The trouble with the story of Moses for a director like Ridley Scott is that it invites all sorts of meditations on the power and the limitations of faith, on brotherhood, on fate and so on. Sure, it also offers the opportunity for breathtaking action sequences and special effects -- everything from rivers of blood and plagues of locusts to an army of chariots smashed and dashed by a tidal wave -- set against an iconic Ancient Egyptian backdrop.
But it's nigh impossible to ignore all that metaphysical stuff for long, which puts Scott in what is, frankly, an uncomfortable position for him. Epic scale is well within Scott's wheelhouse. Deserved or not, he basically won a Best Picture for Gladiator on the strength of it. Pairing that sort of grand scope with similarly ambitious themes is most certainly not. Scott seems to feel the Moses tale is incomplete without the latter element (not sure I agree) and tries his best to give it its due in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
It's a pity he hasn't a clue how to do so effectively -- that he gets that piece as wrong as he does the period piece action right. Christian Bale stars as Scott's Moses with Joel Edgerton playing his royal brother Rameses the Great. Though the bit about the baby Moses floating down the Nile River to the royal palace is skipped, great pains are taken to distinguish Bale from his adopted brother (and by extension the Egyptian elite). His modest Earth-toned attire and au naturale look is a direct contrast to the white fine linens, jewelry and eyeliner adorning everyone else in his orbit. His hard-won triumphs on the battlefield and his genuine intellectual curiosity further set him apart from Edgerton's Rameses, an aloof, deeply insecure prince who compensates for his flaws with a great deal of bluster suggesting he truly believes he is a deity.
As long as Scott keeps Edgerton and Bale in close proximity, this dynamic mostly works. It’s painfully cliche — distinguishing Moses from everyone else by stacking him up next to foppish nobles and with obvious visual cues — but his stars are engaging enough to pull it off. It helps that great pyramids, sphinxes and obelisks — the monuments still standing in modern-day Egypt — are brought to life in the background.
Of course, the Exodus story dictates thats they be split up. Moses’ Hebrew lineage is revealed and he is banished to the desert by his erstwhile brother, now Pharoah and more unassured than ever. Somewhere out in the desert, everything goes off the rails. Moses settles down with a wife (Maria Valverde as Zipporah) at a remote outpost, and though he seems vaguely guilty about the enslaved people he has left behind, he seems mostly happy until a mudslide leaves him with a nasty bump on the head and a new propensity for conversing directly with God. God’s messenger is a small boy, and he harangues Moses accordingly, perpetually bellicose and critical of what he sees as his abandonment.
Setting aside the implications of God’s appearance after sudden brain trauma, this sets in motion a third act that feels completely isolated from everything that has led up to it. Moses returns to Egypt and sets about trying to transform a horde of slaves in to an army. God, impatient with his progress, unleashes a series of plagues designed to bring Rameses to his knees and dislodge the Hebrews once and for all from their shackles. It all culminates with the parting of the Red Sea, the flight of the Hebrews to Canaan and the deadly failed pursuit of the Egyptian chariots as the seas are un-parted.
This is a glorious spectacle if you still have Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments rattling around your head, but it is utterly hollow. It turns everyone, Moses included, into an uninteresting bystander. It establishes the fickle, awe-inducing power of God, but in so doing obfuscates the human interest of the tale. There’s a good film somewhere in there — one that tugs much harder on the thread of belonging. Rameses and Moses share the unshakeable feeling that they just don’t fit in even as they wield the kind of exceptional power that can bring armies to their knees. Rameses tells his sleeping son that he rests so easy because he “knows that [he] is loved.” Moses, meanwhile, is the designated savior of a people that he barely knows and with whom he shares little experience.
As God points out, he struggles constantly with seeing them as “his people,” yet continues to lead them to their promised land anyway. Either unwilling or unable, Scott fails to tease this notion out further. That failure gives the plagues and the flight of the Hebrews the air of a cop-out, the fallback option for someone who can’t or won’t dig in to an idea that might actually make the story of Moses more personal. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an unfortunate disappointment — yet another big-budget reminder that epic scope and scale can never be a substitute for good storytelling.