Extravagant "Exodus" Makes For Satisfying Spectacle

Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods And Kings” almost instantly lives up to its harebrained title.

Swinging nauseatingly between cheese and self-seriousness, its first-act aim proves exceptionally wonky – half redundant Bible epic, half malfunctioning amusement park ride. Audiences are likely to reject its disharmonious performances, half-assed battle scenes, and 140-minute running time on sight. Understandable.

But also unfortunate, because the film’s eventual bright spots are of the retina-burning sort. Director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Gladiator”) uses the familiarity of the story to summon the kind of impossibly grounded spectacle that most special effects bonanzas neglect entirely. Although it takes far too long to gain any sort of momentum, it ultimately gets there on force alone, with star Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight”) beginning sleepily but reliably rising up to the grandiosity of the material.

Despite the aforementioned first act issues and a particularly uninspired ending, “Exodus” isn’t as stone-faced – or, alternatively, silly – as many of its historical epic brethren. It’s cut from a different cloth, one of respect for its source but not married to it. Its screenplay – credited to four writers – seems utterly unconcerned with budget or nuance, an increasingly rare combination in Hollywood’s current penny-pinching climate.

The story begins midstream, skipping over Moses’ adoptive past. Fully entrenched as a member of the royal Egyptian family, an adult Moses (Bale) commands troops along side his brother and king-in-waiting, Ramesses (Joel Edgerton, “Warrior”). When Moses is outed as a Hebrew and cast out into the desert, he’s called by God, portrayed here as a young boy. It’s an odd conceit, but suitably mysterious, setting in motion Moses’ quest to liberate the hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves under the brutal rule of his former family.

With the death of King Seti (a remarkably miscast John Turturro), Ramsses has ascended to the throne and Moses’ pleas for freedom inevitably fall deaf on his ears. Enter the plagues, one of the Bible’s most well known passages, brought to life here as vividly as ever before. It’s a fantastically horrifying sequence, with Scott and his screenwriters attempting to give each plague a logical (or pseudo-logical) explanation. Reading the text is one thing, seeing it so graphically depicted is another. The end result is likely to reframe the tale for believers and non-believers alike.

The elephant in the room – a mostly white cast playing ancient Egyptians – will put some off the experience, a problem exacerbated by a procession of uneven accents. It’s a valid complaint, but a hopeless one. Big budget spectacles typically require movie stars, which the movie provides en masse – to varying levels of success.

While Bale is good, the typically low-key Edgerton is wholly out of his element as the flamboyant Ramsses and the film is better when he’s off screen. The same can be said of Sigourney Weaver in her limited screen time as Queen Tuya. Alternatively, Ben Kingsley (“Ghandi”) and Aaron Paul (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) lend a quiet stateliness to their parts as slaves and accomplices to Moses, melding nicely with Bale’s simmering intensity.

But no one should RSVP to “Exodus: Gods And Kings” for the performances. The visuals are the only reason to check in, and while occasionally undone by goofy-looking CGI and confusing geography – the Red Sea sequence is nothing short of batty – the creative team has made sure their $140 million budget is all on screen. While “Exodus” may require Moses-like patience, it’s likely to reward the faithful.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 12, 2014
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine, Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Steve Zaillian
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence including battle sequences and intense images)