20th Century Fox
Two powerful men – brothers from other mothers and great friends since childhood – find their relationship tested when the father of one (but guardian to both) makes it known which of the two he prefers. Division, betrayal and mass casualties soon follow as the two former best of friends become the worst of enemies. Marvel’s Thor films tackle this setup with a sense of fun, Shakespearean drama and a believably strained bond between Thor and Loki.
Ridley Scott’s equally mythical take on a similar subject is adapted from a slightly older source material than the comics, but the result is something far more ridiculous and far less engaging. Exodus: Gods and Kings aims for an epic feel built on the back of a personal, emotionally-fueled feud, but neither the big nor the small conflicts ever achieve the intended effect and instead leave viewers with a bloated, scattershot and unnecessary take on a familiar tale.
Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are equals in many ways and revered both within the walls of Memphis and on the battlefield where they prove themselves as generals for the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, barely skirting Harvey Keitel/The Last Temptation of Christ territory). Seti is Ramses’ father but clearly prefers the more reliable and fair Moses, and his death leaves an insecure Ramses in charge of the kingdom. After Moses receives a shocking piece of news – he’s actually Hebrew! – he’s banished from the land and left to fend for himself.
Nine years later Moses is married to a lovely woman, father to a wonderful son and shepherd to a wandering flock. (It’s foreshadowing see.) A hit to the head leaves him woozy until God appears in the form of a young boy (Isaac Andrews) who suggests that maybe he should return to Egypt to rescue his fellow Hebrews from bondage. Moses complies and is soon training the Hebrews via a montage (montage!) involving weapons practice and acts of sabotage. God reappears to insist that Moses is dragging his feet – to which Moses snarkily wonders aloud why the little man is in such a hurry now after leaving his chosen people in slavery for four centuries – and then takes matters into his own cruel and calloused hands by slaughtering untold numbers of animals and children. (Because seriously, God can’t tell his people apart and instead needs newly murdered lambs to mark their homes?)
Scott and his quartet of screenwriters (including Steven Zaillian) hint at a handful of ideas deserving of exploration, but none of them survive the frogs, locusts, crocodiles and other plagues – the most devastating of which is excessive and unimpressive CGI. The Egyptians’ arrogance and hubris are the impetus for their downfall, and the film suggests that God – again, in the guise of a petulant child – perhaps displays something of the same trait. It’s an offbeat and overdue proposition, but it’s left merely as suggestion and never expanded upon. Instead, the otherwise empty visual onslaught leaves us wondering if perhaps Scott himself isn’t channeling some of that same holier than thou egotism. The method by which Moses first encounters God – after being knocked unconscious – teases the angle that the conversations are all in his head, but that thread is never pulled and the arrival of the plagues makes it clear that God is speaking to him after all.
Finally, what should be the core of the tale, the fractured relationship between Moses and Ramses, is given short shrift as the pair’s time together onscreen is limited to conflict and ripples of jealousy. We never see or feel their bond so we never care about their divide. Crafting scenes of real emotion has never really been Scott’s strength, and you’d have to go back to his early ’00s filmography (Gladiator, Matchstick Men) to find movies where he managed the feat. Equally to blame though is the normally reliable Edgerton’s uncomfortable performance. You get the sense that he’s blushing beneath all that bronzer from embarrassment, but he’s hardly the only one miscast here.
Aaron Paul shows up a few times just to look around a lot, Sigourney Weaver recites her limited lines with all the intensity of ordering take-out and both Ben Mendelsohn and Ewan Bremner compete to see how much of their native accents – Australian and Scottish, respectively – they can sneak into this Egyptian-set period piece. Bale comes closest here, but like almost every one else he lacks convincing investment in the character and story at hand.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is Scott recycling beats from his past from Gladiator to Robin Hood and failing to deliver a reason for this particular film’s existence. It drags its way through an overlong running time and even bungles the presupposed money shot of the Red Sea parting – it’s envisioned as resembling a tsunami instead of the far more visually dramatic “parting” shown in 1956’s The Ten Commandments. How do you manage a less impressive effects shot than a 58 year-old movie? Hard work and hundreds of millions of dollars, apparently.
The Upside: Ben Kingsley does good work for a few minutes; the crocodile sequence has a fun PG-13 savagery to it; some laughs
The Downside: Never compelling; miscast and questionably acted; CGI overused and underwhelming; narrative drags
On the Side: Christian Bale and Val Kilmer have both played Moses and Batman.