If “Noah” and “Son of God” represent the extremes on 2014’s spectrum of faithful biblical adaptation, then “Exodus: Gods and Kings” splits the difference.
It’s also the best film of the three.
Like the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic “The Ten Commandments,” Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” traces the biblical account of Moses liberating the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. But Scott’s narrative is much tighter, and even at two and a half hours, “Exodus” is still over an hour shy of the 220-minute running time of "The Ten Commandments."
As the film opens, Moses (played by Christian Bale) is already an adult, fighting the enemies of Egypt alongside Ramses (Joel Edgerton), who is set to become Pharaoh upon the death of his father (John Turturro). Raised in the Pharaoh’s court, Moses is a bit of an agnostic, skeptical of both the Egyptian traditions that surround him and the beliefs of the Hebrew slaves who work under him.
But just as in the Old Testament account, Moses learns that the Hebrews are his people, so he resigns his position, heads for the wilderness and winds up in Midian, where he marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and starts a family.
Soon after, Moses is called to deliver the people he left behind in Egypt in a scene that represents both a key turning point in the narrative and one of the most creative interpretations of the film’s source material. After Moses chases a few errant members of his flock up a mountain, he encounters the burning bush and finds a mysterious boy lingering nearby.
The boy is either supposed to be the personification of Jehovah or his messenger (Scott is a little ambiguous about this), and he appears to Moses periodically through the rest of the film to give him directions.
After their initial encounter, Moses is shaken from his agnosticism just enough to return to Egypt, determined to free his people. In the meantime, Ramses has been installed as the new Pharaoh, and he has no intention of liberating the slaves building towering statues in his honor.
We all pretty much know what comes next: plagues, death and a dramatic conclusion at the Red Sea. Through most of this, however, Moses is a reluctant hero, and the bulk of “Exodus” watches the legendary prophet grow into his calling while Jehovah does most of the heavy lifting.
If Moses’ character arc feels a little dragged out for narrative purposes, “Exodus” tries to make up for things in other ways. “The Ten Commandments” had to limit its retelling of Egypt’s plagues to a quick montage thanks to the limitations of 1950s special effects, but 21st-century CGI allows “Exodus” to deliver its audience boatloads of infesting frogs, locusts and flies.
The climactic scene at the Red Sea is a visual triumph as well, even if it’s obvious that Scott is trying to offer more of a natural explanation for the event than the unabashed divine intervention Charlton Heston used when he played Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”
Watching Scott wrestle with the divine nature of his source material is actually the most compelling aspect of the film. Often it feels like the director is acknowledging the existence of God while resenting him at the same time. Certain events are explained with natural phenomena, while others — most notably the killing of the firstborn — are presented without context. You can almost see Scott throwing up his hands and saying, “Well, you got me on this one.”
His interpretation of the child-Jehovah acknowledges divine power — after all, something is causing all these plagues — but questions God's rationale. Still, it’s a more forgivable approach than Darren Aronofsky employed for “Noah,” which treated its Old Testament source material like an employee suggestion box. Ultimately, audiences may remember “Exodus” as Scott’s attempt to cope with the death of his brother Tony, to whom he dedicates the film in its closing credits.
Scott’s ambivalence is also channeled through Bale, whose reluctance to accept the prophetic mantle thankfully stops short of Russell Crowe’s borderline-homicidal interpretation of Noah in Aronofsky’s film. Bale’s performance holds the dramatic line well. People might find it more believable, but it won’t do anything to dethrone Heston as cinema’s greatest Moses.
There are plenty of other familiar faces in the cast. Edgerton is serviceable as Ramses, and Ben Kingsley’s role as one of the Hebrew elders is welcome. Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" is featured as Joshua.
The best way to approach “Exodus” may be with measured expectations. It’s fun and exciting, but not mind-blowing. Critical, but faithful. The children of Israel still make it from Point A to Point B, but the road has been repaved in places.
Still, even if audiences will likely dispute many of the film’s points, people of all persuasions should be able to join together on one item: The 3-D is completely useless.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is rated PG-13 for considerable action violence and mayhem, but little of it is very bloody. Sensitive audiences will probably squirm more at the boils than the battles.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.