Fox(NEW YORK) — You have to wonder why someone would want to tackle another film version of the story of Moses. Putting aside the fact that it’s only going to be compared to 1956’s iconic The Ten Commandments, I can certainly understand wanting to make an updated version that benefits from 60 years of improved movie and beard technology. But I couldn’t help but think while watching this 2.5-hour epic: “Why Moses, why now?” And the best I could come up with was, “why not?” Which isn’t a great answer.
Director Ridley Scott is certainly no stranger to epic films, having directed Gladiator to a best picture Oscar in 2001. But when compared to that film and other epics in the same vein, like Braveheart, Exodus: Gods and Kings falls short. It should certainly be a prime candidate for an Oscar, given its director, its star, its subject matter, and when it’s being released. But Exodus: Gods and Kings isn’t part of the Oscar conversation at all. And that’s rather telling, especially in an awards season that’s begging for something to break out of the pack.
Exodus: Gods and Kings begins with Christian Bale as our hero, Moses, all buddy-buddy with the future Pharaoh Ramses, the two of them raised basically as brothers and commanding the Egyptian army almost side-by-side. But soon Moses learns the truth — that he’s actually Jewish and not an Egyptian prince — and he’s cast out of the kingdom by his former best friend. He wanders the desert for a while, finds a wife, has a kid, and learns he can talk to God (who oddly takes the form of a British child with a buzz cut). God then encourages Moses to return to Ramses’ kingdom and lead the Hebrew people out of slavery.
Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t deviate much at this point from the story that’s familiar to many of us, which may be part of the problem. It’s hard to build tension when we know where it’s all going. No, Moses doesn’t die in that wall of water. Also, the story is so focused on the struggle between Moses and Ramses that it does little to develop the minor characters. Which is a shame, because great actors including Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, and Aaron Paul, are given very little to do.
And let’s talk about the accents. I guess we can try and pretend it’s not weird that Moses has an English one, Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Ramses with what sounded to me like a slightly Scottish lilt, and Moses’ wife, Zipporah, speaks English with a Middle Eastern flair. It’s head-scratching. Some of the characters look and sound more authentically of the region where the story takes place, while others appear as if they’d be more comfortable in a production of King Lear. Honestly, it’s a little distracting.
Vague accents and ethnicities aside, there is some solid stuff to chew on in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Where the movie is most interesting is in the treatment of the ten plagues, which are graphically depicted in all their brutal glory, finishing with the death of the first-born sons of the Egyptians. During this stretch of the film our sympathies and allegiances are almost reversed: instead of rooting for Moses and the Jews, we now feel really bad for Ramses and the Egyptians, as the story hammers home the reality that the God of the Old Testament could be a vengeful S.O.B. When Bale’s Moses argues with the little British boy-God about right and wrong, the struggle is complex and thought provoking.
It’s not that Exodus: Gods and Kings is a bad film. It’s not. Christian Bale broods effectively, the sweeping shots of Egyptian cities are spectacular, and Ridley Scott knows full well that his shot of Moses and Ramses on horseback in front of a gargantuan tsunami threatening to swallow them whole is a frame of film among the most dramatic and beautiful we’ve seen all year. Exodus: Gods and Kings is certainly watchable, and at times entertaining. But if you’re going to tackle the story of Moses, shouldn’t it be more than that?
In the end, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a well-made, big-budget Hollywood movie that’s short on heart. Its flaws aren’t fatal, and there’s enough good stuff to keep it interesting. But don’t expect to be inspired.
Three out of five stars.
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