The burden of history weighs heavily on Christian Bale’s Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Its director, Ridley Scott, can no doubt sympathize. He’s adapting a story that’s literally scripture, but cinematic gospel is stacked against him as well. With DeMille having told what is, to many, the definitive Bible story in The Ten Commandments, and Scott himself having largely perfected the 21st century sword and sandal epic with Gladiator, what novelty can Gods and Kings really bring to the table? The answer is typically modern of Scott and other blockbuster filmmakers: more and more spectacle, less and less clarity of vision.
“Israelite means “one who fights with God,”” Moses is told early on by Ben Mendelsohn’s snivelling viceroy, the sort of character Peter Ustinov would have devoured back during a time when a little camp could lighten stories of truly Biblical proportions. Like everything else in Exodus, their exchange prioritizes intensity of tone and curtness of conversation. “No, it means “one who wrestles with God,”” Moses replies, rather aptly summing up how Scott’s new take on the Old Testament consistently feels like an immense struggle.
At the center of that struggle is Bale, further extending a resume that already reads like a diagnosis for masochism. Skipping over his babe in the basket origins, the film picks up with Moses as an accomplished Egyptian general, and the adoptive brother of soon-to-be pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton). An avowed skeptic, Moses is nonetheless forced out of Egypt by a prophecy that would see him become the leader of the land’s enslaved Hebrews. After marrying a nice Jewish girl out in the desert, Moses receives holy instruction to return to his homeland, and lead his people back to theirs.
Chances are you didn’t need that last bit of plot synopsis, which is the major challenge of telling a tale known to most who have sat through a Church sermon, been to Hebrew school, or watched A Rugrats Passover. The film’s opening title cards set the action in 13,000 BCE, and Scott’s decision to buy a vowel foreshadows the cagey faith Exodus: Gods and Kings exhibits.
Like another prequel to one of the greatest stories ever told, Gods and Kings tries to ground its story by taking detours into the inner workings of a civilization fallen into myth. There are viceroys, disputes over economic policy, and scientific theories given out as an explanation for forces once happily accepted as supernatural. Certain additions, like Ramses editing a hieroglyphic press release, are cute thought experiments about ancient life, but the actual story of Exodus is not one built for exploration of nitty-gritty details.
For most of its run, the film awkwardly beats around the burning bush as to whether or not the spirit Moses communes with (very finely acted by young Isaac Andrews) is truly divine, or just the product of brain damage-induced hallucination. Scott’s goal seems to be an uncharacteristically human focus on Moses as man, unwilling leader, and conflicted brother (a shame, considering Edgerton has neither the screen time nor presence to make his half of the relationship stick). Yet attempts at an ambiguous, even atheistic telling of this story more frequently make Gods and Kings seem confused rather than original, especially after it finally tips its hand on the “is God real?” question.
By emphasizing the suffering of not just the Hebrews, but the Egyptians ravaged by pestilence, disease and crocodiles, Scott toys with themes of revolution that are more visceral and present than any homily could be. But the resulting grimness and Biblical violence congeal the blood pumping through Exodus to a waxy, innervating consistency. The constant anguish of Moses is more becoming of the book of Job, with only the occasional, trailer-friendly declarations from Bale ever kicking the film out of its miserable malaise of death and havoc.
At least initially, Scott’s aptitude for mounting productions of this size goes unquestioned. Time spent in the palatial decadence of Egypt employs digital 3D that creates an enhanced sense of depth to already deep and densely packed compositions. Once the story moves out of doors, Scott manages a couple nice shots when confining the action to a few actors, but more often, the endless expanses of mountains and desert are empty canvases on which to insert a lot of variably convincing CG creatures and landscapes.
At two and a half hours, Gods and Kings is both too short to deliver the awe-inspiring scope of its source material, and too long to warrant all the effects-driven mayhem meant to make it a blockbuster. The only restraint Scott ever shows is in the climax, which trades the expected calamity of battle for the interpersonal conflict that the movie has labored to try and earn. There’s a film that could make such a finale a unique and moving take on a tale as old as time, but Exodus: Gods and Kings just isn’t it.