Ridley Scott is deliberately walking over holy ground with Exodus: Gods and Kings, and I’m not just talking about the old Hebrew tale. Oft repeated, the story of Moses and his spiritual battle with Pharaoh is nonetheless most associated in the collective imagination with Charlton Heston, shrouded in a ridiculously big bushy beard, parting the Red Sea with almost as much fanaticism as his director Cecil B. DeMille exuded in mounting The Ten Commandments. Twice.
Yet, Scott’s own Exodus: Gods and Kings comes from a very different place and with a refreshingly inventive take on Moses. As embodied by a boisterously fierce Christian Bale, the man who went up the mountain came back down ready to kick some ass, be it that of Egyptians, doubting Hebrews, or even Exodus’ peculiar representation of God Himself. Most of all, however, Scott zeroes this story in on the brotherhood of Moses and Rhamses, and what it means to lose it. This knowing agony informs the movie well enough to overcome its own considerable plagues (of which there are many).
At the risk of sounding redundant in the 21st century, Exodus: Gods and Kings is the well-worn story of Moses and his journey from Prince of Egypt to Liberator of the Israelites. Skipping much of the stilted pageantry associated with his legend, the film opens on Moses (Bale) as already a man full grown. He’s the cousin and brother of heir apparent Rhamses (Joel Edgerton), but the preferred child of Rhamses’ father, the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). Thus, there is immediately friction between the lads long before Moses is revealed to actually be a Hebrew slave who was spared a monstrous fate when his mother and sister placed him in a basket on the river.
A threat to Rhamses’ legitimacy due to a pro-Moses military, and a downright loathsome irritation to Egyptian Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver), the young prince’s days in court would have likely been numbered, but the revelations from Nun (Ben Kingsley) certainly expedited matters. Exiled in the desert where he finds the love of a good woman (Maria Valverde), Moses also finds God. Literally. And the deity has quite the mission for this lifelong secularist now uncomfortably garbed in shepherd’s clothing.
Much has been made in the press as of late about the mostly white cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings, and it is not entirely wrong to question if North Africa ever looked this WASPy. However, it’s also a story in which rivers turn to blood, and God commits mass infanticide during a 400-year period of Hebrew enslavement that has not a shred of historical evidence in all of Egypt. In other words, just go with it as a Bible story.
That is certainly Scott’s approach, as he utilizes all of his ancient world building extravagance from Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to make his most action-packed and strangely light-hearted “Old Times” picture to date. Not feeling nearly as bound by creating a historical reality as those aforementioned films, Exodus: Gods and Kings has a definite allegorical intangibility to it wherein Scott is emboldened to unpack the relationship between Moses and Rhamses, and eventually Moses and God.
While the rest of the characters are thinly sketched at best, Moses and Rhamses’ struggle is always heartfelt, allowing Bale and Edgerton to provide some weight to the CGI opulence of man-eating crocodiles and hordes of locusts. The film is dedicated to Tony Scott, and somewhere in the picture, there is a more personal narrative that Scott likely wanted to explore about these two men that treat the Wrath of God as merely inconvenient weather when it comes time for a showdown.
However, the real strength of the movie comes from a very modern perspective on Moses. As the paterfamilias of religious saviors, it is odd to see Moses spend over an hour of the movie as essentially an atheist, doubting the Egyptian gods well before he continues doubting the Hebrew one—until he runs into a burning bush. Fitting the actor and director’s own sensibilities, this Moses is exhaustedly human, as well as very cynical of all spirituality until he becomes a growling, fiery, and even maniacal messenger for it.
Christian Bale, using his real accent, plays Moses like a tenured professor that was forced against his will to become the half-crazed pit preacher, screaming the end is nigh on the side of the Quad. It’s not scripture, but far more than all the CGI plagues, it’s riveting. And more importantly, it offers the film’s most interesting and soon-to-be controversial aspect: God is a 10-year-old child.
Moses meets God throughout the film in the face of a preadolescent boy whose tempestuous temper is scolded by the rapidly aging Bale. Their dynamic is thus a far more anti-authority Moses trying to argue with a child about why the murder of thousands of babes is cruel. This will undoubtedly enrage some of the faithful, but it certainly would explain a lot about the Old Testament’s God versus the New Testament counterpart. Perhaps puberty kicked in?
Less successful is Scott’s further attempt to “ground” Moses with an over reliance on his alluded militarism. Scott amusingly uses superior battlefield prowess as a reason for the Egyptian military’s initial reluctance to apprehend their former general (think Maximus and Commodus), but the result is far too many scenes of God’s Chosen People choosing to take bow and arrow to Egyptians in guerrilla tactics. Ironically, it’s more thrilling than anything in Scott’s Robin Hood misfire, but instead of enlivening Exodus’ pace with some undoubtedly studio mandated machismo, it slows the running time to a crawl until God puts on a show.
One imagines that in another world, Scott and Bale would have loved to do the whole Moses movie like this—where the hero’s link to divinity is ambiguous at best and he wins the day by military cunning and fortuitous climate conditions. But doing that picture at this budget (and in this country) would be a miracle unto itself.
Overall, the pace is still relatively nimble in the expanse of Biblical Epics. While you feel every minute of Exodus’ regal 150 minutes, it is downright breezy when compared to the third act slog of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, not to mention The Ten Commandments’ nigh four-hour sermon. Comparably, Exodus is succinct, perhaps too much so when one realizes that all the characters not named Moses or Rhamses amount to glorified cameos (Aaron Paul’s Joshua is more or less an extra), thanklessly reciting their pious and leaden dialogue.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a dutiful retelling of Moses that’s up to modern special effects standards, and it finds a genuine humanity in Moses’ brotherly love, as well as his struggles of doubt with Boy God. As a result, 21st century Moses avoids many of the pratfalls of DeMille’s laborious pageant. There are no entire hours listlessly devoted to Anne Baxter’s crocodile tears or the construction of a golden calf; Moses is played by a legitimate actor who finds a pulse to the marble statue (as opposed to being one); and, most of all, it doesn’t feel like you spent half a day getting slapped in the face by DeMille and his notorious casts of thousands with those precious stone tablets.
Still, for all of the amusing upgrades to this multiplex exodus, it never quite achieves the level of wide-eyed zealotry and obvious love for the material as seen in Chuck Heston decreeing, “Let my people go.” Even if Exodus: Gods and Kings is the better movie, it can never truly be the better movie. Coming down from the mountain with skepticism, Exodus ultimately leaves viewers as exactly that. But it does so in such grand style.
***This review was originally published on December 4, 2014.