Perhaps the End Times are finally upon us. How else to explain a year that began with Russell Crowe playing Noah and ends with Christian Bale as Moses? Whereas Darren Aronofsky’s Noah reached giddily crazy heights, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings never transcends its plodding, inevitable story arc. Not only does it lack the visual imagination we’ve come to expect from Scott, a potentially-interesting “tale of two brothers” spin is completely wasted by a lazy script. This is about as by-the-numbers as epics get.
You have to admire Christian Bale’s refusal to even attempt a showy accent. His cocksure attitude as Moses is so inappropriate that all you can do is shake your head in bemused wonder. Had the entire film been as defiant as its leading man, it might have amounted to something interesting. Sadly, Bale’s charisma is the only bright spot in a movie that is frequently (and quite unintentionally) hilarious, and relies so heavily upon computer-generated graphics that it might as well be a videogame. Seriously, someone needs to hide the computer code that allows Scott to add flying birds to the scenery; it’s clearly a fetish at this point.
The familiar parable begins with Moses (Bale) and Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) being raised as sons to the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). Though Rhamses is destined to inherit the throne, Seti knows in his heart that Moses is the better man. What could have been a juicy little hate sandwich between these three men is never explored. A puzzling development, considering that it destroys any chance Exodus had of being a compelling human story. Once that chance is squandered, we adjourn to Sunday school and start scrolling down our Biblical checklist.
Exodus starts promisingly enough with a rousing battle sequence. Director Ridley Scott summons his considerable technical expertise to wage war on the Hittites, with Moses and Rhamses astride their chariots in a roiling sea of weather-beaten humanity. This is where Scott is at his best; visual and practical effects combining to trap the audience amidst the thundering hooves. Once things quiet down, and Moses is exiled from Egypt by Rhamses and Queen Tuya (a delightfully campy Sigourney Weaver), Scott seems to lose his bearings. The pacing becomes erratic, with long stretches of inactivity followed by gigantic leaps through time. The only “action” we get leading up to the final showdown at the Red Sea are some computer-generated creepy-crawlies and more walking montages than a Lord of the Rings highlight reel.
Those looking for some semblance of religious majesty should just rent The Ten Commandments again. Exodus is surprisingly secular and banal for movie that features a Biblical all-star team. Instead of battling for the collective soul of an entire race of people, Moses’ ultimate settles for wrestling with his own self-identity while he stands on the sidelines and watches God kick ass. That might work in an intimate character drama like Noah, but it seems inconsequential when you’re dealing with Pharaohs and plagues and armies, oh my. Scott wants his movie to play on the same scale as a sprawling epic, but he never delivers the visual or visceral punch to make Exodus memorable.
One could argue that Exodus fails because it has too much ground to cover. Rather than taking 3 hours and exploring the political and social dynamics of Moses’ exodus from Egypt, a stable of screenwriters gives us a scattershot version of “Moses’ Greatest Hits.” If you liked him at the burning bush, you’re gonna love him on Mount Sinai! But wait… there’s more! He also gets married to a woman he barely knows (María Valverde), parts the Red Sea (sorta), and eventually grows a beard and starts growling (like Batman)!
This checklist mentality highlights the inherent structural problem with all Biblical stories; we already know what happens. Everyone, even Moses, is powerless to change the course of their fate. That makes the characters reactionary and gives the actors precious little upon which to anchor their performances. Edgerton, especially, seems completely adrift. He resorts to mumbling most of his lines between intermittent bouts of shouting. The conceit of making Moses and Rhamses brothers had the potential to create a battle of equals. Instead, Rhamses is reduced to a buffoonish figurehead, while Moses is a helpless pawn in God’s grand chess game.
For Exodus: Gods and Kings to work, Ridley Scott had two choices: embrace one character’s madness (as Noah did), or create something dynamic and visionary that redefines how we think about Moses’ story. Instead, he tried to do a little bit of both, accomplished neither, and made us all very frightened about his Blade Runner sequel. He could have at least made Moses part the Red Sea when it was high tide.