In Ridley Scott’s lavish 3-D epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” rivers run with blood, ancient seas part with tsunami force and Christian Bale delivers a portrait of Moses as a passionate, hot-tempered holy man who struggles with his relationship to God, depicted as an androgynous, strong-willed child.
It’s a radical departure from Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood standard-bearer “The Ten Commandments,” and even before the release of their costly new retelling of the Old Testament story, Scott, Bale and Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who stars as the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses, were bracing for a wallop of a reaction.
“The reception, I think, that you’re going to get to this is extremes,” Bale said. “The film is one of extremes.”
Bale’s prediction has proven correct. From the outset, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” generated controversy over its choice of two Caucasian actors to play the leads. That point of contention flared up again just days before the movie’s Dec. 12 opening, after Fox’s top executive, Rupert Murdoch, tried to defend the movie on Twitter by asking, “Since when are Egyptians not white?”
It remained to be seen how audiences would react to 11-year-old Isaac Andrews as the God who instructs Moses to leave his family and save the Hebrews from enslavement.
But during interviews at a Beverly Hills hotel with his leading men, Scott seemed relaxed and in high spirits, satisfied with the creative decisions that conjured his “Exodus,” which chronicles Moses’ journey from privileged son of Egypt to embattled leader of the Israelites, with perhaps enough Hollywood bombast to impress the Almighty himself.
Scott wasn’t interested in merely repeating the cinematic triumphs of the past or offering moviegoers a sermon. “I didn’t want audiences to feel they were going to … see a Bible movie,” said Scott, 77. “I wanted audiences to feel they were going to see a film about two men who wouldn’t normally be brothers who are in competition with each other. One happens to be the pharaoh that will be; the other one is his friend and closest ally. And they come apart at the seams over the question of the nature of his nationality.”
If his approach works at the box office, “Exodus” could qualify as one of Scott’s biggest miracles. The filmmaker’s specialty is spectacle; he dreams in wide screen, and it wasn’t so long ago that he resurrected the sword and sandals genre and elevated it to best-picture acclaim with “Gladiator” (2000).
” I secretly enjoy most doing things where part of the task is to create universes,” Scott said. “It’s hard. I always think the universe that the actors work in is more than the proscenium — it’s one of the most important characters.”
While reading the “Exodus: Gods and Kings” script (credited to Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian), the director said he was intrigued by the scope and scale of the production but also “gobsmacked” by what he didn’t know about Moses.
At the outset of the film, Moses hasn’t yet learned the truth about his Hebrew identity and, instead, he’s a warrior prince concerned with more earthly travails, including a pending siege of 15,000 soldiers against a Hittite army at the Battle of Kadesh. It’s only after they claim victory that Moses, on a visit to the slave quarters near the marble quarry, encounters the scholar Nun (Ben Kingsley), who explains to him the real circumstances of his birth.
Although Scott had previously mounted a religious epic of a different sort with his Crusades costume drama “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Exodus” was far more difficult to make. Shot in just 74 days, the $140 million production visited England’s Pinewood Studios, in addition to Almeria in southern Spain and Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
It took more than 1,500 visual-effect shots to digitally bolster the ranks of the Hebrews and to help authentically render plagues of hail, locusts and frogs, although some 400 actual amphibians were brought to the set at one point. And then there was the matter of the movie’s most visually dramatic set piece, the parting of the Red Sea which, according to Scott, is believed to have been a tsunami triggered by an underwater earthquake off the Italian coast in 3000 B.C.
“I mostly don’t lose sleep when I’m making a film,” said Scott, who already had moved on to his next project, the “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon. “This one, I lost a little bit of sleep.”