Hollywood’s last big-budget adaptation of the book of Exodus, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, hit movie theaters a full 58 years ago. By contrast, it took Tinseltown only 10 years to do Spider-Man all over again. In light of this, you could fairly say that a new version of the story of Moses and the flight into Egypt is way overdue. Exodus: Gods and Kings is nowhere near as cheesy as DeMille’s lurid epic, but what it gains in respectability and modern-day special effects, it more than loses by being quite dull.
The movie begins with Moses (Christian Bale) fully grown and comfortably ensconced as a trusted confidant to Seti (John Turturro), the pharaoh of Egypt, and a close friend to Seti’s son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton). However, his world is turned upside-down when he visits an outpost of the empire, where one of the elders (Ben Kingsley) of the Hebrew slaves informs Moses that he himself was born a Hebrew. When Ramses takes over the throne and institutes cruel new measures to keep the slave economy going, Moses vows to set his people free.
Some of the controversy about this movie has been over the white actors in the lead roles, to which director Ridley Scott responded that he couldn’t get proper financing if he’d cast the movie entirely with lesser-known Middle Eastern actors. Maybe so, but I’d counter that whatever you think of Mel Gibson, when he made a movie about the Mayans, he cast it completely with unknown Central American actors and did just fine. At least Scott has given lesser roles to some distinguished actors from the region: Hiam Abbass, Dar Salim, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani.
The bigger issue is this movie’s failure as a piece of entertainment. One of the seminal filmmakers of the last four decades, Scott is also the guy whose seriousness once led him to drain the entertainment value from the story of Robin Hood. Things aren’t quite as dire here, but the luxuries of the pharaohs’ lives are rendered forgettably. So are the action sequences, apart from one bit when a chariot wreck on a narrow mountain pass results in a disastrous chain reaction among Ramses’ soldiers. Ramses himself is merely a tinpot dictator, and Edgerton is, to put it mildly, nowhere near as memorable as Yul Brynner in the same role in The Ten Commandments.
Worse, there’s no sense of the divine touching the lives of otherwise ordinary people here, not in the dutiful rendering of the plagues of Egypt nor in Moses’ interactions with God, embodied here as a small child (Isaac Andrews) who appears only to Moses. Bad as it looks now, the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments inspired genuine awe among moviegoers back in 1956. That’s a quality that Ridley Scott’s lumbering biblical epic is sorely lacking.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian. Rated PG-13.