Directed by Ridley Scott (and dedicated to Ridley’s brother Tony), and written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffery Caine and Steven Zaillian, with score by Alberto Iglesias, the film begins with words: “1300 BCE. For 400 years the Hebrews have been slaves to Egypt, building its statues, its cities, its glory. In all that time they have not forgotten their homeland. Or their God. God has not forgotten them.”
The family here is Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), his wife Tuva (Sigourney Weaver), their son Ramses (Joel Edgerton), their daughter Bithia (Hiam Abbass), and her son Moses (Christian Bale). Bithia’s maid Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) is closer to the family than are other servants. They all live in the palace in the capital city, Memphis. The family seems happy enough, but there’s that huge population of slaves, and now scouts report that the Hittites have established a camp just over their shared border. Seti is advised to wait to see why the Hittites are there, but his thought is that if they wait, Memphis will end up inundated with Hittite warriors. So the Head Priestess (Indira Varma) is summoned to divine the winner of the battle-to-be. She examines the entrails of a dead swan-like bird, and says there is no message about winners/losers, but the leader will be saved by one who will later lead. So Ramses, already jealous, tells Moses to stay away from him during the battle, and then directs the attack so that they are indeed well separated. However, in one of many spectacular CGI sequences Ramses has been knocked from his chariot and is about to be run down by a Hittite chariot, when Moses throws a spear into the spokes of one of the Hittite vehicle’s wheels, causing the wheel to lock and the chariot to flip right over the fallen Ramses. To give the two men time apart, Seti sends Moses to investigate the cost overruns at Pithom, a building site. Moses talks with the Egyptian Viceroy assigned to manage the work, and hears the slaves blamed. He believes the man is lying and orders the Hebrew elders to a meeting, where Nun (Ben Kingsley) tells him that his mother is Miriam, not Bithia, and that his name is really Moshe.
Moses does not believe the story, so when Moses returns to the palace he tells Seti, who is very sick, only that the Viceroy is a thief. Seti dies and Ramses becomes Pharaoh, and the Viceroy has not been punished. Which means that he has had time to extract the story of Moses’s birth from the Elders at Pithom, and has brought their accounts to Ramses. Tuva wants Moses dead, but Ramses simply exiles him. As he is escorted to the border a conveyance carrying Bithia and Miriam arrives. They say their goodbyes and later in his first camp, Moses finds his sword inside his bedroll. Days of hardship and hunting follow and then his horse dies, and two robbers appear. “I have nothing to steal. My horse is dead.” And one robber replies, “We’re not here for your horse, Moshe.” So Ramses (who was given the statements extracted from the elders) has sent men to kill Moses. But with his sword Moses kills them both and now has two horses. He crosses the Red Sea at the Straits of Tiran, and thus knows later in the film that the Sea can be crossed at low tide. At this point almost a third of the movie has been seen.
It amuses me to hear people refer to this as a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”. A story from the Bible can be filmed and filmed again, and comparisons can and should be made, but their relationship to each other is simply that they share source material. The major differences between Scott’s version and DeMille’s are three: first, the color palette: DeMille loved spectacle and part of that was in his use of reds and golds and bright, hot blue skies. Scott’s hues are muted: dark brown and dark amber dimly lit, and his skies are cloudy and washed-out. I prefer DeMille’s palette. Second: special effects. The CGI available today would blow DeMille’s mind; the Red Sea disaster is much more real and terrifying in Scott’s version. Further, Scott is able to show aerial views of huge vistas filled with CGI people and animals at battle or just running for their lives. While I prefer Scott’s effects (I’m not crazy), I have to say there’s a certain disconnect between those aerial shots and shots on the ground without CGI, because they involve so many fewer people. And third: interpretation. DeMille was literally faithful to the text. The burning bush had a voice coming out of it, the plagues occurred in order, the Sea was parted by God’s power. Scott’s version is fascinating perhaps because it is not literal. A bush (perhaps a plant heavy in oil content?) is burning in a rain, but the voice is coming from a young boy standing beside the bush. Court advisers explain the plagues away as natural, starting with what I thought was the best CGI sequence in the film: a horde of crocodiles attacking fishing boats and pulling the men right off the boats and eating them. And the Red Sea being desperately crossed at low tide because the tide is turning. In the case of interpretation I prefer neither, I like them both.
I’ve told more of the story than usual, but you should (and probably do) know the story already. So your pleasure in seeing this version may well be to test my observations and to compare them to your own. Go for it!
Incidentally, the film made more money than I thought. Estimated budget was $140 million and worldwide gross was $268 million (Source = imdb.com).