When back in 2007 I reviewed “The Reaping,” a horror movie about a Louisiana town visited by the Biblical plagues, I advised viewers to Passover it. That was a terrible pun then and it remains one today, but it’s even more fitting when applied to Ridley Scott’s elephantine misfire about Moses leading the Jews from their bondage in Egypt. Cecil D. DeMille told the story before—twice, in fact—and though in his second (1956) version he took more than an hour longer than Scott does, compared to this lumbering effort “The Ten Commandments” seems to breeze by. “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—the silly subtitle is apparently designed to distinguish it from Otto Preminger’s 1960 spectacular about the birth of Israel—also comes up short beside this year’s other big-budget Old Testament epic, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which might have been slightly loony but at least was daring in its deviations from Holy Writ (of course, the story of the ark in far shorter and less detailed in Scripture than that of Moses, so the invitation to invention was admittedly greater).
Daring is hardly an adjective that could properly be applied to Scott’s film, though it certainly diverges from the source to refashion the tale into something very like a modern action movie. It skips the back story of baby Moses’ survival in a basket, but follows DeMille in portraying the strapping young general he’s grown up to be (Christian Bale) as the favorite of his supposed uncle Pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro), who has greater confidence in him than in his own son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Indeed, in this version, Moses earns Ramses’ jealousy by saving him in battle against the Hittites—an interpolated battle sequence that Scott stages with his usual flair—thus fulfilling a prophecy that suggests he, not Ramses, will rule in Egypt. When Moses is sent to look into why the captive Hebrews are working so slowly on the regime’s latest construction project, he’s told his true identity by Nun (Ben Kingsley), a Hebrew elder. Unhappily, the news is also relayed to Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), the effete viceroy Moses intends to denounce for his venality, and he uses it not only to save his own skin but eventually to ensure that Moses is exiled by Ramses, who soon becomes pharaoh himself.
Barely escaping the desolation of the desert and the assassins sent after him, Moses finds domestic bliss in Midian with the lovely Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, but though a rationalist who’s never believed in gods, whether they be Egyptian or Hebrew, he’s called to duty by Yahweh, who enlists him as a divine general with a mission to free the Hebrews from bondage. According to Scott’s revision, that involves his training the Hebrews as a guerilla resistance army (attacking grain supply stations and boats, for instance)—a curious invention which, in the present historical situation, almost makes them seem the equivalent of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and which brings upon them Ramses’ wrath, in the form of random executions. It’s only when this “war of attrition,” as Moses inelegantly puts it in one of the unfortunate modernisms that pepper the script, drags on without the desired result that God intervenes himself with the plagues that will ultimately force Ramses’ hand—a plot twist that merely leads one to question why Yahweh didn’t go that route in the first place.
That leads to the second basic narrative weakness of “Exodus”—its effort to secularize the tale, juggling naturalistic and supernatural elements uneasily. Consider, for example, the way it presents Yahweh. The burning bush is present in the initial encounter with Moses , but it’s off to the side, merely a visual aid. The actual deity appears in the form of a young boy (Isaac Andrews) with a distinctly petulant air, and he becomes even more irascible in later appearances. His attitude is arguably reflective of the wrathful God of the Old Testament, but the rationale behind his appearance as an adolescent is hard to fathom.
Moving on to the plagues this God inflicts upon Egypt, the film is careful to straddle between natural phenomena and miraculous ones by suggesting that they’re miracles that God produces through the use of nature. The Nile’s turning bloody, for example, occurs when huge crocodiles attack government boats cruising down the river, chomping on their crews. (The sequence is more redolent of “Jaws” than the Bible.) The other plagues are given similarly rational explanations, with the exception of the death of the firstborn, which could hardly be assigned one (but is depicted in much less imaginative fashion that in DeMille’s 1956 version). The plague montage is actually intriguingly done from a purely pictorial standpoint, but its overall construction is compromised by the choice to try to have things both ways.
The same problem prevails in the final Red Sea sequence, though here the result isn’t even very impressive visually. The Hebrew crossing is depicted as the result of a sort of low-tide event caused by a series of tornadoes that somehow suck the lakebed dry. (The effect is more “Into the Storm” than “Twister,” but that “natural” occurrence—the meteorological credibility of which I’m in no position to attest—is still clearly attributed to God.) It’s not, however, presented in images of equal clarity—and not just because the look of the picture—shot in gritty, earth tones by Dariusz Wolski—doesn’t lend itself to crystalline precision. Worse than the murky visuals is the fact that the events themselves are presented in garbled form. As huge waves threaten, Moses and Ramses confront one another in their chariots in what appears to be the middle of the path through the sea, but while others are shortly swept away, both of them survive with little more than a soaking. That’s characteristic of the messiness of the whole sequence, which certainly makes the effects in DeMille’s version look primitive but doesn’t match his vision in overall impact.
All these oddities of narrative would be mitigated, though, if Scott and his cast brought much energy to the telling. They don’t. The direction is mostly sluggish, and Billy Rich’s pedestrian editing doesn’t mold the footage—with the exception of the opening battle sequence and the plague montage—into anything very vibrant. Bale’s Moses is frankly dull, and Edgerton, with his puffy face and uncertain manner, doesn’t approach the authority, campy or not, that Yul Brynner brought to the role. And apart from Turturro, whose aging pharaoh has a certain gravity, and Mendelsohn, who hams it up as the swishy viceroy, no one else makes much of an impression—not even Kingsley, who seems to be on autopilot as the benevolent elder. Such usually watchable players as Aaron Paul, as Joshua, and Sigourney Weaver, as Seti’s wife Tuya, are curiously anonymous here.
“Exodus” is obviously a lavish production, and some of the sets, both interior and exterior, are quite impressive—a tribute to the work of both Arthur Max, the production designer, and Peter Chiang, the special effects supervisor, who must have worked hand-in-hand to achieve the convincing look of ancient Egypt on a massive scale. The art direction, supervised by Marc Holmes and Benjamin Fernandez, and set decoration, by Celia Bobak and Pilar Revuelta, are also first-rate, and Janty Yates’ costumes ably run the gamut from the glistening robes of the court to the rag-tag Hebrew garments. Alberto Iglesias’ score, though it spends most of the time hitting the usual genre beats, does its job.
But all that is essentially window dressing. Scott’s film ultimately fails because the director seems never to have made up his mind about what sort of picture he was aiming to make—a simple action movie or a revisionist Biblical epic—and so has tried to meld elements of both into a mixture that neither excites nor provokes. It just is what it is, and that isn’t much—more oy vey than Yahweh.