If there's one thing director Ridley Scott is consistently good at, it's creating a breathtakingly detailed cinematic world. Watching behind-the-scenes documentaries on various Scott films, I'm always amazed at how involved he gets in every little detail of production design. He knows precisely what he wants his movies to look like, and he has the skill to ensure that his vision is realized. They're all unique, too: even the numerous Gladiator imitations all feel visually distinct from each other.
Unfortunately, Scott's abilities as a storyteller are far less consistent, so it's always a little difficult to tell whether you're going to get a genuinely rich piece of cinema or merely an attractive-looking one. Exodus: Gods and Kings mostly falls in the latter category, employing spectacular visuals to enliven an otherwise dull, vague retelling of a familiar Bible story. After spending two and a half hours in Scott's world, it's hard to get a firm read on what he thinks of its gods or its kings.
If you've seen Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (or, uh, read one of the most popular sections of the best-selling book of all time), you'll be familiar with the story. Moses (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) is Egypt's finest general and a member of the nation's royal family. He is ferociously loyal to his cousin Ramesses (Joel Edgerton, Warrior), who happens to be next in line to take the throne after his father Seti (John Turturro, Barton Fink) passes away. Seti gives Ramesses the menial task of checking on the well-being of the country's Hebrew slaves, and Moses volunteers to take the job to spare his cousin the indignity.
Moses is troubled by what he discovers: the slaves are being treated with violent cruelty and are forced to live in horrific conditions. In the midst of his investigation, he meets an old man (Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List) who tells him a dangerous secret: Moses is actually a Hebrew child who was merely raised as an Egyptian. If anyone were to discover this truth, Moses would almost certainly be stripped of his rank – possibly even executed. You know how it plays out: Seti passes away, Ramesses takes the throne, the secret is revealed, Moses is banished from Egypt and Ramesses begins to make life even more unbearable for the slaves.
All of this early material proves alarmingly dull, partially due to the mostly-uninspired performances and partially due to the fact that Scott seems to be operating on autopilot. Material that DeMille played with robust energy gets turned into an obligatory slog, and that feeling of creative inertia continues as Moses journeys into the desert, meets up with a family of isolated farmers, marries a beautiful young woman (Maria Valverde, Cracks) and settles into a life of goat-herding.
Scott makes his first distinctive, interesting move nearly an hour into the film, when God shows up in the form of a bratty, petulant young boy (Isaac Andrews, Hercules). Moses and God clash almost immediately, with the former reacting negatively to the latter's pushy, demanding demeanor and fondness for extremism. As Exodus: Gods and Kings moves into its second half, Scott makes several suggestions that flirt with genuine subversiveness: that God may be a figment of Moses' imagination (he first turns up after Moses hits his head on a rock, and Moses also happens to be the only one who can actually see him), that God may be a vengeful, petty sadist (one who seems to have little regard for the collateral damage he causes in his efforts to punish Ramesses) and that the infamous plagues might have actually been natural occurrences (the parting of the Red Sea plays as more of a weird tidal shift).
Disappointingly, flirting is as far as Scott seems willing to go with any of these notions, as he hastily balances them with contradictory scenes which assure the audience that God is real, God is just and it's completely cool to watch this movie with the rest of the Sunday school class. And honestly, that direction is fine, too – I'd be down with a modern blockbuster that had the nerve to take a story as fantastical as the one told in The Book of Exodus at face value – but Scott seems to be wriggling his way out of making any sort of firm statement at all, instead turning in a wishy-washy muddle of a movie that tries (and fails) to convince both believers and skeptics that it agrees with their point of view.
The character hurt most by this approach is Moses himself. You could take quite a few individual scenes from the film and use them as evidence that Bale is delivering a strong performance, but the scenes don't have any sort of consistent through line. He's an understated leader, then a screaming warrior, then a tender lover, then an angry skeptic, then a religious zealot... and while I realize that the Moses of the Bible arguably fits all of those categories, Bale and the screenplay fail to find a way to connect all of the dots. In interviews, Bale made the suggestion that Moses is actually schizophrenic, which in retrospect seems like a convenient way of explaining away the character's endless inconsistencies.
The other cast members struggle to make an impression, too. Joel Edgerton looks just plain silly in his heavy mascara and brownface makeup, inspiring memories of Marlon Brando circa Teahouse of the August Moon. It doesn't help that his performance feels almost as directionless as Bale's. Familiar faces like John Turturro, Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Sigourney Weaver (Alien) are probably miscast, but it's hard to tell since none of them have anything to do (Weaver delivers maybe three lines over the course of the entire film). The only member of the cast who actually turns in memorable work is Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly), who's playing a stereotype (the swishy gay villain), but playing it with admirable panache.
Despite all of these problems, Scott delivers in the spectacle department. His presentation of the plagues is tremendously effective, beginning with a startlingly violent series of alligator attacks (the water turns to blood because the creatures within the water begin to eat humans and each other) and concluding with a chillingly understated fusion of the final two plagues (a harrowing sequence which plays like something from an infinitely more challenging, powerful film). The special effects aren't permitted to overwhelm the story, but I sort of wish they had been.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 150 minutes
Release Year: 2014