In interviews, director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Alien, Kingdom of Heaven) says he doesn’t think of himself as a filmmaker. Instead, he describes himself as a creator of worlds. Sometimes, though, he forgets to populate them with interesting characters, which is the case with Exodus: Gods and Kings, his take on the Biblical story of Moses and the liberation of the Jewish slaves from Egypt.
Scott uses lots of practical sets and locations instead of green screen to give the grandeur a tactile feel. When the 10 plagues descend on Egypt, your eye can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not (Scott also comes up with a horrifying addition to explain why the river Nile turned red). If 1956’s The Ten Commandments wowed audiences in its time, Exodus: Gods and Kings repeats the feat for today’s more sophisticated and savvy audiences. There are moments in the movie when you can’t believe your eyes.
Unfortunately, there are just as many moments that make you wince, beginning with the opening scene, in which an adult Moses (Christian Bale), yet unaware of his true identity, and his best friend Ramses (Joel Edgerton) stand before the elder Pharaoh (John Turturro) while Sigourney Weaver looks on quietly from a corner. The make-up department went overboard with the eyeliner to make these Caucasian actors look Egyptian, so the scene is unintentionally funny. It’s a themed costume party full of celebrities in outrageous costumes standing around awkwardly in a lavish palace, waiting for the DJ to start spinning some tunes.
The rocky relationship between Moses and Ramses, which was well played by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in the 1956 version, comes off as more of a tiff between brothers than a rivalry that will change the world forever. Bale is miscast here — he doesn’t have the gravity or presence to play Moses — and he has a tendency to mangle the script’s often creaky dialogue. Edgerton fares worse; he’s apparently more concerned with how he looks than with giving Ramses inner fire and rage. Scott is too busy with the style and look of the picture, which was shot by the great Dariusz Wolski, to pay much attention to the psychology of his characters. He lets the Old Testament do the heavy lifting for him, but that’s not enough to make us invested emotionally in the story.
Fortunately, Scott is eager to get to the plagues as quickly as possible, and after God appears to Moses in the form of a little boy (a burning bush is also briefly glimpsed), Exodus: Gods and Kings turns into an enormous disaster movie in which the computer-generated illusions are seamless, no matter how hard you look. The use of 3D, some of the best I’ve seen, adds dimension and depth to the images, and even though the havoc the plagues wreak is enormous, you watch them with dazzled delight. Even the parting of the Red Sea, the signature (and cheesy) sequence from the Heston movie, has been cleverly reworked and rethought to avoid hokeyness. An underwater shot of an army of men and their horses drowning as they descend to the bottom of the sea is lovely, a lyrical, haunting image of unsparing death.
Exodus: Gods and Kings stops short of showing us the aged Moses reciting the Ten Commandments, because Scott knows by this point his movie has peaked and that critical moment would come off as an extended epilogue. Besides, it wouldn’t make for exciting visuals, which is what seems to be driving the filmmaker this time around. In Noah, released earlier this year, Darren Aronofsky found a way to honor the Bible while still making the movie his own. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott settles for sticking (mostly) to the Book, skipping the boring parts in order to dish out the razzle-dazzle. This is spectacular entertainment, practically a theme park ride, that could have used more spirituality and soul.
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver.
Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenwriters: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillan.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 142 minutes. Violence, disturbing images, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.