Sprawling and spectacular, brawny and bloody, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” stabs an exclamation point onto a year peppered with religious films, one that began with the less conventional and trippier “Noah.”
This is Old Testament as action epic, featuring a two-fisted, Hittite-slaying “Prince of Egypt,” a Moses selected to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery because God needed “a general.”
Christian Bale is that general, a growling skeptic who poo-poohs superstition and religion and chuckles at the prophecy that suggests he will save young Ramses (Joel Edgerton) in battle, and become a great leader himself. A pagan priestess makes that accurate prediction, by the way.
Raised in the royal household, adviser first to the elder pharaoh (John Turturro, who wears the eye-liner better than most) and then his son and heir, Moses makes enemies. And when those enemies win the new Pharaoh’s ear and reveal that Moses was born a Hebrew, the acclaimed soldier, anti-corruption zealot and rational man is exiled, not even allowed to live among the enslaved Israelites, whose elder (Ben Kingsley) knows his story and his destiny.
You probably remember the rest – Moses wandering, marrying into a family of shepherds (Maria Valverde makes the most gorgeous Sephora, his bride). A bush catches fire. A reluctant Moses is given the task of going back to Egypt and freeing his people – plagues ensue, seas part, etc. It makes no difference, as historian Simon Schama wrote in his book and PBS series “The Story of the Jews,” that there’s no written or archaeological evidence to support this Biblical account. It’s still a ripping good yarn.
Scott shows us a vast 3-D civilization, propped up by slaves laboring in the quarries that feed the pyramid and monument-building mania. This Moses becomes a guerrilla leader, bickering with the Almighty over how this business of freeing the Hebrews is going.
“Wars of attrition take time!”
The cleverest conceit is the voice and face of God/Yahweh, who guides Moses. It’s an 11-year-old English boy named Isaac Andrews – childishly vengeful over the 400-year enslavement of his Chosen People. As we’ve seen in “Children of the Damned” and assorted other bits of Brit horror, there are few things scarier than an English schoolboy. Their scenes are alternately funny and creepy. Scott also shows us realistically grim consequences of these plagues, and the movie is at its most moving when we see the suffering, the deaths of Egyptians, Hebrews and animals of every description.
Bale wears a fine beard and underplays The Lawgiver as droll, dry and skeptical. His confrontations with the Pharaoh are generally mild, debates over the “economics” of slavery. That robs Edgerton of the white-hot rage that is supposed to drive Ramses’ later actions. Edgerton’s best moment may be his resigned swatting of flies during one of the later plagues unleashed on Egypt. Others – Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver as the Queen Mother, Aaron Paul as Joshua – are given almost nothing to say or do.
Thus, for all its stunning and stark wilderness settings (Spain and the Canary Islands), its stunning effects, technical proficiency and scriptural cleverness, “Exodus” is a chilly affair – a Biblical epic lacking even a stab at preaching or inspiring. Like modern translations of the Bible compared to the King James version published in Shakespeare’s time, “Exodus” lacks the stentorian, poetic authority of the cornball Cecil B. DeMille “Ten Commandments.” You will never hear “BEHOLD, his mighty hand,” or anything remotely like it.
It’s still an exciting, entertaining epic. But those hoping for a sermon might feel let down. Scott’s Old Testament may be action packed, but it doesn’t preach, not even to the choir.
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