Ridley Scott is a filmmaker who, at his very best, is able to convey genuine human stories even when dealing with the largest possible canvases. “Blade Runner” is an existential tale of personal identity housed within a misty post-apocalyptic noir, “Alien” is less about the acid-bleeding monster than the working class heroes that fall victim to it, and “Gladiator” follows a single man’s journey from the brink of desperation back to, if not a place of hope, then at least one of acceptance (it just so happens to be set in blood-soaked ancient Rome). So it would make sense that Scott would sign up for something like “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a massively budgeted retelling of Moses’ trek out of Egypt. If anybody could telescope these events into something manageably relatable, it’s Scott. The problem is that the director doesn’t seem all that interested in telling a human drama, and is instead too caught up in the whiz-bang possibilities of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a movie whose oversized ambition is matched only by its shortcomings.
When “Exodus: Gods and Kings” begins, Moses (Christian Bale) is the adopted brother to future pharaoh Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) and chief military council of Egypt, under the cruel Seti I (John Turturro). After Seti dies, and Moses’ true identity is revealed (he was a Hebrew child sent down the river and raised by Egyptian parents), he is condemned and exiled, eventually having a heart-to-heart with God (here envisioned as a small British child with a very bad temper), and, following a series of hair-raising plagues, tasked with leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been slaves for the past 400 years.
The basic backbone of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is the stuff of sleepy Sunday school lectures (as well as Charlton Heston‘s “The Ten Commandments” and DreamWorks Animation‘s “Prince of Egypt“), and Scott’s approach epitomizes the two ways in which the material is being tugged. Yes, this is a terribly serious drama, one that feels overstuffed with importance from the very first scene, but it’s also a $160 million extravaganza, embroidered with tons of computer-generated imagery and shot, of course, in 3D. (The added dimensionality is wholly unnecessary, to an almost baffling degree.) This is a story of desperation, racism, and the plight of thousands of slaves, and boy does Ridley make you want to feel that. But it’s also a movie where the entire middle section is devoted to a dizzying array of plagues that attempt some degree of natural explanation while remaining inherently fantastical.
Bale, for his part, tries to make Moses a fully dimensional character. He’s a man who is committed to the family that he makes when exiled, but still has to leave for the greater good of his people. The actor, whose performance starts off with a bit of levity (as he and Ramses have the camaraderie of brothers or very dear friends, even when approaching the battlefield), brings his usual level of intensity to the role, and has previously described the character in interviews as classifiably “schizophrenic.” This is an interesting idea, for sure, and would have lent the tale some modern relevance, but one that you feel neither Bale or Scott fully commits to in this interpretation, aside from a handful of scenes where Joshua (a woefully under-used Aaron Paul) watches Moses talk to his invisible God. Moses is in almost every scene in the movie, but despite Bale’s best efforts remains critically aloof. Scott never gets a great handle on Moses, especially when the movie’s middle section (easily the most compelling and spectacular by far) sidelines the character, forcing him to watch helplessly as God unleashes his fury on all of Egypt in a succession of dazzling set pieces. Edgerton, for his part, mostly has to react to all of this fury, although he seems to be one of the few actors having any fun. You get the sense that he’s playing the part like a latter era Marlon Brando (he almost waddles) for reasons that are never quite clear, and that weirdness alone makes him far more compelling to watch.
When “Exodus: Gods and Kings” hits that middle stretch, which is about the only section where the movie seems appropriately paced (this thing drags), it allows Scott to give into his more basic blockbuster impulses and reveals, sadly, that the filmmaker has no interest in the more human elements of this particular story, since this is the only time in the movie’s 150 minutes when it ever feels alive. Crocodiles feed on fishermen, boils infect the ruling class, and bugs destroy countless crops. It’s impressive, for sure, and the scope and scale is mind-boggling, even for a technician as gifted as Scott. Ridley Scott doing the plagues of Egypt is very cool indeed (less so the parting of the Red Sea), but it says a lot that the filmmaker can’t summon even a fraction of this energy or excitement or care for sequences where two characters talk to one another, even when the topics are as weighty as notions of faith versus trust, or as important as the survival of an entire race.
There are a number of baffling decisions made by Scott and his creative team (including a small squadron of screenwriters most prominently led by Steve Zaillian), including sidelining whole swaths of the starry cast (a cast that features, among others, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley) and pumping up Alberto Iglesias‘ histrionic score to nearly ear-splitting levels. As one character in the movie bemoans, “This doesn’t even make any sense.” Then again, Scott is an endless tinkerer and his recent director’s cuts of failed theatrical endeavors like “The Counselor” and “Kingdom of Heaven“—the latter a film that shares some of the same thematic concerns as “Exodus: Gods and Kings” but is ultimately a way more interesting movie—have definitely improved on what came before. Maybe in six months he’ll unleash a new version of ‘Exodus’ that will make us all rethink our original assessment, one that gives the characters their proper due and enlivens sections that previously stumbled. But going on what Scott has presented us with now, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a creaky, sometimes painfully boring Old Testament slog, and finds the visionary director unable to successfully wrangle a human story out of a tale of gods and kings. [C-]