Longer than the average Hollywood feature film and shorter than the average Passover Seder, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” tells the well-known story of how Moses led the enslaved Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. The timing of the movie’s release — a few days before Hanukkah — may be a bit puzzling, but it does provide a nice bookend for 2014. We had a blockbuster Sunday school lesson in March in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” and now we have Ridley Scott’s attempt to bring another famous chunk of the Hebrew Bible to life, in 3-D no less.
“Noah,” with its stone giants and Emma Watson, may have been too strange for some viewers. “Exodus,” by contrast, crowded with well-known actors, is nowhere near strange enough. More than anything else, it recalls the widescreen, Technicolor biblical pageants of the 1950s and early ’60s, bland and solemn spectacles that invited moviegoers to marvel at their favorite stars in sandals and robes.
The casting of “Exodus,” with mostly American, British, and Australian actors in Middle Eastern and African roles, has raised some eyebrows, and while these choices represent a failure of imagination and sensitivity, they are also consistent with that old, stale tradition. So is the curious decision to encourage the performers to speak in strange, geographically and historically preposterous accents.
The Egyptian oppressors, with their heavy eyeliner and clingy linen robes, festoon their highfalutin’ pseudo-Oxbridge speech patterns with lisps and sighs. (The script is credited to a squad of competent dramaturges, none of them, alas, named Oscar Wilde.) John Turturro as the relatively nice pharaoh is out-camped only by Ben Mendelsohn as a corrupt, mincing viceroy. Even the manly and muscular Joel Edgerton as the bad pharaoh, Ramses, tries to play along, caressing snakes, fluttering his lashes, and gorging on crab legs. Such women as there are in the movie — if you doze off, you might miss Sigourney Weaver, Hiam Abbass, and Tara Fitzgerald — mostly stand around holding trays and pitchers while the men thunder and hiss.
Strangest of all is Christian Bale as Moses, raised in the Egyptian royal court as a brother to Ramses and blind to his true heritage. Eventually, of course, Moses discovers his Jewish roots, which means that he stops shaving, starts herding goats, and, unless my ears deceive me, takes to peppering his speech with stagy old-man Yiddish inflections, as though preparing to lead his people from the fleshpots of Egypt into a borscht belt Canaan. You think this desert is dry? You should try my wife’s brisket.
Alas, Scott is not Mel Brooks. “Exodus” is ludicrous only by accident, which isn’t much fun and is the surest sign of what we might call a New Testament sensibility at work. But the movie isn’t successfully serious, either. Not for the first time, Scott confuses excessive scale with authentic grandeur, and while some of the battle scenes have a rousing, kinetic sweep, there are far too many slow aerial surveys of Memphis, the Egyptian capital, a city bristling with columns and other priapic monuments.
To be fair, there is some good stuff here, too. Scott is a sinewy storyteller and a connoisseur of big effects. He turns the 10 plagues into a science-fiction apocalypse and stages the climactic pursuit of the Hebrews by the Egyptian army with the thundering precision of a cavalry battle in a John Ford western. (The parting of the Red Sea, unfortunately, is a digital washout.) But in the past, this director has also shown a knack for intimacy and intensity, for moments of feeling that stand out amid the fight-and-flight adrenaline rushes. Think of the eerie quiet of “Alien,” the whispery enigmas of “Blade Runner,” or the loose, raw humor of “Thelma & Louise.”
That was a long time ago, and the committee-written script of “Exodus” has little room for the human dimensions of the story, which contains some of the most psychologically complex episodes in the Torah. The movie does provide a brief interlude of romance and domesticity, when Moses, stopping at an oasis, catches the eye of a kohl-eyed beauty with a blue tattoo on her lip. That would be Zipporah, whose tribe he joins for a while. They have a son, and Moses teaches him to throw a baseball — technically I guess you’d have to call it a rock — before destiny calls him away.
And when it does, “Exodus” becomes, briefly, an interesting movie. The biblical book of the same title tells two entwined stories. One is an epic of national liberation and self-assertion, in which the Israelites discover a political identity and begin to organize themselves as a people. The other is a kind of love story, about the often contentious relationship between the Israelites and their god, who is a complicated literary character, by turns compassionate and stern, steadfast and fickle. He and Moses don’t always get along.
In Scott’s film, God appears to Moses in the person of a young boy (Isaac Andrews), a bold and in some ways genuinely radical choice. His spooky, icy voice urges Moses toward extremism — a reversal of Aronofsky’s rendering of Genesis, in which Noah’s fanaticism goes beyond the divine mandate — for reasons that Moses is unable to understand. He wants to help free his people, but he also feels a residual kinship with Ramses, a bond that must be severed completely. His military insurgency is not enough.
While it lasts, though, “Exodus” has the makings of a provocative study of power, rebellion, and loyalty. To paraphrase a Passover song, that would have been enough. What we get instead is both woefully insufficient and much too much.