- - Thursday, December 11, 2014

At first glance, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” might seem to represent a change of pace at the multiplex: Director Ridley Scott’s revisionist riff on the Biblical story of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt is a lavish Hollywood blockbuster that is neither a comic-book movie nor a sequel in some increasingly bloated big-screen franchise.

And yet in some sense it’s also both — a heroic, effects-driven take on a Biblical epic that attempts to recast its story to fit within the box-office-friendly parameters of the director’s previous work. Either way, however, it’s an epic mess.

Technically, it’s not part of a franchise, but “Exodus” falls neatly into line as the latest in a series of ever-more-dubious historical epics from Mr. Scott, the director of the still-resonant “Gladiator” and the still-muddled “Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Exodus” calls to mind both, though rarely in a good way: Like “Gladiator,” it revolves around a clash between a king — in this case, the Emperor Ramses (Joel Edgerton) — and a member of his inner circle, Moses (a bored-looking Christian Bale), who leads a people’s revolt after the elder mentor holding the two at bay (Emperor Seti, played with campy disinterest by John Turturro) passes on. But “Exodus” lacks both the gravitas and the searing violence of that earlier film; it is largely bloodless and, indeed, often boring.

As in “Kingdom of Heaven,” the story marries historical sweep to questionable theology and sociopolitical insights. Mr. Scott strives for a kind of strained moral balance between the Israelites, whose path to freedom involves plagues and famine, and the Egyptians, who have held the Israelites in slavery for four centuries.

But he achieves this balance awkwardly at best. The plagues, for example, are designed to show how wrathful God is, and yet they are also explained away as plausible natural phenomena. Are they mean-spirited miracles intended to cause suffering, or freak natural occurrences with no animating intention behind them?

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God’s appearance to Moses still coincides with a burning bush, but here he takes the form of a petulant child making violent demands. Sometimes this child God comes across as an angry deity, but other times the movie suggests that he’s little more than a sad fantasy dreamed up by Moses. The movie can’t decide which critique of God it wants to go with. Is he is all-powerful and cruel — or a sad, powerless, imaginary creation?

Then there is the character of Moses. The Biblical Moses is all too human, a reluctant leader who is so anxious about his heaven-appointed role that he lets his brother, Aaron, become his spokesperson. “Exodus” practically cuts Aaron from the story entirely (he appears briefly, but never as spokesperson), and it absurdly transforms Moses into a glowering rebel general, the leader of a strike force that conducts raids against the Egyptians, a man in the thrall of mystical visions from above. He might as well be Super Moses, clashing stubbornly with God and Ramses, his twin archnemeses.

The movie’s conceptual problems are compounded by a slew of production issues: The costumes look like cheap castoffs from Sunday school productions; the big effects sequences look like computer-animated fakes; the stiff, glum performances are uniformly weak, and some are terrible; the often-incoherent two-and-a-half-hour movie plays like a poorly edited version of a much-longer film, which it probably is — initial reports hinted that the film would be well over three hours long.

“Exodus” is a desperate epic with no reason to exist. It has no historical insights, no human sensibility, and no worthwhile spectacle or entertainment value. It’s a cinematic failure of Biblical proportions.


★ ½ 

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 TITLE: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

RATING: PG-13 for violence

RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes


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