Secular visual epic
There is an abundance of spectacle in Director Ridley Scott’s new Moses update, but an uneven script and a lack of spiritual foundation combine to prevent “Exodus: Gods and Kings” from amounting to anything spectacular. The director has been off his game for a few years since the early 2000s when he made “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” but in Scott’s defense, his latest doesn’t fall short because of a lack ambition or effort.
“Exodus” mixes the Biblical with the mythical in its retelling of the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and his elder brother Ramses II (Joel Edgerton). The brothers stand united in support of the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) as he commands the vast Egyptian empire in 1300 B.C. (Or, as the film tellingly notes, “1300 B.C.E. –“Before Common Era.”)
There is a grandeur and magnitude to the film befitting its reported $140 million dollar budget. The scenes in and around the Pharaoh’s domain, with gargantuan monuments (some like the Sphinx perhaps chronologically ill-placed) and architecture are impressive, and the CGI effects are only occasionally noticeable. The pestilence may be a little overcooked, especially with the use of frenzied crocodiles that look rather Jaws-influenced, but they are effective nonetheless. While the team of writers decides to let Mother Nature explain some of Yahweh’s big moments, those scenes, particularly the tornado-provoked Red Sea parting, make for great theater.
Surprisingly, considering the talent involved, “Exodus” struggles in its smallish depiction of the characters, both Jew and Gentile, with whom anyone who’s spent time in a Sunday School class will be familiar. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Aaron Paul and Ben Kingsley are all featured in roles that are simply underwritten, probably because of the compressed nature of the storytelling. There’s a lot of material to cover in 150 minutes.
But even those imperfections could be forgiven if there were more weight to the lead characters. The talented Bale just doesn’t seem larger-than-life here, perhaps owing to the inescapable comparisons to Charleton Heston. (Hugh Jackman wasn’t available?) Other artistic choices, including the Deity character are more curious than convincing – though nothing here is as avant-garde as Darren Aronosvsky’s compellingly weird take on “Noah.” And don’t expect a “Let my people go!” moment, it must have not made the cut.
By choosing to downplay much of the religious context of the story, Scott and his team have produced a gorgeous but uninspiring tale. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” has the scale to effectively present the idea of the migration of a 400 thousand-strong nation, but not the spiritual conviction to explain why.
Rated “PG-13” for violence including battle sequences and intense images.