According to statistics from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, 28 percent of American adults have left the religion in which they were raised for another religion, or no religion at all. Moreover, 25 percent of Americans ages 18–29 are not currently affiliated with any specific religion. People seem to be asking questions about their old-line traditional spiritual institutions.
Maybe those research figures are behind Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which follows on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, released earlier this year. “If there’s a need, fill it” might be the rationale for the reprise of Judeo-Christian mythmaking. On the other hand, the whole project may just be an excuse to get Christian Bale (as Moses, heroic leader of the captive Israelites) and Joel Edgerton (the uppity Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses) into shorts and sandals. We shouldn’t rule out anything when it comes to pyramids, the children of Israel, and miracles in the desert.
It’s 1300 BCE. The Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. But Moses, the battle-hardened half-brother of Ramses, goes out in the desert, sees the burning bush, beholds a curious manifestation of God (he’s a boy with a British accent, played by eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews), and receives a prophecy. Moses comes to the realization he’s Jewish and changes his name to Moshe. Let my people go, or else. The “or else” is what most audiences come to a biblical epic to see, and director Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Alien) does his best not to disappoint. Plagues on top of plagues, crocodiles (crocodiles?), a blood-filled Nile, frogs, flies, boils, and locusts, culminating in the big one: Passover.
Scott and his actors run through the ancient story as if it were a twenty-car pileup on an LA Freeway. Bale is entirely credible, if a little flat, as Moses. He can indicate moral anguish and physical pain with the best of them. But Edgerton, a solid, working-man action protagonist in films such as Animal Kingdom and Warrior, is woefully miscast as the hard-hearted Pharaoh. Ramses’ fits of doubt and guilt simply do not register on his face. For his part, Scott does not really shoot the Bible, opting instead for a 21st-century realpolitik view of the Hebrew-Egyptian struggle, in which leaders discuss economic motivations. Juicy plot threads get lost in the shuffle and the drama runs dry. This Exodus is as dead as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s inert as only a 3,000-year-old religious tract can be.
Still, there are bits and pieces to admire, or at least chuckle about. Edgerton’s Oz countryman Ben Mendelsohn is a hoot as Hegep, the fey Viceroy of Pithum, who resembles Keith Richards’ sissy cousin. Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad gets some face time as Moses’ follower Yoshua — they resisted having him say: “Get on the camel and ride, bitch!” Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver stand around looking dazed. Scott misses the boat in the climactic parting-of-the-Red-Sea scene — God does it overnight while our hero is asleep, so there’s no grand gesture or fanfare. Speaking of which, aside from one or two indigenous interludes, Alberto Iglesias’ music score is irretrievably corny.
The numerous crowd scenes appear to be populated by real people — or is CGI just getting better? One of the film’s few witty moments happens when the Viceroy foreshadows Barack Obama’s real-life complaint about Bibi Netanyahu, spoken 3,400 years later. Referring to the Pharaoh, Hegep snidely notes, “I have to deal with him every day.” Kudos to screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian, collectively, for that one. If only the rest of the movie had that sense of playfulness.
It’s probably best to avoid comparisons with classic biblical blockbusters when sizing up Scott’s effort. Trapped between Sunday-school fundamentalism and wised-up political irony, the Exodus tale walks a fine line for contemporary audiences. Other than a few short title cards and utterances (“God has not forgotten them”), Scott’s version shies away from overt mysticism in favor of a run-of-the-mill, cast-of-thousands war flick, with Egyptians chasing Hebrews and Yahweh/Adonai coming to the rescue. After the Red Sea escape, the film fast-forwards at breakneck speed, sacrificing spectacle. There’s one short scene of the Ten Commandment tablets (Moshe carves them under the supervision of the God Kid), no golden calf, no Charlton Heston rage, and the chosen people march on to Canaan. Exodus: Gods and Kings is a White Elephant pic without the courage of its convictions, trying to placate everyone and thrilling no one.