Is it possible to sit through a movie, mentally cataloging its absurdities, and still walk out dazzled? Because that pretty much sums up my experience watching Ridley Scott’s eye-candy spectacle Exodus: Gods and Kings, an over-the-top Old Testament epic that’s essentially Gladiator with God. The story will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Easter-season perennial The Ten Commandments or thumbed through a certain King James best-seller. But as a refresher, the film opens circa 1300 b.c.e., the heyday of the Egyptian pharaohs. John Turturro’s dying ruler, Seti, is making plans to hand the throne over to his spoiled son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton), and Ramses’ closest friend since childhood, Moses (Christian Bale), has his doubts about the impetuous, heavily eyelinered heir. But he keeps quiet — a smart move since Ramses is the kind of short-fused sociopath who peacocks around the palace with a cobra draped around his neck. After saving Ramses’ life in battle, just as a prophecy foretold, Moses travels to the city of Pithom and gets a sickening eyeful of the whip-cracking brutality dished out to the kingdom’s Israelite slaves. It’s here that a wise Jewish elder (Ben Kingsley) tells Moses of his secret Hebrew lineage and destiny to lead his people out of bondage and into the promised land. Rumors of this true bloodline soon make their way to the paranoid Ramses, who responds by exiling his friend. As Moses grapples with his existential crisis, he’s visited by God in the form of a petulant young boy with a British accent — a casting choice I suspect many will find problematic, mystifying, or just plain laughable. In my case, it was all three.
It’s not easy to make an ancient story feel fresh. Just ask Noah‘s Darren Aronofsky. But Scott and his brooding, fully committed leading man (as if Bale knows any other gear) manage to carve out an intimate character study within the tarted-up expanse of a 3-D blockbuster. As ever, Scott is more interested in your eye than your heart or head. He’s a visual storyteller, a builder of breathtaking worlds. And the scope of his CGI-festooned Egypt is massive. The director nails the razzle-dazzle look of the movie, but the tone is all over the place. When God unleashes a series of plagues that make the Nile run red with blood and set off infestations of frogs and locusts as well as an outbreak of nasty boils and pustules, Exodus briefly turns into a cross between a Roland Emmerich disaster flick and a biblical gross-out film.
Scott also doesn’t seem to know what to do with his embarrassment-of-riches cast. There are characters, like Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mother and Aaron Paul as a Hebrew slave, who make flashy entrances only to vanish. And for a story set in ancient Egypt, there is a puzzling dearth of Middle Eastern and African faces. Instead, we’re given a Moses from Wales (Bale) and a pharaoh from Brooklyn (Turturro) with an Aussie son (Edgerton). This whitewashing was already dicey in the ’50s, when Commandments starred such decidedly non-Egyptians as Edward G. Robinson (who always spoke like he had a cigar clenched between his teeth), Yul Brynner, and Charlton Heston in a cotton-candy beard. And yet, before you’re able to get too distracted by Exodus‘ flaws, Scott reaches back into his bag of pixie dust and whips up another grand illusion. These feats all climax with the parting of the Red Sea, the biggest special effect in the history of religion. Scott’s bravura version makes DeMille’s once-miraculous money shot look about as quaint as a magic trick bought from a gumball machine. B