Dir: Ridley Scott. US. 2014. 150mins

Exodus: Gods And Kings

Spectacle run amok, Exodus: Gods And Kings is so big and brawny that it’s almost laughably gargantuan. Mistaking massive amounts of CGI and epically dour performances for historical gravitas, Ridley Scott’s latest wants to tell the story of Moses with the scope of a blockbuster but the soul of a gritty character drama. What that leaves us with, unfortunately, is a self-serious movie in which the filmmaker of Gladiator and Robin Hood buries an iconic tale in lavish overkill.

Rather than a larger-than-life hero, Moses in Exodus is portrayed as a modest, honourable man who eschewed the opulence that was sought out by others.

Opening in the US on December 12, this Fox release will hope to capitalise on Scott’s connection to Gladiator, which at least provides a swords-and-sandals comparison for viewers to grasp. Exodus’s star, Christian Bale, had his biggest hits as part of the Batman franchise, but he’s also enjoyed commercial success with the recent American Hustle. Audience familiarity with the Moses story — whether that extends beyond The Ten Commandments or not — should play a factor as well, but Exodus does face some competition from another epic tale, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, which will hit theatres soon after. No sure thing at the box office, this movie will probably need a significant boost from international venues to ensure profitability.

Set around 1300 B.C., Exodus takes us to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, as dying leader Seti (John Turturro) fears what will happen to his kingdom after his passing. His son Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is an immature, impulsive young man, while Ramses’s loyal friend Moses (Bale) is a worthier heir to the throne, although his bloodline guarantees that can’t happen. But once Seti dies, a shocking revelation comes out: Moses, who believed he was Egyptian, discovers that he’s Hebrew, which automatically makes him a second-class citizen. Banished from the palace, Moses loses his sense of identity — but when years later he has a vision from God asking him to free his fellow Hebrews who are enslaved by the Egyptians, he finds his calling.

Aiming for a darker tone than the Charlton Heston-Cecil B. DeMille Moses movie The Ten Commandments, Scott sees the Hebrew leader’s story as a tale of redemption and defiance — but also one in which God’s actions sometimes seem cruel or arbitrary. There’s plenty of thematic and emotional territory worth exploring in Exodus, but the director only digs into it on occasion, even as the movie’s sombre tone creates a false impression that Moses and Ramses are battling it out in the midst of a thoughtful moral drama.

In truth, Exodus is a combination of some of the more tiresome trends in recent big-budget filmmaking. Although the movie tries to ground the proceedings in realism to give us a sense of authenticity, the scenes are lathered with digital effects so that the seeming magnificence of the Egyptian city of Memphis always looks depressingly phony. Plus, the action sequences — not to mention the reveal of the different plagues, including locusts and frogs — are so overblown that they’re pummelling and numbing. From the film’s start, it’s clear that Scott wants Exodus’s central conflict to be anchored by the wedge driven between two lifelong friends. But Scott doesn’t give Moses and Ramses sufficient screen time to dramatise their bond, whereas the training montages and garish CGI establishing shots are lovingly, laboriously depicted.

It’s a testament to Bale’s commanding presence that he almost manages to sell this underwritten character anyway. Rather than a larger-than-life hero, Moses in Exodus is portrayed as a modest, honourable man who eschewed the opulence that was sought out by others in Seti’s inner sanctum. (As a sign of Moses’s goodness, even when he assumed he was Egyptian, he didn’t treat the Hebrew slaves like animals, a notable difference in behaviour from his peers.) But Bale can only project noble blandness onto this character, delivering a few impassioned speeches and grimly wrestling with God’s wisdom as part of the script’s half-hearted attempt at questioning the supposed infallibility of a divine being. (Bale speaks to God in the form of a young boy, challenging the deity for willingly killing innocent people to get vengeance on Ramses.)

Bale doesn’t get much help from his co-stars, mostly because they’re shackled to dull roles. As Ramses, Edgerton displays little charisma: This egotistical, spoiled king isn’t dastardly evil or gloriously wretched enough to generate much interest. As for character shading, the filmmakers let Edgerton show some affection to his newborn son, which is meant to make Ramses seem sympathetic when a plague wipes out the Egyptians’ first-born. But it’s delivered without any conviction. 

As for the supporting cast, it’s filled with big stars in too-small parts. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul mostly follows beside Moses as the faithful hanger-on Joshua, while Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver provide weight to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles.

To be sure, it’s impossible not to be swept up a little in the rush of special-effects spectacle. Roughly the final third of this overlong 150-minute film is given over to God’s unleashing of plagues that will punish Ramses for his harsh treatment of the Hebrews, as well as Moses’s leading of his people to the promised land of Canaan after their escape. But Scott assaults us with rampaging crocodiles, nauseating close-ups of maggots devouring flesh and literal rivers of blood, showering the viewer with sensation in such a way that the film feels oddly impersonal: The human miseries meant to be the repercussion of God’s righteous anger get swept aside by the digital doodads. Likewise, when this story’s most indelible moment finally arrives — Moses parting the Red Sea — the scene is handled with the same bombastic overkill that’s drowned the emotion earlier in the film.

Exodus: Gods And Kings is in part a warning about the hubris of mere mortals thinking that they’re gods. Apparently, some blockbuster filmmakers think it’s acceptable to exclude themselves from such judgements.

Production companies: TSG Entertainment, Chernin Entertainment, Scott Free

US distribution: Twentieth Century Fox, www.foxmovies.com

Producers: Peter Chernin, Ridley Scott, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaefer, Mark Huffam

Screenplay: Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian

Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski

Editor: Billy Rich

Production designer: Arthur Max

Music: Alberto Iglesias

Website: www.exodusgodsandkings.com

Main cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley