'Exodus: Gods and Kings' isn't satisfying in its epic scope or its religiosity

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

The filmmakers' revisionism isn't necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that revisionism in a serious-minded biblical movie has to serve some sort of enhanced vision, or else why bother?

Kerry Brown/20th Century Fox/AP
Ramses (Joel Edgerton, center left) squares off with Moses (Christian Bale, center right) in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’

First we had “Noah” and now, in the same year, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” The biblical blockbuster genre appears to be back – with a vengeance. But Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” an eco-friendly phantasmagoria, was more nutty than good, and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus,” while somewhat saner, isn’t terribly satisfying either in its epic scope or its religiosity. I mean, this is a movie in which the Red Sea doesn’t really part. It’s more like a great big tsunami that might better have belonged in a surfer documentary. What were Scott and his four screenwriters – Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian – thinking? It’s the Old Testament meets “The Endless Summer.”

I don’t necessarily fault the filmmakers for their revisionism, starting with Christian Bale’s supremely tetchy Moses. It’s just that revisionism in a serious-minded biblical movie has to serve some sort of enhanced vision, or else why bother? “Exodus” seems to have been designed as a kind of anti-version of DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments.” As kitschy as that film now seems, it was unavoidably entertaining, what with Charlton Heston as a flowing-bearded Moses in full icon mode and Yul Brynner prancing about as Ramses as though he were still on Broadway in “The King and I.” An added plus: The Red Sea actually parted.

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The Moses in this “Exodus” is supposed to be more human than Heston’s – i.e., he has everyday regular-guy desires and often argues with God. (At one point he says to him, “Nice of you to come.”) But as physically imposing as Bale is in the role, there’s no transcendence in the posture. When he finally meets God, He appears to him as a querulous 11-year-old child (Isaac Andrews) who charges Moses to leave his family and save the Israelites from enslavement. This child has the look of a malevolent tyke right out of a Stephen King movie. It’s one thing to dispense with the usual booming voice of God bit, but this?

The film in the beginning jettisons all that baby-in-the-bulrushes back story and plunks us right inside Pharaoh’s court. Seti, played by John Turturro with a double helping of mascara, favors Moses, his adopted son, over his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton), who also goes in for mega-eyeliner. Moses saves Ramses’s life in the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites, but is banished from the kingdom anyway. Some gratitude. (Hey, he was just fulfilling a prophecy.) It has already dawned on Moses, courtesy of a slave quarter encounter with the Hebrew scholar Nun (Ben Kingsley), that the real circumstances of his birth are a lot thornier than he was led to believe. By the time we arrive at the rather underwhelming burning bush scene, Moses is ready to move on from his family and assume full-fledged savior status.

It’s not long before the arrival of the 10 plagues and, for a change, this sequence is not a letdown. Scott, after all, is the director of “Alien.” He knows how to do boils and gnats and locusts and frog attacks. The Nile, it turns out, ran red because crocodiles bit into humans as well as fish.  

After everything that Moses and the escaping Israelites endure, it’s a bummer to have a scene in which Moses essentially says, “OK, we’re no longer slaves. Now what?” Very few religious epics are made with genuine religious feeling, and “Exodus” is no exception. When we last see a much older Moses en route to Canaan, we can at least be grateful that this film, unlike so many other movies these days, does not seem primed for a sequel. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images.)

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