Visually sumptuous but otherwise hollow, Ridley Scott’s take on the Biblical tale of Moses could use a little more wrath of God to perk it up a bit. It’s not a bad movie per se, it’s just that it fails to pull us in the way it should. You don’t watch Exodus: Gods and Kings, you look at it for two-and-a-half hours.
It’s the polar opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s revisionist and borderline campy Noah; it strives for a safe middle path between the secular and the religious that is unlikely to interest or satisfy either camp.
Scott’s take is stripped-down Cecil B. DeMille: Moses (Christian Bale) is a prince of Egypt and successful general in its army, the foster brother of heir-to-the-throne Ramses II (Joel Edgerton, rocking a nice tan and lots of guyliner). There’s friction between the two, as King Seti I (a nearly unrecognizable John Turturro) recognizes that Moses is the more competent and even-tempered of the two.
After Seti dies, the truth about Moses’ Hebrew heritage comes to light, and his cast into exile. Cue his Dances with Wolves moment as he takes with a tribe of goat herders. His idyllic lifestyle grinds to a halt when he’s concussed during a mudslide, which seemingly leads to him having conversations with God’s herald, the angel Malak (played as a petulant child by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews), who tasks him with cowboying up and freeing the Hebrews from 400 years of cruel servitude and lead them home.
This involves a mix of Old Testament morality and smash-mouth violence, as Moses leads a guerilla war against the Egyptians. When that fails to convince Ramses to let Moses’ people go, Yahweh ups the ante with a plethora of plagues and infestations, manifested as a series of ecological disasters on a Biblical scale: A mass alligator attack turn the Nile red with blood, which leads to a massive fish kill, which drives millions of frogs into Memphis, which leads to a swarm of flies, and so on. Ramses remains stubbornly resolute until something (Scott and his cadre of screenwriters provide no pat explanation here) kills every first-born Egyptian child. The rest is Sunday School curriculum.
There’s a weird mix of adherence and skepticism at the core of Exodus, and the movie beats around the burning bush as to whether or not the intervention is divine and Moses is indeed a prophet or just a little bit schizoid, with Joshua (Aaron Paul) repeatedly spying on him as he seemingly converses with thin air in order to keep the ambiguity alive. Gratuitous CGI pestilence and bloody battle sequences erupt regularly in a bid to keep the audience awake when the theological musings get too heavy. It’s as if all involved are trying to draw as big an audience as possible by appealing to the devout and cynical alike in order to offset the $140 million price tag. It kind of works during the moments when Moses’ faith is tested and his self-doubt comes creeping in; mostly if seems like Scott and Co. are trying to have their proverbial cake and eat it too.
Much has been made of Scott’s failure to break with tradition by opting to once again cast Anglo actors in non-Anglo roles. It’s a valid complaint and missed opportunity to break the mold. Controversy aside, the casting choices were shrewd ones. They’re largely defeated here, though: Bale and Edgerton do their best to carry the movie between them, but their characterizations are limited to a flawed but determined leader and a spoiled and understated tyrant, respectively. Ben Mendelsohn is weaselly as a double-dealing corrupt viceroy who’s written as yet another in a long line of villains portrayed as swishy gay stereotypes; and Ben Kingsley is his usual self as Hebrew Elder Nun. On the flipside, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, and Maria Valverde are saddled with underdeveloped characters and pushed into the background. Truth be told, everyone is underused to some degree or another, and the limitations of the script mean it wouldn’t have mattered who was cast.
Try as it might, Exodus lacks both the grandiosity of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and the subtlety of the animated The Prince of Egypt. It’s devoid of urgency and so dramatically flat that the film’s closing title card, a dedication to Scott’s late brother Tony, elicits more emotion from us that the movie that preceded it.