“It’s not even that good a story,” Moses grumbles early on in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” shortly after learning of the mysterious events that transformed a lowly Hebrew slave into a full-blown prince of Egypt. It’s a sly, knowing wink from a filmmaker who clearly has a terrific tale on his hands, yet faces a bit of a challenge in selling it to a more cynical, less easily razzle-dazzled audience than those that greeted the biblical epics of yesteryear. What’s remarkable about Scott’s genuinely imposing Old Testament psychodrama is the degree to which he succeeds in conjuring a mighty and momentous spectacle — one that, for sheer astonishment, rivals any of the lavish visions of ancient times the director has given us — while turning his own skepticism into a potent source of moral and dramatic conflict.
If this estimable account of how God delivered His people out of Egypt feels like a movie for a decidedly secular age, its searching, non-doctrinaire approach arguably gets closer to penetrating the mystery of faith than a more fawning approach might have managed. Like “Noah,” the year’s other nonconformist Judeo-Christian blockbuster, this is an uncommonly intelligent, respectful but far-from-reverent outsider’s take on Scripture, although “Exodus” is less madly eccentric and more firmly grounded in the sword-and-sandal tradition than Darren Aronofsky’s film, and will almost certainly prove less polarizing among believers. Even with a hefty $140 million pricetag and a two-and-a-half-hour running time to overcome, Fox’s year-end release (opening Dec. 12 Stateside) should ride 3D ticket premiums and general curiosity to muscular returns worldwide, landing closer to “Gladiator” than “Kingdom of Heaven” territory in terms of audience satisfaction and commercial payoff.
If there’s a controversial talking point here, it’s that Scott’s film continues the dubious tradition of casting white actors in an English-language picture set at the meeting point of Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Plenty of ink has already been spilled over the injustice of yet another major historical drama ceding the big roles to Hollywood royalty while relegating blacks, Arabs and other actors of color to the background: In addition to Christian Bale’s star turn as Moses, “Exodus” features Joel Edgerton as his stepbrother, Ramses — a transformation made reasonably convincing through state-of-the-art bronzing techniques and heavy applications of guyliner (plus the exquisitely bejeweled costumes designed by Janty Yates). Yet while these are problematic choices, dictated by commercial imperatives as old as Methuselah, they are also reservations one willingly suspends as the strength of the performances and the irresistible pull of the story take hold.
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Scott’s choice of material hasn’t always been as reliable as his visual sense, but the Exodus account provides him with some solid if well-worn narrative scaffolding; given that we’ve all seen or heard some version of this story, the film’s four credit screenwriters (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) seem to instinctively grasp that a completist version would be ambitious but unnecessary. You know you’re in trustworthy hands when the film begins not with an infant floating among the reeds, but with Bale’s fully grown Moses living in the palace of the aging pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) — one of many ways in which the script shrewdly foregoes the usual framing devices in favor of a crisp, present-tense retelling.
The film swiftly establishes the brotherly bond between Moses, a favored general in Seti’s army, and Ramses, the proud pharaoh-to-be, their intimate yet rivalrous relationship sealed by the matching swords they wear into battle. Moses shows his mettle, and inadvertently fulfills a mysterious prophecy, by saving Ramses’ life in a large-scale Egyptian attack on the Hittites, an excitingly staged collision of horses and chariots, lensed by d.p. Dariusz Wolski with a mix of soaring overhead shots and ground-level combat footage.
Shortly thereafter, Moses pays a fateful visit to the city of Pithom, affording us a close-up look at the cruel machinery that has kept the Israelites enslaved for 400 years, toiling endlessly to build palaces and pyramids for their whip-cracking overlords. (The re-creation of ancient Egypt reps a staggering collaboration between production designer Arthur Max and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, supplemented by location shooting in Almeria, Spain, a desert backdrop made famous by “Lawrence of Arabia.”) Unsettled by these glimpses of a genocide in progress, as well as by his lifelong identity crisis, Moses eventually learns the truth of his Hebrew lineage from Nun (Ben Kingsley), a wise Jewish elder. Before long, the secret falls into the hands of a calculating Egyptian viceroy (a wonderfully louche and loathsome Ben Mendelsohn), hastening Moses’ exit from the royal family and Egypt altogether.
Propelling the film through these absorbing early passages is Bale’s broodingly intelligent Moses, a cool, eloquent man of reason who disdains the God of Israel as well as the innumerable deities of Egypt, yet whose calm, rational demeanor can also be provoked to murderous fits of fury. The story of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” hinges on the gradual reshaping of his beliefs and the healing of his fractured identity: Humbled and exiled, he makes his way to Midian, where he becomes a shepherd and marries the beautiful Zipporah (Maria Valverde), though he has a difficult time truly accepting his place among the Hebrews and the Lord they worship.
It’s telling that Moses’ first divine encounter finds him almost completely submerged in mud, literally a man about to be reformed. Purists may balk at the notion of God taking on the earthly form of a cherubic angel, Malak (Isaac Andrews), whose petulant manner and British elocution at times suggest a very young Voldemort. It’s a mild provocation of sorts, a means of getting us to see the Lord as a skeptic, like Moses would initially: callous and whimsical by turns, a jealous, vengeful deity with a literally childish streak. Before long, God orders His servant to trigger a horrific campaign of destruction against Egypt, where the Hebrews are perishing in ever greater numbers under Ramses’ oppressive rule.
At once honoring and eclipsing the showmanship of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), the final hour of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a sensationally entertaining yet beautifully modulated stream of visual wonders that make it all but impossible to tear one’s eyes from the screen. In one of his boldest strokes, Scott dramatizes the 10 plagues in a seamless, vividly realistic domino-effect montage — the bloody despoiling of the Nile (which takes a surprising page from “Jaws”) naturally giving way to a proliferation of gnats and frogs, boils and locusts — that truly does seem to capture the intensity of God’s wrath in one furious, unrelenting deluge. In keeping with the momentum established by Billy Rich’s editing and the superb vfx work, this Moses does not return to Ramses day after day with fresh entreaties of “Let my people go,” but instead remains in hiding, watching ambivalently as the Lord does their fighting for them.
“You don’t always agree with me,” God says to Moses, effectively inviting all viewers, regardless of persuasion, to wrestle with their own conflicted impulses. Scott, a self-professed agnostic whose films have nonetheless betrayed a restless spiritual dimension (particularly “Prometheus”), seems to have been inspired by his distance from the material, placing his identification with a hero who never stops questioning himself or the God he follows. Not unlike Russell Crowe’s Noah, and rather unlike Charlton Heston’s iconic barn-stormer, Bale’s Moses emerges a painfully flawed, embattled leader whose direct line to the Almighty is as much burden as blessing — and who wearily recognizes that once the Israelites have cast off the shackles of slavery, the truly hard work of governance, progress, repentance and faithfulness will begin.
Edgerton, his dark-rimmed eyes asmolder with pride and contempt, makes a powerfully understated Ramses, one who is not without his own measure of humanity: “What kind of fanatics worship such a God?!” he splutters amid the devastation of the final plague. Arriving at a time when religious divisions in the Middle East have become all too violently pronounced, the ideal of a Promised Land ever more elusive, it’s a question that resonates well beyond the story’s specific moment. And it lingers even as the film presses on toward its Red Sea climax — a brilliantly attenuated sequence that Scott stages with breathtaking suspense and deliberation, the massive CG-rendered waves never threatening to overwhelm the fraternal turmoil at the story’s core. (The theme of brotherhood torn asunder becomes unavoidably haunting when the film reveals its closing dedication to the late Tony Scott.)
That central dynamic is essential, since none of the other characters here registers with particular force: Moses’ right-hand man, Aaron (Andrew Barclay Tarbet), is reduced to a bit part, while his comrade Joshua (Aaron Paul) gets similarly short shrift, despite a memorable introduction. Elsewhere, the film’s revisionist strategy doesn’t do much to elevate the dramatic stature of the female characters: As Seti’s calculating wife Tuya, Sigourney Weaver (teaming with Scott for the third time) has little to do besides look wonderfully imperious in a Cleopatra headdress, although Hiam Abbass does manage a few emotionally charged moments as Moses’ foster mother, Bithia. As Moses’ and Ramses’ respective wives, Valverde and Golshifteh Farahani serve mainly decorative functions.
Although long enough at 150 minutes, Scott’s epic is over an hour shorter than DeMille’s, and key events — including the Israelites’ descent into idol-worshipping chaos — have been skillfully elided, perhaps awaiting a “Kingdom of Heaven”-style director’s cut. The result feels less like a straightforward retread of the biblical narrative than an amped-up commentary on it: This “Exodus” comes at you in a heady and violent onrush of incident, propelled along by Alberto Iglesias’ vigorous score, teeming with large-scale crowd and battle sequences (which take on an especially rich, tactile quality in 3D), and packed with unexpectedly rousing martial episodes, including one where Moses attempts to train his people for battle.
Some may well desire a purer, fuller version of the story, one more faithful to the text and less clearly shaped by the demands of the Hollywood blockbuster. But on its own grand, imperfect terms, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is undeniably transporting, marked by a free-flowing visual splendor that plays to its creator’s unique strengths: Given how many faith-based movies are content to tell their audiences what to think or feel, it’s satisfying to see one whose images alone are enough to compel awestruck belief.