Ridley Scott needs a scant 150 minutes to tell the story of Moses in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Scant, that is, when compared to Cecil B. DeMille, who needed a good 220 minutes back in 1956 in “The Ten Commandments.”
Then again Mel Brooks required only a few seconds to decimate all of this in “History of the World, Part I.” You remember the scene, where Brooks’ Moses climbs down from the mountain bearing three stone tablets and declares, “The Lord, the Lord Jehovah, has given unto you these fifteen — .“
He then drops and breaks a tablet, surveys the damage and continues: “Oy! Ten! These ten commandments for all to obey!”
One can’t help marveling at Scott’s audacity in telling Bible stories to today’s secular moviegoers — and in 3D no less. Since this was the year “Noah” also came out, it feels like the Bible may be joining graphic novels, Marvel Comics and classic science-fiction as source material for Hollywood blockbusters.
A movie such as “Exodus” hopes to target two key demographics, of course: the international market that swarms to spectacle-filled blockbusters and faith-based audiences that love Bible stories.
Only Scott must serve two rather different gods in doing so. Youngsters, fan boys and foreign viewers want superheroes; the religious know of only one Superhero.
So Moses (Christian Bale in his own reboot of Batman) and Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton channeling Russell Crowe) battle it out like X-Men, hurling terror and plagues at each other. Meanwhile off to the sidelines Moses with a furrowed brow confers with God.
But what will the faithful think about Scott’s God? He is portrayed as a petulant boy (Isaac Andrews). Yes, there is a burning bush but the child beside it, glaring at Moses, is the presence and voice Moses encounters.
This little boy sternly lectures Moses and demands immediate action by him to free His Chosen People from captivity in Egypt. Since the Israelites have at this point endured 400 years of slavery while God was apparently engaged elsewhere these commands come off as a case of a guilty conscience.
Admirers of Hollywood epic moviemaking should take to “Exodus” though. Arthur Max’s art department gives you Egypt 1300 B.C.E. in a truly fabulous rendering of outsized monuments, pyramids, vast palm tree-lined avenues, palaces and villas that remind you of “The Hunger Games’” Capital City only with less of the Nazi-like darkness to shroud the North African sun.
Not to be outdone Janty Yates’ costume mavens have dripped Egyptian women in sparkling bling and dress-to-kill gowns while the men bristle with metal, weaponry and macho excess. Of course, the slaves have ready-to-wear rags and remnants, bodies spattered in mud and blood to match their vile ghetto dwellings.
Scott and his credited writers, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian, encounter challenges where history collides with religion. In the book of Exodus, all miraculous events are presented as the work of God. Its author or authors never conceived of the book as a work of history.
In the movie, as miracles unfold the filmmakers initially seek alternative explanations. Moses’ first encounter with the child God happens when knocked out by an avalanche and covered in mud, where one might reasonably experience hallucinations.
Plagues that smite the Egyptians, as explained by its resident priests, might be attributed to unusual weather patterns or nature run amok. But as the miracles continue, Scott gives in to the Biblical version and to an estimated 1,500 visual effects shots.
Bale’s Moses is a bit imperious, fiery tempered and reluctant to assume of mantle of leader of filthy slaves. After all he was raised as a Prince of Egypt. He also quarrels bitterly with God. “I want no part of this!” he screams at the boy when God hatches his plan to kill the Egyptians’ first-born sons.
Scornful of the Egyptian gods as he is of the God of Israel, Moses must find healing from within, mending his own lifelong identity crisis and gradually turning his anger over Egyptian genocide into bold leadership.
John Turturro as Seti, ruler of Egypt and father to Ramses, suggests a sly intelligence in a rulership his son clearly will not inherit. There is a fey decadence to him too but he recognizes that Moses, raised as a brother to Ramses, is more fit to rule that his own privileged son.
Edgerton is handed a thankless role, made famous of course by bare-doomed Yul Brynner in the DeMille account and just a little too much the smug bad-boy to do the job here. Even in the early scenes when he and Moses are “brothers,” he shrinks before him and casts envious glances his way.
Lost in the shuffle are Ben Kingsley as a Hebrew scholar called Nun — given absolutely nothing to do other than look worried — Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, mother of Ramses and clearly the possessor of the bad genes; and “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul as Joshua.
Fairing better is beauteous Spanish actress Maria Valverde (above) as Zipporah, Moses’ wife, whose exotic looks, facial tattoos and Henna on hands, arms and legs would fit right in on Rodeo Drive. Indira Varma’s high priestess could stroll down the street with her.
The film has been much criticized for its Anglo-Saxon casting to depict a civilization at the crossroads of the then world, a civilization that would’ve contain a rainbow of skin hues and ethnicities. Minority actors take on only subservient roles here as slaves, servants or palace harlots.
Nevertheless the scope and scale of “Exodus” make it a convincing addition to epic movies be they about ancient times such as Scott’s own “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven” or other worlds such as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” cycle.
Early in the movie an Egyptian attack on a Hittites encampment makes for a rousing collision of horses, chariots and warriors caught from many angles above and at ground level by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Billy Rich. The battle is a clear sign the audience is in good hands with Scott’s crew.
The plagues are great. First crocodiles in the Nile start a feeding frenzy on fishermen and each other, roiling the river with blood, leaving oxygen-deprived fish floating atop. Then come frogs, flies, maggots, locust, boils and lesions on bodies, dead livestock and hailstones the size of baseballs.
The CGI and F/X are outstanding, all of which leads to the visually stunning race to the Red Sea by Pharaoh’s army along a narrow mountain precipice that sees many chariots falling off the side with another avalanche to follow.
The Crossing of the Red Sea, which understandably looked quite silly in DeMille’s movie, is impressive here. Slowly the waters recede as Moses and his band of 400,000 cross with painstaking slowness.
Remnants of the Pharaoh’s army begin a charge before the Israelites’ crossing is done so it’s a race among an army, Hebrews struggling with household goods and their elderly and a giant tsunami-like wave.
Scott more or less ends his story with that tremendous set piece. A few quick shots give you the idea of the stone tablets but the last images are of Moses as the old, wise lawgiver he became and of the child God disappearing into a crowd.
Just as Moses quarrels with his God, Scott seems to be in a movie-long battle with his own disbeliefs. His Moses is allowed to question his identity, God and faith. So too does Scott wrestle with the meaning of Biblical events in our secular age.
How are we to read (or view) them? What is the meaning of a Promised Land when nothing that is promised works out as one might hope? Given the landscape of this story, North Africa and the Middle East, the irony of an ancient battle for freedom in lands where today blood still flows in hideous amounts is not lost on Scott.
He is a man with many questions and one can easily guess at the one he knows will never get fully answered: He dedicates the film to his late brother, Tony Scott, who tragically committed suicide two years ago.
Opens: December 12, 2014 (20th Century Fox)
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Golshifteh Farahani, Indira Varma, Hiam Abbass
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Producers: Ridley Scott, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaeffer, Mark Huffam
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Billy Rich
PG-13 rating, 150 minutes