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Front Page - Friday, December 19, 2014

Send this movie back to Egypt

The Critic's Corner

David Laprad

At its best, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a sprawling, visually sumptuous costume drama, the likes of which director Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “Gladiator”) is a master at conjuring. At its worst, it’s a leaden drama that plods its way to an unsatisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, it spends the greater bulk of its running time plodding.

The movie tells the story of how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt after 400 years of enslavement. Like any good Sunday School lesson, it hits all of the highlights: Moses’ mother places him in a basket among the reeds of the Nile so he won’t be killed as pharaoh’s troops slaughter the male children; an Egyptian princess finds Moses and raises him as her own child; God appears out of a burning bush; and ten plagues finally convince the pharaoh to let the Israelites go.

Anyone who watched Cecil B DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” or who even half-listened when the story was told in church, will notice I wrote “God appears out of a burning bush” and not “God speaks to Moses through a burning bush.” That’s because the filmmakers took a number of liberties with the source material that will likely anger purists, the most significant of which is the personification of God in the form of a petulant male child. No longer does God speak in a booming voice through a thicket; rather, he’s a prepubescent boy with anger issues. Other changes are less severe – Moses’ reason for fleeing Egypt differs from the Biblical account, and Christian Bale portrays Moses as a capable military leader and a charismatic speaker, none of which lines up with the account in the Book of Exodus.

Scott and the four writers it took to bring “Exodus” to the screen also have a lot of blanks to fill, but they did it in a way that at least logically fleshes out the bones of the original story.

With Scott at the helm, “Exodus” delivers some great imagery and some genuinely powerful moments. The visual wizardry behind the ten plagues is to be commended, and the scene in which absolute darkness passes over Egypt at night, killing all of the first born males, is both creepy and devastating. Even the preceding scene, in which the Israelites slaughter lambs and use the blood to paint the doorposts red, prompting death to pass over their home that night, effectively portrays the carnage that resulted when one angered the God of the Old Testament. Blood flows liberally in “Exodus,” as it does in the pages of Scripture.

So what’s the problem? A big one is the dialogue, which is too casual and modern for the time period in which the story is set. “Nice of you to show,” Moses tells God in one scene. In a scene in which Ramses tries to get the truth about Moses’ parentage out of his sister, the dialogue is so loose, it seems improvised. I’m not saying I prefer the stagey writing of “The Ten Commandments” and other Biblical epics, but tighter, better dialogue would have improved “Exodus.”

A stronger focus on the secondary characters would have helped, too. Aaron, Joshua, and others exist on the fringes of the script and serve no purpose there. Ben Kingsley sleepwalks through his role as Nun, a Jewish elder, and I’m mystified by the presence of Sigourney Weaver. She’s shown in a handful of shots and says one or two lines. This suggests most of her scenes never made it into the final cut.

Overall, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” never catches fire, despite a decent performance by Bale, Scott in the director’s chair, and a hefty budget. There are sparks, but they never develop into a flame. Given the talent of the people involved and the source material, I expected a more exciting and less dispassionate film.

Two-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. 

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.