The grandly mounted “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will restore your faith in filmmaker Ridley Scott’s ability to make visually spectacular movies. Now if only he could return to making ones that stir us in other ways.
“Exodus” is fun as a popcorn film, but it’s not without flaws, from Christian Bale’s awkward, leaden performance as Moses to the issue of a primarily white cast portraying mostly Egyptian characters.
What this 3-D extravaganza gets spectacularly right is in putting the epic back into the biblical epic. It does so in the grandest way imaginable, especially when it comes to re-creating key moments from the Old Testament tale, from plagues to the parting of the Red Sea. In fact, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is so impressive in the special effects department, it makes “Noah” with Russell Crowe seem like a little indie production.
While Scott’s take on the showdown between the visionary Moses and the bratty new Pharaoh Ramses (a solid Joel Edgerton) fails to even come close to filling the sandals of his Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” it is still entertaining in a blockbuster way.
But you’ll need to be patient with it and a little forgiving.
After an impressive if chaotic opening that finds Moses saving Ramses’ life as the near-brothers and a huge group of Egyptian soldiers storm a Hittite camp, Scott and a team of screenwriters slow the pace down in telling a well-known tale. They do manage to do a fine job of showing how the jealous and tantrum-prone Ramses decides to exile Moses once he finds out that the man who saved his life is actually a Hebrew.
That comprises much of the film’s first half, with Moses and Ramses tussling and tangling, while Ramses’ mom, Tuya (Sigourney Weaver), urges her son to get rid of Moses. Meanwhile, Moses catches the interest of slaves, including the distinguished Nun (Ben Kingsley) and the fidgety Joshua (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”). After his exile, he becomes a shepherd in a small village and falls in love with Zipporah (Maria Valverde), with whom he has a son.
The biggest problem arises not so much in these smaller roles, but in Bale’s Moses. The usually reliable actor downplays the obsessive qualities of a mortal who gets an earful from God (who is played as a child) and is asked to make sacrifices that include leaving his family. Bale opts to make Moses more even-keeled, rational even, and that low-key approach gets swallowed up in a film where everything else is on such a large scale.
When most of us think of Moses, we flash on the bearded Charlton Heston from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956-vintage “The Ten Commandments.” That film is considered a staple in this genre and covered much more territory. Scott’s film is better at creating the look and feel of the times, but it has a harder time tapping into the human story.
The biggest achievements come in the visual anchor set pieces we know well, when God’s displeasure comes in the form of the plagues. Crocodiles attack! Locusts swarm! The Nile turns blood red! The special effects shift into overdrive, and it’s an astonishing sight to behold. It must be seen on the big screen. The parting of the Red Sea is memorable and far more realistically rendered than what we’ve seen in the past, with water receding until that epic tidal wave comes crashing down.
Scott could use a ride on that wave, as he needs a big hit — his last movies were the bland “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” and the violent, incoherent, some will say wretched “The Counselor.”
“Exodus” is a step in the right direction for a talented filmmaker who’s given us many iconic films over the years, including the highly underrated drama about the Crusades, 2005’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (to be reminded of why he’s such a legend, see the director’s cut version).
While “Exodus” might not have inspired me, I’m still a believer in Scott and hold out hope he will make another great movie. But to do so, it must be epic not only in scale but in true human emotion as well.
“Exodus: Gods and kings” * * ½
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, including battle sequences and intense images)Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes