Flip open your Bibles to Numbers 12:3 to find the first inaccuracy in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth,” sayeth the Good Book of our hero, played by Christian Bale, an actor of hauteur even when saddled with a combover and potbelly. Bale’s Moses is a sword-slashing general who strides around ancient Egypt like he owns the place, which, as the adopted son of the Pharaoh, he does, at first. This guy is fated to lead a slave uprising? The only way Bale’s Moses could be the humblest man alive is if the rest of the planet were killed.
Of course, in the Old Testament, global genocide is always a possibility. In fact, we saw it earlier this year in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, in which God commanded Russell Crowe to be an accomplice to mankind’s murder. Here, God — a small, tantrum-throwing boy who looks like he enjoys burning ants — orders Moses to wreak havoc on the Egyptians. Judging by the carnage, it’s an awful time to be a human and an even worse one to be a horse. Pair Noah with Exodus for a night of big-budget biblical bummers that cow us before the Lord’s divine will and then, when his back is turned, whisper to us that God might be a bit of a jerk.
Archaeologists have never found evidence of a huge migration out of Egypt. Yet the Moses myth (and to historians, it is one) has one absolute truth: It makes an expensive movie. For a story that’s pro-poor and anti-wealth, every frame of it looks like it cost as much as human life itself — and that, more than any bludgeoned battle cries for freedom, is the pleasure of the film. What 1923’s The Ten Commandments lacked in pixels, it made up for in people. Cecil B. DeMille hired 1,600 laborers just to build his own cathouse of 21 sphinxes, and while he had to fake the parting of the Red Sea with Jell-O, he could afford to send a thousand extras scurrying through the jiggling walls.
Ninety-one years later, Scott has the resources to animate a terrifying tidal wave crashing upon the enemy army. Still, the best visuals in Exodus are tactile: the heavy turquoise bridles worn by the villainous Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), the matching blue-and-white headdresses of his soldiers as they dominate the Hebrew slave quarters like cotton stormtroopers, the zebra and tiger skins he uses as carpet, and the unearthly pink crab he munches on for dinner. We can hear the luxury: Even in chaotic battle scenes, you can discern every individual clink of the scaly gold armor. And when Scott pans over the city after the Angel of Death slays the Egyptians’ first-born children, you can make out each parent’s scream.
Alas, Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian spent less attention on the story. Granted, the plot outline is over two millennia old: Moses discovers he’s Jewish, demands liberty for the Hebrew slaves, and wins only after 10 terrible plagues and a chase through the desert. But Scott, either from fear or distraction, has no take on what the story might mean. A budget this big ensures he’s gotta sell tickets to Bible-thumpers and spectacle-loving heathens alike. Yet he can’t decide if making rivers run with blood is heroic or horrific — you sense he’d rather make Gladiator II: Attack of the Frogs. (Thanks to a distracting father versus son versus favored adopted son plotline, he essentially has.)
Scott skips over the creation of the rituals of Passover, and he dodges any discussion of faith deeper than side-with-this-guy-and-you-won’t-get-killed. As a result, Bale’s Moses is paralyzed. In scripture, he seems to enjoy raining locusts upon Egypt. Here, he whines to God that the plagues are going too far, and then simply stands by after the boy-lord snaps, “For now, you can watch.”
Bale angered the faithful earlier this year by describing Moses as “schizophrenic” and “barbaric,” but that description doesn’t inform the performance. His portrayal is more like a middle manager making apologies for the boss. Meanwhile, Ramses II, a fine pharaoh, has been so slandered that Cairo’s Egyptian Museum should hire extra guards for his mummy.
Not only has Scott rewritten history to vilify a blameless leader, he’s erased the Bible’s most morally tricky problem: that God himself made the pharaoh cruel, “hardening his heart” to provoke an excuse to advertise His own deadly power, like a cop just itching to pull the trigger. At least Edgerton has fun with the part, his goofy kohl eyeliner giving definition to a face that’s slick with fake tanner and as soft as fresh halva. The role is a Xerox copy of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus with less sex and self-pity, but Edgerton adds humanity and humor — he dismisses servants like he’s flicking grape seeds off his nails.
Gods and Kings is an odd subtitle for a story where the two types of leaders were, by definition, one and the same. (To the occasional annoyance of Ramses, who gripes that all his architects want to do is plan for his death.) When religion is government, then faith is sedition. It’s a political debate when Ramses growls to Moses, “Is this your God, a killer of children?” Moses has no answer. How much better this beautiful-looking film would be if he did.
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian. Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley.