Let's at least all agree that if there is one director working today who, in theory, could handle the scope and significance of the story of Moses leading 400,000 Jewish slaves out of Egypt, it's Ridley Scott (GLADIATOR, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, BLACK HAWK DOWN). But Scott is still something of a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and we know that nothing is a sure thing in his usually capable hands. Which brings us to that Moses story, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, which casts Moses (played rather dispassionately by Christian Bale) in the dual role as both the favored (albeit adopted) son of the Pharoah Seti (John Turturro) and the outcast brother of the Pharoah's rightful heir, Rhamses (Joel Edgerton).
Unlike last year's biblical epic from Darren Aronofsky, NOAH, which embraced some of the mysticism and Godly wonders of its story, Scott has chosen to set his story in the realm of the explainable. For example, we get a detailed account of how nearly all of the deadly plagues might have been freaks of nature; the screenplay brings up some interesting possibilities, but can't quite explain away all of the nasty doings (the death of all Egyptian first borns is the most sinister). Scott also leaves open the possibility that Moses was delusional in his conversations with God (personified in EXODUS by an angry young boy). We see the boy, but when Aaron Paul's Joshua observes Moses chatting up God, he doesn't see the boy.
These are EXODUS' most interesting scenes, and poised alongside some jaw-dropping visual effects—especially the Red Sea sequence—and you have a film that works at times, but only when it's the furthest from its religious roots. The rest of the film is little more than connect-the-dots storytelling, going through the story of Moses with little to no enthusiasm for the material. Edgerton especially is just laughably awful as Rhamses, a predictably jealous brother who was told years earlier that Moses would save his life and then go on to become a leader—something Rhamses didn't take a liking to. Egged on by his spiteful mother (an utterly ill-used Sigourney Weaver), Rhamses banishes Moses after his true heritage is discovered, and he ends up wandering the desert alone and into the hands of a distant Jewish tribe that includes his wife-to-be Séfora (María Valverde). Not surprisingly, Ben Kingsley is on hand as an elder Jewish leader who fills in many of the missing details in Moses' past and sets him on a path to becoming the savior to hundreds of thousands.
Scott chooses to paint his Moses story with a broad brush using wide strokes. The only times he seems to care about the details are when special effects are involved, and as I said, they are across-the-board impressive. There's a chariot chase across a narrow, dangerous stretch of mountain-side road; the plague of locusts is particularly nasty, as are the piles of raining and swarming frogs. In the end, EXODUS amounts to little more than the movie spectacles of old, but at least Charlton Heston displayed an immense amount of personality and character. Bale isn't bad as Moses, but at the same time, his heart doesn't seem in it. In his defense, I suppose a case could be made that he is going for a more contemplative Moses, who is fully aware of the massive cost if he fails to free his people, but does he have to be so boring taking on the weight of his corner of the world?
My first thought after watching EXODUS was, I can't remember the last time I watched so many people try so hard to entertain me with such mediocre results. Scott seems intent on doing the very most to beef up a dreadfully dull screenplay, and it just ends up resulting in a whole lot of hot air and posturing. Not a single actor really stands out as doing great work here, which might be the greatest reason not to bother seeing this film that somehow manages to be both bloated and flaccid. I'm sure you can find better ways of honoring your gods and/or kings than going to see EXODUS.