Of all the moribund Hollywood genres, the Biblical epic seemed like the least likely to get pulled out of mothballs for 2014. The revival makes sense of a couple of fronts, however: Advances in special effects have made it easier than ever to render convincing signs and wonders, to say nothing of clashing armies, and there’s an ongoing attempt on behalf of big studios to figure out how to tap into the audience that shows up for faith-based fare like God’s Not Dead, whether via stories from the Bible or contemporary stories like Heaven Is For Real. If nothing else, this year has demonstrated that there’s more than one way to re-tell a Bible story, yielding Darren Aronofsky’s eccentric Noah, the warmed-over television of Son Of God, and now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings, which combines cutting-edge special effects with thuddingly old-fashioned storytelling as it journeys through the life of Moses.
Heading a cast that’s drawn a lot of criticism (and even more dumb defenses) for its overwhelming whiteness, Christian Bale stars as Moses, an Egyptian prince unaware of his own Hebrew origins. As the film opens, he fights alongside Ramses (Joel Edgerton), the pharaoh-to-be and the man he’s called a brother since childhood. Despite being heir, however, Ramses seems to sense that he’s not really pharaoh material, and that Moses might be better suited for the job. This leaves him tortured by the conflict between brotherly affection and jealousy, particularly once Moses saves his life and in the process seems to confirm a prophecy that he, too, will be a great leader.
Opening with palace intrigue and a spectacular battle sequence, Exodus: Gods And Kings at first appears to be on solid footing. Bale plays Moses as a haughty scholar-warrior, a man of experience and confidence who takes a no-bullshit attitude to Egyptian politics and casts a skeptical eye toward the supernatural. That changes drastically over the course of the film when—spoilers for The Bible ahead—he learns of his origins and comes to believe in the God of the Israelites and his own calling to lead them out of bondage. This brings him into conflict with Ramses, and with that conflict comes the expected plagues and miracles.
Sort of. One of the film’s innovations comes from the more realistic approach it takes to the supernatural. The Red Sea doesn’t so much part as recede to a low tide due to extreme weather, and the plagues brought down on the Egyptians play less like the direct actions of God than of nature run amok. The Nile turns to blood, for instance, because of crocodile attacks, and the film combines the ninth plague, darkness, with the 10th, the death of the firstborn, to chilling effect. If there’s one sequence where Exodus: Gods And Kings overachieves, it’s this last one, and it does so through subtle effects and careful staging. Instead of the creeping fog of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, darkness falls on the land as Scott cuts to child after child as they stop breathing, lingering longest on Ramses’ beloved son. It’s as simply filmed as it is horrifying.
The cruelty of those deaths lends some credence to Ramses’ later assertion that it couldn’t be the action of a just God. Exodus: Gods And Kings leaves that and other tough questions dangling on its way to Canaan, however. In fact, most of Moses’ spiritual development seems to take place between scenes. Apart from a few conversations with God—puzzlingly embodied as a smirking, petulant, British-accented boy—he never seems to contemplate what he’s doing. The film also toys with the idea that the divine visions are just in Moses’ head. As with Ramses’ accusations, this detail flirts with saying something challenging, then retreats. Instead of developing along the way, Bale appears to be playing a different sort of Moses from scene to scene—a cynic here, a fervent religious leader there. Others fare no better, with Edgerton getting little to do but scowl and make declarations after a point, and most other supporting characters getting lost in the crowd. Scott loses the humanity amid all the gods and kings.
The setpieces, however, elevate the film around them. The 77-year-old Scott has adjusted well to the new world of CGI effects, in part because he’s always treated his movies as atmospheric wholes rather than a collection of grafted-on elements. Exodus: Gods And Kings, no less than Gladiator, Blade Runner, or Alien, creates an entire, thought-through world and populates it. It’s an impressive achievement that takes full advantage of what modern technology can do to bring the ancient world to life. His direction snaps to life in the big moments, too, which have an energy and drive missing from the rest of the movie. There’s a whole lot of desert around them, though, and not enough miracles to justify the journey.