“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the second big-budget Biblical epic of the year, demonstrates on multiple fronts why we need more big-budget Biblical epics. For one, the source material is some of the most fantastic stuff in world literature: The Old Testament wouldn’t stand as the backbone of multiple major religions if it were not, at its core, quite the jaunty little yarn. But like “Noah” this past spring, “Exodus” makes so many strange choices, and seems so reliant on digital effects, that you come away wondering whether its director suffered some sort of stage fright in the adaptation. We need more of these if for no other reason than to get everyone to loosen up already.
Maybe the next time a studio sinks a quarter-billion dollars into reviving, say, the tale of Jonah or some of Abraham’s greatest hits, we’ll get a fleshier protagonist than the Moses of “Exodus.” Christian Bale plays the son of Egyptian royalty (John Turturro is the pharaoh Seti) who finds out he’s adopted, born of Hebrew slaves. This doesn’t play well with Ramses (Joel Edgerton), his virtual brother. The prince becomes king and casts Moses to the wilds once his identity is revealed, and in the interim, Ramses seems to undergo a real transformation. Moses, despite the excommunication, keeps a steady pace throughout, save for a few moments when he gets to bicker with God, appearing here as what appears to be a 10-year-old boy from London.
Ridley Scott’s Egypt, in fact, is a crazy-quilt of accents and modified skin hues, many in the form of white people playing brown people while black people watch silently. Such are the economics, apparently, of making a big-budget Biblical epic, since “Noah” also insisted on stocking the pictures with nothing but white folks. These aren’t merely retrograde casting decisions (the global market can handle seeing more diverse hues), they’re bad storytelling. It’s a bit of an internal distraction, having to ask yourself, “Wait — isn’t this supposed to take place in Africa? Why is the darkest person with a speaking part Ben Kingsley?”
Moses goes through his wander years without doing much of interest, other than marrying and learning to herd goats. Meanwhile Ramses becomes a slave-driving maniac, obsessed with monuments and his own glory. You know the comeuppance in store for this gilded buffoon, and yet, it’s still such a pleasure to see it unspool in slow motion. Does anyone else in the Bible so consistently, so stubbornly charge into the teeth of God’s will? It takes a certain combination of hubris, cruelty and stupidity to ignore the obvious logic of a full-blown series of miracles and plagues and continue to insist, despite every indication to the contrary, that you outmatch the divine. Ramses may be all of the above; yet Edgerton imbues him with a strange appeal throughout. If only he and Moses had more, like, conversations here, to help us care more.
Speaking of plagues: They’re a riot. Here, Scott’s reverence bleeds over into the appropriately lurid. And the parting of the Red Sea? The climax that generations of Americans tried to stay awake for when “The Ten Commandments” rolled around in December is pretty spectacular. To the credit of “Exodus,” it makes clear Moses does not pry apart the waters. He, like the rest of us, is simply trying to figure out what the hell is happening as the Almighty does his thing, and hopes not to get squashed by the waves along the way.