God works in mysterious ways. And Ridley Scott has an explanation: The almighty is actually a petulant and vengeful child who has temper tantrums of epic proportions when he doesn’t get his way. At least, that’s how he’s portrayed in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Scott’s retelling of the Old Testament story of Moses.
That God is played by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews as a bratty and terrifying pre-teen is but one absurd choice in this biblical action drama that feels excessive in every way imaginable, from running time (nearly 2
The story begins during Moses’s early adulthood, and Scott has managed to shoehorn the religious narrative into his “Gladiator” template. Just as in Scott’s 2000 Academy Award winner, the film jumps right into the action with a battle between the ruling state and some barbaric rebels. In place of Romans, however, in “Exodus” it’s the pharaoh’s army in Egypt and some insurgents. And as in the earlier movie, there’s tension between the protagonist and future despot. Moses, played by Christian Bale, has been raised alongside the next pharaoh, Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The future leader’s father, Seti (John Turturro), clearly favors Moses. According to the laws of “Gladiator,” this means that Seti will soon die.
And so it happens, after which Ramses discovers the truth about his surrogate brother: Moses is Hebrew, and therefore he’s exiled. Moses settles into banishment pretty well, marrying a nice woman and fathering a son. He becomes a shepherd. But it doesn’t last. During a horrific mountaintop storm, he witnesses the burning bush and the angry god-child, and realizes he must save his kinsmen from slavery and deliver them to the promised land of Canaan.
Among the movie’s myriad problems is its lack of character development. There are passing attempts at humanizing larger-than-life characters, as we see Ramses with his infant son and Moses saying sweet things to his wife. But there’s a much greater emphasis on battles and apocalyptic images than on personal stories. In place of meaningful dialogue, we get a lot of God’s retaliation: the bloody Nile (in this case due to vicious crocodiles), maggots, flies, people covered in boils and livestock spewing blood before falling dead. That’s to say nothing of the storms with earth-swallowing tornadoes, hail and lightning. The scenes may have been inspired by the sensationalists at the Weather Channel.
In truth, “Exodus” has much more in common with “The Day After Tomorrow” and other examples of disaster porn than “The Ten Commandments” or “The Passion of the Christ” or even “Noah” from earlier this year.
Scott has received flak from religious groups for taking liberties with the source material, but he also has raised the hackles of laymen. Some questioned why the director cast white men in all the major roles in a movie about ancient Egypt, and he responded that big names are necessary in order to finance a movie. He also said he believed that the actors selected were the best people for the parts.
But they aren’t, and that’s true not just because of racial veracity. Regardless of his heavy eyeliner and gold finery, Turturro is not believable as a pharaoh even for a second. But no one looks more out of place than Aaron Paul (of “Breaking Bad”) as a rebellious slave. Even under long hair and a big beard, he still looks like a dude from Idaho. And Edgerton, who has done some impressive acting work, has two volumes for delivering lines: either an incomprehensible growl originating in the back of his throat or an over-the-top yell.
It’s understandable that people were angry about the whitewashing of Egypt. But no aspiring actor of color should think of this as an opportunity missed so much as a bullet dodged.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, including battle sequences, and grotesque images. 146 minutes.