I confess that at the opening of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, when onscreen text announced “Pharaoh’s Palace, Memphis,” I briefly fantasized that what was about to unfold would be a gonzo biopic about Elvis. Moments later, when the camera closed in on Pharaoh himself, played as something akin to a glam-rock drag queen by a bald and gaudily face-mascaraed John Turturro, I almost thought that my dream had come true.
But no. There’s no Elvis in Scott’s wildly misconstrued, $140 million biblical epic. There are giant crocodiles and chariot chases and tidal waves and quite possibly the most bewildering array of accents—both genuine and affected—ever to be collected in a single motion picture. But no Elvis. In his place, we have Christian Bale as Moses, which feels almost as strange to type as it does to witness onscreen.
Before I continue, a brief digression regarding the title of the film. The recent ubiquity of the colon in cinematic nomenclature—typically to advertise a franchise connection, as in X-Men: Days of Future Past or The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies—has proven an annoying and generally unnecessary flourish. (Generations of 007 fans managed to find their way to the multiplex without bread-crumb titles like Bond: Thunderball and Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me.) But what in the world is going on with Exodus: Gods and Kings? It’s as if Scott couldn’t choose between two titles—one for the biblically attuned, another for everyone else—so he just crammed them together with a colon as buffer.
Alas, the title is the least of the movie’s problems. This is a film that aspires to be an action flick, a character study, and a theological meditation, and fails on each count. The CGI is often spectacular—the palaces, the armies, the plagues of frogs and hail and locusts—and it comes as close as anything else to offering a rationale for the movie’s existence. But the special effects are never persuasively integrated into the drama, instead playing as rowdy intermissions from it.
The story told between these digitized spectacles is the familiar one: Moses is raised as a member of the Egyptian royal family, side by side with ruler-to-be Ramses II (Joel Edgerton). Upon discovering his Jewish heritage, he flees across the Red Sea to Midian, where he meets and marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde) in a ceremony presented as suspiciously modern and egalitarian. Granted a vision by God, he returns to Egypt to free his (and His) people.
I would be remiss here not to describe Moses’ interactions with God who, in Scott’s telling, is principally depicted as appearing in the guise of a little boy. (The burning bush barely gets a cameo.) Scott chose for the role an 11-year-old Brit named Isaac Andrews, on the grounds that he exuded “innocence and purity.” Now obviously the Voice of God is a tough role for any performer, let alone one who has not yet hit puberty. But where Scott detected innocence and purity, I confess I saw mostly an irritable petulance. (Moses: “Where have you been?” God/boy: “Watching you fail.”) This is the first portrayal of God I’ve ever encountered who looked like he could use a good spanking.
As Moses, Bale gives it his customary all. But intensity is not the same thing as moral gravity, and all too often Moses comes off as a bearded Batman. It does not help matters that Bale has prematurely adopted the late-Pacino acting tic of alternating between whispers and shouts.
Behind Bale, the rest of the cast is an almost unmitigated disaster, a haphazard assortment of performers who often seem to be inhabiting different movies altogether. Scott has taken some flack for “whitewashing” the film, but perhaps more notable is the randomness with which he has done so. The Egyptian royal family includes actors Italian-American (Turturro), Australian (Edgerton), WASP-y American (Sigourney Weaver, especially out of place here), Israeli Arab (Hiam Abbass), and Iranian (Golshifteh Farahani). Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul makes an appearance as Joshua, scarcely recognizable under a scruffy beard, and Ben Kingsley is the movie’s go-to-guy for gravitas as his father, Nun. Just when you think the casting can’t get any stranger, in wanders Ewen Bremner, who played “Spud” in Trainspotting.
As was the case with his earlier Middle Eastern epic, Kingdom of Heaven, Scott’s talents are a poor match for his material: He’s always been more at ease composing striking visuals than exploring competing moral visions. (See, for example, Prometheus.) It’s clear that he would like to dig beneath the ideological surface of his tale—he does, after all, recount the divine massacre of thousands of Egyptian children—but unlike Darren Aronofsky with Noah, he fails to produce even the semblance of a coherent vision. Plagues rain down, seas are parted, and tablets are etched. But no one in Exodus: Gods and Kings has anything remotely meaningful to say.