Exodus: Gods and Kings has four credited screenwriters, too many visual effects technicians for me to count, and actors who speak in at least 20 different flavors of accent, from mid-Atlantic (Christian Bale) to what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here (Aaron Paul). It has a mission to appeal to both the Judeo-Christian faithful and people who only vaguely remember Moses from Sunday school. And it has a director (Ridley Scott) who knows that the love of big honkin' spectacles is the only thing likely to unite people of all creeds and demographic quadrants.
The film that emerges from this melting pot is a spectacle, all right. In the last third, when God starts with the plagues already, it's actually a pretty good one. But when Scott leaves the crowd scenes and aerial shots of people milling around like ants for an intimate view of Moses (Bale), his coming-to-faith and his clash with pharoah Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), things frequently get silly.
Not that that's necessarily bad. Watching the ridiculously buff Edgerton strut around in glam-rock makeup and order his lackeys to build those monuments faster ("Do I have to kill somebody?") is campy fun, reminiscent of the golden age of swords-and-sandals flicks. There are moments when the tone of goings-on at Ramses' court verges on Monty Python.
But whoever scripted those scenes doesn't seem to have communicated too well with the party responsible for depicting Moses' inner journey. Bale brings thoughtfulness to the role: Moses starts out skeptical about gods of any stripe, with the arrogance befitting a warrior prince of Egypt. Informed of his true origins by Hebrew leader Ben Kingsley, he takes a while to embrace his prophetic mission — and does so under considerable duress.
There's at least an amuse-bouche for viewers who like to debate theology in the scenes where Moses argues with God's rep, envisioned as a smart-mouthed kid (Isaac Andrews) who materializes beside the burning bush. The divine point of view that he voices is an uncompromising one, and the film doesn't whitewash the plagues: The death of the first-born is particularly horrifying. When Ramses asks who would worship a god that behaves this way, the question is left hanging.
There's power and terror in these later scenes, but scant character development to underpin them. The script tells us that Moses and Ramses are best buds, but doesn't bother to flesh out their friendship. Pharoah's motivations are all over the place, and the various Hebrews are barely separate characters. It's hard to care about this rag-tag band of underdogs when even their leaders, like Paul's Joshua, have one job in the film: to be Moses' audience.
God knows, it's not easy to script a biblical epic in a secular age. Artists must decide whether to affirm the inherent mystery of a text in which things happen because God wills it, or try to inject the story with a modern understanding of nature, culture and psychology.
The makers of Exodus haven't bothered with historical accuracy in their casting, or with creating particularly plausible characters, yet neither have they embraced the timelessness of myth. Instead, their main reference point seems to be other movies — often cheesy ones. Moses' romance with his wife (María Valverde), for instance, is so groan-inducingly generic that it comes off as a transparent attempt to make him more relatable. Likewise, the opening battle scene panders to viewers who mainly want to see their hero be a badass.
Unlike last spring's Noah, which had a definite — if flawed — vision, Exodus is all over the place. Except on one point: Scott delivers the all-important spectacle. The well-staged, emotionally resonant Red Sea climax may send viewers out on a high — even as they wonder what exactly they got high on.