With the sword and sorcery genre racking up huge box office around the world in recent years there is a great deal riding on Erik Matti's Exodus. Not only is the film one of the most expensive – if not the most expensive - ever produced in the Philippines but it also represents the country's largest ever foray into computer assisted effects work. A failure would not only represent a huge blow to Matti and the film's investors but could also very likely have a major impact on the country's willingness to pursue film making on this scale in the future. Lucky for them, then, that Matti has turned in a solidly entertaining film. Less Lord of the Rings than Krull, Exodus taps into that mid eighties sword and sorcery vibe with strong elements of classic Hong Kong action fantasy thrown in. The film also boasts a shockingly strong Terry Gilliam / Jean-Pierre Jeunet influence in some of the design elements.
It must be said before proceeding that Exodus is purely a children's film. The film's prologue – an odd little combo introduction and ‘turn your cell phones off' PSA – makes it abundantly clear that this is a film aimed squarely at pre-teen viewers. That isn't to say that older viewers won't find plenty to enjoy but it does have certain consequences. Most significantly there are a pair of characters aimed squarely and solely at getting the kids involved, the plot is very direct and straightforward, and the fight sequences are entirely bloodless. The fact that the lead character is played by an active politician is probably also a factor in the overall cleanliness of things: angst and antiheroes don't really encourage votes.
Exodus is a mercenary fighter currently employed by the people of Bantayan, the last human settlement in the world. Bantayan's numbers are dwindling and they are under assault by the evil and powerful king Bagulbol and his legions of dark warriors and are desperately hoping that Exodus can help them stem the tide, at least for a while. Exodus, for his part, is a cold man, caring only about who is currently paying his bills. His past is a mystery and he is plagued by dreams that hint at some mysterious, violent past.
After withstanding a particularly fierce assault from Bagulbol the leader of Bantayan recognizes, quite correctly, that they are fighting a battle they are doomed to lose and he concocts a final, desperate plan. Bagulbol must be killed and to that end Bantayan pools their last resources and hires Exodus to capture the last remaining Elementals – four magical beings with supernatural powers – and with their help assault Bagulbol's castle and kill the evil king. Exodus' unwilling allies are Tayho, a blue horse-tailed giant; Silab a childlike creature who can splinter off kung fu fighting twins and control fire; Bangkila, a fierce winged warrior; and Liu-ay, a beautiful spirit who can control nature.
The production quality is slightly uneven through the film. Though Exodus boasts a very high budget by Filipino standards it is perfectly clear that they still had to select certain aspects of the film to receive more attention than others. In its down moments – mostly the outdoor traveling sequences and some of the creature effects – the film mines a sort of Xena / Hercules vibe, which is not an entirely bad thing really. But as you get deeper into the film Matti gets more chance to flex and stretch his directorial muscles. The sequences in the Enchanted Kingdom – the magical land Exodus travels to to find the Elementals – boast some gorgeous photography, and some of the CG matte paintings are truly spectacular.
The best work, however, comes in the two standing sets that obviously ate a huge amount of the budget and design attention. The human city of Bantayan is a vertical maze of wooden catwalks and rickety landings, a spiderweb of scaffolding at the center of which sits the human leader. The leader himself is wired through a peculiar metal helmet into the skulls of two men seated on either side of him, both of whom have concave magnifying lenses wrapped around their faces and who speak all of his words simultaneously with him. The effect is hard to describe but both the set and the leadership trio would not be out of place in either Jeunet's City of Lost Children or Gilliam's Brazil. It is a spectacular piece of design work and Matti uses it well. The other major set, not surprisingly, is Bagulbol's castle, which exists in three major sections. We first meet the king bathing in a frothing fountain of human blood, a nasty piece of work. His throne room is an ornate piece of work built to grand scale, a scale Bagulbol himself matches with his wildly intricate costuming and series of metallic masks. The throne room is also the regular home of Bagulbol's chief advisor, a fortune teller continually consulting his mass of free floating tarot cards, the cards being the CG designers' finest moment by far. And beneath the throne room is Bagulbol's dungeon laboratory, a space filled with oversize gears and human test subjects dangling half naked from the ceiling.
Though the characters and plot are a touch on the over simplistic side Exodus boasts a unique enough vision and enough strong set pieces – an evil general's electrical arrows versus Liu-ay's flying rocks; dual whips versus Silab's twins; the final confrontation between Exodus and Bagulbol – that it balances out to be a solid popcorn film, not a classic but plenty entertaining.