The Bible remains a valued source for Hollywood, and no wonder; it contains just about anything any producer could want. The Old Testament features the usual sex and violence, war and conflagration, but also great stories, compelling characters, and of course, the presence of a powerful supernatural being. To top it all off, it's always been a bestseller, and nobody needs to worry about the authors showing up on the set or demanding a percentage of the gross.
In the aftermath of the absurd "Noah," Ridley Scott uses another Old Testament story for the basis of "Exodus: Gods and Kings," the tale of Moses, the first great Jewish leader, and his deliverance of the enslaved Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors. Although the picture sticks relatively close to the Biblical narrative, it surprisingly omits some elements -- the Golden Calf for example -- and adds a few unusual touches.
To begin with, the Egyptians and Hebrews both speak with various types of British accents. One of the more laughable examples occurs near the beginning of the movie when John Turturro of all people, heavily made up, swishes around in a long gown, addressing Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) in a good imitation of the Queen's English; they reply in kind.
The most innovative and surely controversial directorial decision, however, involves the interpretation of the deity. Instead of the paternal, authoritarian figure traditionally associated with the Old Testament, this God is represented by petulant 12-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews), who frequently scolds Moses in a quite good upper-class accent. Unlike the numerous church responses to "The Passion of the Christ," that character alone will probably prevent most organized religious groups from patronizing the movie.
Most of this very long movie dwells on the years of enslavement and suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Hebrews in Egypt rather than on the Exodus itself. It focuses on the relationship between Moses and Ramses; Ramses will inherit the throne, while Moses, an adopted cousin, though smarter, stronger, and braver, can only serve as his friend and advisor. Along with that relationship, the film shows Moses's growing realization, under the tutelage of Nun (Ben Kingsley) that he is not an Egyptian, but an Israelite.
Its oddly constructed time scheme compresses some events while expanding mercilessly on others, showing the long approach to Moses's banishment, then skipping through nine years of exile, his marriage, and his children, before he returns to Egypt to lead a revolution. Although he trains his people in warfare and leads them in several battles against the Egyptian armies, Moses disappoints God, who decides to do the job Himself.
No doubt delighting any filmmaker with a penchant for the spectacular, God sends that famous series of plagues against Ramses and his people. Crocodiles attack fishermen on the Nile; the river flows with blood; plagues of locusts cover the crops, the land, the people; and, my favorite, thanks to computer generated imagery, thousands of frogs swarm over everyone -- a better example of amphibians than the ones who flopped all over the ridiculous "Magnolia" of several years ago.
After the worst divine assault of all, the killing of all the first born sons in every family, including the Pharaoh's, Ramses asks Moses the obvious and disturbing question, perhaps suggested by the title. What kind of god is this, he cries, who kills innocent children for revenge. Like any other minister, priest, or rabbi, Moses can offer no adequate answer.
Of course the picture moves inevitably, if painfully slowly, toward the grand exodus itself, when the Hebrews flee the pursuing Egyptian army, led by Ramses himself, vowing death to them all. The exodus reached the great climactic moment that everyone expects, the parting of the Red Sea. Oddly, after all the other cinematic magic, the climactic sequence seems somewhat disappointing, not even as spectacular as Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston accomplishing the job in "The Ten Commandments" back in 1956. (Those Commandments, by the way, receive short shrift in "Exodus").
At its best, the picture demonstrates Ridley Scott's excellence as a composer of striking visuals. The battle scenes, with hundreds of archers, cavalrymen, and chariots sweeping across the desert to clash with their enemies -- initially the Hittites, then the Hebrews -- exhibit his skill at its best. The majestic scenes of the pyramids under construction, the statues in the Valley of the Kings, and the temples and palaces perfectly suit the grandeur of the story, its time and place.
The actors and their performances all work adequately, but despite the length and breadth of the movie, they never develop beyond some simple initial characterizations; everything and everyone hums along on one note. The spaciousness of the locations, the magnitude of the sets, even the importance of the original source, tend to dwarf the people anyway, so that when the actors engage in anything like normal behavior, they seem strained and unconvincing, just, well, acting. Like a lot of spectacles, "Exodus" works best on a high degree of emotional intensity, but sags badly when it attempts something like ordinary life.