Not Yet Heston

Bringing in the divine makes “Exodus,” a difficult Old Testament action film to manage

It's unclear where director Ridley Scott is going with "Exodus: Gods and Kings." Under circumstances not involving David Lynch, a lack of clarity is usually a bad thing for filmmakers, and in this instance, it's made worse by the fact that the source material is so well-known and carries with it certain expectations. Taking the biblical story of Moses a more historical route, Scott's interpretation could be seen as altogether too agnostic, yet he still manages to personify a godlike figure on screen, who drives a lot of the action. So which is it?

Scott knows his way around complex epics, from "Alien" to "Blade Runner" to "Black Hawk Down" to the still vastly overestimated "Gladiator." So in a certain respect, he's exactly the guy you want making this movie. He's going to bring the requisite thunder. But if we're left to wonder whether that thunder is divine or merely meteorological, it loosens the director's grip on the film, and on us.

Moses (Christian Bale) is a general in the Egyptian army and confidant to Rhamses (Joel Edgerton). While visiting Hebrew slaves, Moses is told that he is a Hebrew himself, given up at birth to avoid being slaughtered and taken in by Pharaoh. (Odds are you've heard some of this setup before, so let's skip ahead...)

The strengths in "Exodus" are Bale's performance, the cinematography, the depictions of the ten plagues, Moses' initial contact with Yahweh and the few battle sequences—which obviously includes some Red Sea action. This is not one of Christian Bale's trademark high-wire acts, though he does appear to lose some weight during Moses' time traveling from and back to Egypt. It's more of a traditional leading man role, and he brings his usual intensity. Not many people could claim he's a guy who mails it in. But Bale does not get a great deal of support, whether from his adversary in Joel Edgerton or members of "his people."

Almost everything else in this film is troubling. The pacing is ox-plow slow, big names like Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver have thankless walk-ons, the dialogue sounds like placeholder speech left behind when the cadre of writers couldn't agree on anything better and we can't forget about the guyliner. Oh, the guyliner.

You could also find fault, if you wish, with the largely white cast and the strange variety of accents. But that could be piling on.

Honestly, the worst part of "Exodus," besides its running time, is the messy business of what caused all these plagues and whether or not Moses really was talking to God or, as his Hebrew wife insists, hallucinated because he smashed his head falling down Mount Sinai. It's the room for doubt that makes this movie go belly-up. If you want to say it's the Hebrew God of the Bible, go right ahead. If you're on the fence and want to include modern scientific explanations for the plagues and references to low tide at the Red Sea, well, maybe you should be making another movie.

Realistically, even skeptics in the audience aren't checking out "Exodus" to see Ridley Scott teach the controversy, to co-opt the asinine argument propped up by anti-evolutionists. We've had two Old Testament pictures this year (remember "Noah" from way back in March?), and neither one had the balls to stay true to why those journeys have endured for thousands of years. So it's genuinely hard to accept a movie that appears to not wholeheartedly believe the story it's telling.

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