I would hope it's not just wishful thinking that leads me to wish Exodus: Gods and Kings would pretty much close shut the mini-revival of the biblical saga that Hollywood flirted with this year. At least, Darren Aronofsky's intriguing but flawed Noah truly engaged with the issues raised by the tale of Noah's Ark. But this version of The Ten Commandments is a misfire from start to finish - a film that engages nothing other than director Ridley Scott's most lavish, decorative instincts.
To be sure, Mr. Scott's mastery in (re)creating lived-in universes, whether past or future, has been a constant in his films ever since his debut The Duellists. But while that painstaking creation of an environment fits here with the current desire for "realistic grittiness" in the reinterpretation of classic tales (see not only Noah but also, for instance, Mr. Scott's own take on Robin Hood), it also becomes painfully evident that there is not much here for the director, or any other storyteller for that matter, to bite into.
As recast in what seems to be a script written by committee, the tale of Moses (a dour Christian Bale) and his transformation from an Egyptian captain into the prophet who led the Jews to the Promised Land becomes a stop-start mash-up of genres that aim at meshing political allegory, existentialist soul-searching, war adventure and biblical spectacle. The Jews are an oppressed people engaging in asymmetrical guerilla warfare against their cruel, sadistic enslavers; Moses is a born leader of men who has doubts about his place in the world, thrown off by his love/hate relationship with foster brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), whose accession to power changes him for the worst.
The mash-up, however, never really comes together; merely as a series of self-contained "acts" or "episodes" meant to move plot from A to B that seem to have been glued together from different films and don't really hang as a whole. And there's a woeful sense of miscasting hanging over the entire enterprise. Mr. Bale's doubting Moses is nothing the actor hasn't done before and often with more energy and commitment than here; the estimable Mr. Edgerton's earnest performance is undone by his shaven-headed effete look; and a number of esteemed film stars are trotted out for the mandatory blink-and-you'll-miss-it "truly this man is the Son of God" moment. And, to make it worse, there's not even that much grandiosity in Mr. Scott's admittedly dazzling digital landscapes or luxurious indoor decorations (the pharaoh's palace is a little too much Blade Runner-ish for comfort).
It turns out that, for all the eye-catching attempts at creating a believable biblical past, the one thing all involved never really do is creating believable, relatable characters or narrative arcs. There is not even awe-inspiring spectacle here; just a bloated display of digital trickery in search of a soul.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
USA, Spain 2014
Cast Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley
Director Ridley Scott; screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (colour, widescreen); composer Alberto Iglesias; designer Arthur Max; costumes Janty Yates; editor Billy Rich; effects supervisor Peter Chiang; producers Peter Chernin, Mr. Scott, Jenno Topping, Michael Schaefer and Mark Huffam; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox, Scott Free Productions and Chernin Entertainment in association with TSG Entertainment, in co-production with Producciones Ramses
Screened December 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)