The biblical epic is officially back (for now). After Daren Aronofsky gave us his version of Noah featuring rock giants, berries and Ray Winstone wielding a magical rocket launcher, Ridley Scott takes on the Book of Exodus on an even bigger scale. Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in contrast to the delightfully unusual and frankly a bit bonkers Noah, for the most part a more classical, old school movie. The result is high on spectacle, but low on character, coherence and fun.
Most people in this part of the world should be more or less familiar with the story. Christian Bale steps into the sandals of Charlton Heston, who immortalised the role of Moses in the classic Cecil B. de Mille 1956-version of the story The Ten Commandments. He starts off as a member of the Egyptian royal family and a general of their overpowering military, before discovering that, not unlike the Blues Brothers, he is on a mission from God. He then adopts his true heritage and proceeds to lead the escape of the enslaved Hebrew people from Egypt. During this process, he constantly transforms his physicality and facial hair (I counted at least 10 different beards hiding Christian Bale's gorgeous features).
The film occasionally engages with the source text in interesting ways, but largely sticks to the Old Testament and its values. God appears to Moses in the form of a young boy and there are hints of a logical explanations for the devastating plagues and the famous partition of the Red Sea (meteor!), but it really is a heroic tale about a man on a mission, about faith and about revenge.
The women are completely marginalised. Some heavy editing appears to have reduced the roles of Sigourney Weaver and the wonderful Hiam Abbass to a couple of scenes and as many lines. The vast amount of plot and action covered in two and a half hours leaves little time to develop many of the minor characters beyond their elaborate costumes. Even Moses himself isn't particularly interesting. There are brief moments of doubt, but he simply shrugs it off after seeing the next miracle. His love-hate relationship with the Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton) also lacks chemistry and impact.
What we are left with is a sense of epicness. Very few directors can convey the grandeur and the scale of things like Sir Ridley. The camera constantly leaves the ground to show us big, sweeping shots of cities, deserts and monuments in construction. The landscape and the CGI-effects look equally spectacular on the big screen. On a technological level, the film is brilliant aside from the pointless 3D and a brief moment of embarrassingly bad ADR. The Egyptians are hit by the ten plagues in a montage of truly biblical proportions. Ben Mendelsohn furthermore steals all of his scenes as a slimy, deliciously camp slavedriver.
I wish the film had taken a bit more time to develop its characters and update the story for modern audiences. As it is, Exodus lacks emotional impact. If you think Christopher Nolan takes himself too seriously, you might want to skip this one. With the exception of some glorious Mendelsohn-innuendo, there are no laughs at all. That said, the shot of the horse running away from the ocean is almost worth the price of admission alone. It's not as forgettable as Kingdom of Heaven, but nowhere near as good as Gladiator.