Exodus: Gods and Kings Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
When director Darren Aronofsky adapted a famous Bible story for Noah earlier this year, he brought a unique artistic vision to his version, delivering a movie with equal parts passion and reverence. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings has just as many big stars and expensive special effects as Noah, but it lacks the boldness and personality of Aronofsky’s film, instead plodding dutifully through the story of Moses’ liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
Not that Scott and the four screenwriters don’t deviate from and embellish the biblical narrative, but they do so only in service of typical blockbuster bombast, making the story even grimmer and shoutier. The cast full of recognizable Hollywood faces is distracting (and ethnically dubious), and the performances are broad, failing to convey the intended seriousness (but without enough camp value to be entertaining). Christian Bale plays Moses like the precursor to intense modern superheroes, and the movie gives him an extended origin story to set up his rivalry/kinship with pharaoh Rameses (Joel Edgerton, glammed-up like an ancient Egyptian Boy George).
The general outline of the story is the same, with the Hebrew Moses saved from slaughter as a baby and raised as an Egyptian, only to later discover his true heritage and lead a revolt of the Hebrew slaves against Rameses. An early chariot-heavy battle scene shows Scott’s intention to evoke the excitement of Gladiator, but the Scott movie that most often comes to mind is his dour version of Robin Hood, which similarly took a well-known story and added extra glowering and yelling. Despite its attempts at some level of gritty realism, though, Exodus isn’t a historical drama, and it doesn’t downplay the direct involvement from God himself, who appears to Moses in the form of a petulant young boy.
God apparently loves CGI, which he uses to summon the familiar 10 plagues of Egypt and part the Red Sea to allow the Hebrews to escape. But the effects in Exodus are mostly unconvincing, without the grandeur that the supreme creator should be able to conjure up. The attempt to create semi-realism is only dispiriting; the parting of the Red Sea is less cheesy than when Charlton Heston did it in The Ten Commandments, but it’s also less triumphant. A more stylized, over-the-top version might lose the religious audience but would at least be more entertaining, and a more grounded version might offer a valuable history lesson. What Scott has created ends up in a lifeless middle ground that does nothing to enhance the story it’s trying to tell.