Review: 'Exodus' at least gives good plague

Ridley Scott's new Moses movie gets the big stuff right but muddles through the small.

‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’
Director:
Ridley Scott
Stars: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

 

Ridley Scott’s Moses romp “Exodus: Gods and Kings” nails the two things it needed to get right: the parting of the Red Sea is cool — if not as jaw-dropping as the one in Cecil B. DeMille’s Easter staple "The Ten Commandments" — and the plagues are tops. Does it matter that the rest is semi-coherent and often stiff, plus noticeably hacked down from a four-hour, maybe 10-hour, perhaps 100-hour cut? When a swarm of super-crocs seize upon fishermen, turning the Nile into literal blood, or once the sound of locusts buzzing is blowing out Dolby subwoofers, perhaps you can briefly forgive Christian Bale’s sketchily defined Moses or a film that often trips across the many, many scenes clearly excised to get this down to tolerable length.

 

In fact, 150 minutes seems barely enough to tell it all. Scott guts the story down to a skeleton; the only real meat on it is its two big set pieces. Little Moses floating in a basket is skipped over, and he’s banished to the desert by minute 40. Early on John Turturro’s gruesomely masacara’d Seti scores some unintended yuks, but he’s quickly shuffled off. It’s almost thrilling how fast “Exodus” moves, but it also means cutting down on characterization, themes and what appears to be the token “heart” of the film: Moses’ half-sibling rivalry/bond with Pharaoh Rameses (Joel Edgerton, bald, blinged-out and sometimes canoodling with snakes). Rameses comes off complex, in part because Edgerton, with his babyfat cheeks and sincere eyes, is too innately decent a presence to play full-on tyrant. But Moses’ arc is largely left off-screen, reducing Bale to mere generic gravitas.

 

Scott, of course, is the king of the director’s cuts. From “Blade Runner” on, he’s had his work hacked up then salvaged so often that his theatrical cuts invariably play like dry runs; his crusades epic “Kingdom of Heaven” only feels realized in its longer home video form. With “Exodus” he barely seems to bother pounding his towering ambitions into a theater-friendly shape.

 

Yet it’s possible this is too conceptually wobbly to ever work. A more practical and less sentimental epic-maker than DeMille, Scott seems to be aiming for a quasi-revisionist take on a tall tale, with semi-believable explanations for its least realistic flights of fancy. But this is one Bible story that resists a rational presentation, being so heavily reliant on divine intervention. It's a wonder why he tries to give a realistic-ish excuse for some of the plagues at all, or throws in a nearby tsunami that may sort of, kind of, explain the Red Sea for a spot going dry.And it's odd that Scott bothered to suggest God might be a figment of Moses’ imagination, seen only by him. Moreover, its less than enthused take on God requires a bit more meat. After the last plague chillingly lays waste to the first-born of Egypt, Rameses charges to Moses, “Is this your god? Killer of children?” Moses doesn’t have an answer and neither does the film, which lets the question hang, equal parts intriguing and frustrating.

That God is embodied as both ye olde burning bush and a petulant, nine-year-old bully is the closest thing to an intentional joke here. Along with holding back on the look-at-the-(CGI)-sets pageantry, it holds back on humor and life. It cuts all of the Heston-led “Ten Commandment”’s fun characters. There’s no trace of Anne Baxter’s femme fatale-ish queen, Edward G. Robinson’s meddling race traitor or John Carradine’s hissable slave driver. (The closest it gets to a broad caricature is an old, presumed-dead movie staple: the evil, swishy gay, played to the not-unentertaining hilt by Ben Mendelsohn.) Even the Ten Commandments themselves are regulated to a quiet, non-bombastic coda, which stands in stark relief to the film’s most ostentatious stunner of an image: a horse rendered tiny as it stands in front of the hugest wave outside of “The Perfect Storm.”

"Exodus" is certainly not boring (though the plodding nature of certain scenes suggests the inevitable home video cut may be snoozy). There’s no staff-snake duel and actors like Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver are hilariously wasted — but there are 3-D entrails, gross skin diseases, a rockin’ battle right out of “Gladiator” and a generic “Middle Eastern” score that begs you to chuckle at it every time it plays. Ewen Bremner, as a priest, wins the silly hair award, with a fat ponytail that grows out of the top corner of his head like a tumor. It’s all over the place: sleepy and dull, then over-the-top and fun; it’s a boilerplate church movie, then a takedown of religion, made by a non-believer last seen with a Cormac McCarthy movie, “The Counselor,” that essentially assured viewers there is no god. But believing Scott can one day turn this into something more than a watchable mess will require more than faith.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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