in many little things – textures of fabric and stone, carved hieroglyphs on walls and other objects. But there are visible artifacts here too.
None of the noise I’ve seen in other 2K upconverts (think The Martian, Mad Max, etc) is apparent here, but there is a bit of edge-enhancement visible from time to time. There’s also an odd fluttering quality to the backgrounds in some shots, particularly in areas of the sky that are lacking in detail. There’s a shot of Moses early in the film (at 13:08) in which the bright sky to the right of his face exhibits clear compression artifacting. It almost looks to me as if the encoding is struggling with the lack of detail. It crops up in other odd moments too, like the stone walls in the background of the evening meeting between Moses and Viceroy Hegep (at 17:20). The worst offender is a shot of Moses and his men standing on the beach late in the film (Chapter 33, starting at 1:57:50) – the hills behind them are pulsing with flutter. The problem doesn’t appear often, but when it does it is distracting.
Still, Exodus has a stylized look that’s high-contrast by design and that contrast absolutely shines here on UHD, with incredibly deep blacks and lustrous (though never blown out) brights. This is particularly important in things like sunlight reflecting off Ramses’ armor, bits of jewelry, and gold plated kitsch, flickering firelight, or spectral highlights off water. The colors are richly nuanced and vibrant too – hundreds of different tones of gold are visible in the palaces and streets of Memphis alone, not to mention the cool blues of twilight and night. The explosion of Ramses supply warehouse (at 1:17:30) is beautiful, with bright billowing yellow-orange clouds of flame set against a dark blue sky. And look closely at the subtle blue-green-gray shadings of the wall of Red Sea water as it floods back in towards Ramses fleeing army (again, late in the film), backlit across the wave tops by sunlight. It’s simply gorgeous.
The primary audio option available here is the same English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that was included on the regular Blu-ray edition, which was terrific. It’s exceptional in its dynamic range, with deep bass, a broad and expansive soundstage, and enveloping surround immersion. Dialogue clarity is excellent and the Alberto Iglesias score is well presented in the mix. Audio is also available in 5.1 English Descriptive Audio, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and French, German, and Italian 5.1 DTS. Optional subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Here’s a bit of a surprise: This UHD release has a few genuine extras on the actual 4K disc. Included is the previous Blu-ray audio commentary with Ridley Scott and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine. For those who may appreciate it, subtitles for this commentary are available too in English and all of the other languages the regular film subtitles are included in – a very nice touch. Also included is The Exodus Historical Guide from the Blu-ray, which is an enhanced viewing mode that offers pieces of on-screen background information that enhance your appreciation of the story. As is the case with other first wave UHD releases, the packaging includes the previous single-disc Blu-ray edition which also has the commentary and The Exodus Historical Guide, but adds a collection of 9 Deleted and Extended Scenes (14:57). You also get a paper insert with a Digital Copy code. Note that you don’t get the Deluxe Edition’s bonus disc of additional special features content (we’ve reviewed that previously here), nor do you get the Blu-ray 3D version.
[Editor’s Note: Given that nearly all 4K releases are multi-disc sets, with the extras often included on separate BD discs, our extras grades for these 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray reviews will reflect the bonus content across all discs in the set.]
Whether you’re a fan of the film or not, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a decent early UHD release, with something of worth to offer home theater enthusiasts in terms of A/V quality, even if the film isn’t here in full 4K and there’s no Atmos or DTS-X option. Let’s put it this way: If you’re standing there at the video store and it’s down to this or the UHD of Pineapple Express, I’m guessing it isn’t going to be a tough choice.
- Bill Hunt