Ever since the 2004 megahit The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has been open-minded to faith-based entertainment, and 2014 has seen both economic true-believer productions (Left Behind, God’s Not Dead, and Heaven Is for Real) as well as would-be blockbusters “Noah” and, now, Ridley Scott’s $140 million Moses epic Exodus: Gods and Kings. There’s gold in them thar sand dunes, or so 20th Century Fox hopes.
And yet, a biblical epic in 2014 is a strange beast indeed, walking a fine line in the hopes of pleasing both the faithful (including extra-hard-to-please fundamentalists) and those audiences more accustomed to secular myths. Indeed, the religio-historical Exodus: Gods and Kings at times feels like a stone’s throw from both super-powered superhero cinema (after all, erstwhile Batman Christian Bale plays Moses) and Scott’s own Oscar winner Gladiator.
Exodus: Gods and Kings kicks off in 1300 BCE, with Moses ensconced, as a general, amongst Egyptian forces set to do unneighborly battle with the Hittites over ye olde “land of milk and honey.” Screenwriters Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian set up an unfortunately anemic Angels with Dirty Faces "dynamic" between Moses and stepbrother Ramses (Joel Edgerton): raised alongside each other, they’re nevertheless destined to wind up on opposite sides of the chariot tracks.
Clashing chariot wheels, swords and sandals, spears, and hails of arrows compete, for the soul of Scott’s picture, with considerations of the relationships between manly men Moses and Ramses, between kings and slaves, and between men and gods. The picture most distinctly roars to life when Scott apparently relishes his chance to play Ben-Hur with those dangerous-looking, fast-as-lightning chariots careening across battlefields or on the edges of treacherous mountain passes—and not so much when making its way through at-times chewy dialogue (like Ramses’ negotiation with Moses: “From an economic standpoint, what you are asking is problematic to say the least”).
As for God, he appears in the form of a drily droll, perpetually unimpressed pubescent boy (Isaac Andrews). The filmmakers try to play it coy, feinting in a skeptical direction suggesting Moses could be concussed or schizophrenic, but ultimately the picture—which sets off from the epigram “God has not forgotten them”—falls on the side of depicting God and man in uneasy alliance: bet-hedging debates about the sources of the plagues can’t explain the dutifully depicted spontaneous deaths of first-born children.
And so it goes, with Exodus checking off Moses’ greatest hits (familiar from the Bible stories and Cecil B. DeMille’s perennial The Ten Commandments”): the burning-bush encounter; the plagues; the climactic “parting of the Red Sea”; and a stone-tablet-chipping resolution. That these aren’t spoiler alerts highlights one problem plaguing Scott’s picture: a lack of dramatic tension given the widespread familiarity of the story.
Despite earnest acting from the leads (and some of the supporting players, like Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul), the story has a muddy effect, hampered partly by the “economic standpoint” arguably necessitating casting lily-white stars as Middle Eastern characters and partly by the hollow-ringing impression that political and spiritual concerns matter far less here than grand 3D spectacle.