I can't say I'm surprised. Special effects have progressed to the point where the most human (and underrated) performance of the year is by a CGI chimp. It was only a matter of time before someone took up the mantle of making the umpteenth film about the Moses story. After all, why waste the opportunity to animate thousands of frogs, locusts, and flies when you have a moviegoing public comprised chiefly of people from Abrahamic religions who will pay to see it all over again? Screw it, Hollywood should just churn out a version of this story every year. And make it in 4D next time, with those scratch and sniff cards and Smell-O-Vision.
It's that sense of inevitability that drags down Exodus: Gods and Kings so low. Sure, you could argue that unless you're from an Eastern country—and even then, maybe not—chances are you know how this story goes down, so it's impossible for it to ever feel fresh again onscreen. False. I'm old enough to have seen Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt in theaters, as well as multiple times at home, and that somehow still feels exciting, wondrous, and uplifting all the same. Maybe it's the music, but the filmmakers still managed to squeeze out some quality out of this, the greatest story ever told. This year's model, however, feels as though the director, Ridley Scott, just watched a few of his own films (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood) on repeat, and figured he'd just do it the same way.
Let's assume that you're a martian, and you really don't know what happens in this movie. After being exiled from Egypt, Moses (Christian Bale) learns of his destiny to lead the Hebrews out from slavery. His adoptive brother, Ramses (Joel Edgerton) has become the power-hungry pharaoh who refuses to let go of the wonderfully convenient slave economy powered by the Hebrews, and so God lays waste to Egypt with a variety of plagues until Ramses concedes defeat. Moses leads the Hebrews out, whereupon Ramses and his army gives foolhardy chase before they are trounced by the power of God, allowing the Hebrews to continue their journey to the promised land.
That, of course, is the super-truncated version, yet it's really all you need to know. But because this is a $140 million spectacle, the film instead goes on for 150 minutes, creating massive issues of pacing and narrative exhaustion. Did you know that Moses was an army general before he was an old man with a big beard? You will after watching the film spend a solid twenty minutes establishing it with an entirely unnecessary battle scene. What about that 3D you paid for? You get your money's worth when Scott spends a solid hour depicting the plagues that afflict Egypt. Because this story is so familiar, the sheer amount of time sunk into showing its events feels mostly like extremely expensive wheel-spinning than a thrilling epic. And because it's directed by Scott, this is also the dirtiest, grimmest version we've seen yet, hence the presence of Bale, who is the enemy of smiling. While I don't expect a film about the freeing of slaves to feel light on its feet, it could have at least been couched in a sense of awe the way a Biblical story should. Instead, we get shaky-cam action scenes and plenty of filthy, scowling men with overgrown beards.
Then there's also the issue of casting. Although he Prince of Egypt utilizes a well-known cast of Hollywood actors to provide the voices, the characters themselves were at least drawn to look like the Middle Eastern and African people they were. In Exodus, all the extras and non-speaking characters (and yes, the slaves) are portrayed by people of color, the principal cast is comprised of Americans, Brits, and Aussies. This creates a startling, distracting visual disconnect in the majority of the scenes, particularly when a Welsh Moses is leading thousands of appropriately brown-skinned Hebrews. Filling out the cast are big-name actors like John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, and Ben Mendelsohn, who are so caked in eyeliner and tanner that figuring out who's who becomes a game unto itself. The worst offender of all is Edgerton as the nigh-hairless Ramses, appearing more like the enormous baby from Spirited Away than a legendary pharaoh.
When Cecil B. DeMille made The Ten Commandments in 1956, it felt like it was with the power of a believer. This was the guy who also made the silent epic The King of Kings, which told the story of Jesus Christ. DeMille was a devout Christian, and it made sense that his final film was the story of Moses, created when he was 75 years old. Scott, similarly, is 77. Yet we get the impression that he doesn't seem to care all that much anymore. He used to be the visionary who gave us Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus, which, say what you want about its origins, at least had some interesting ideas. But when you run Scott Free and have your thumb in about ninety different pies, it's hard to become invested in a single project. Exodus feels like it was filmed while Scott was napping.