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Film Review of the Week: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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The Red Sea is featured prominently in the TV spots for Ridley Scott's new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, which stars Christian Bale as Moses and opens Friday areawide. Moses, of course, was the Egyptian prince of mysterious parentage who led the Hebrews out of B.C. slavery and toward the promised land. The parting of the Red Sea has always been the biblical story's climax, and it's certainly one of the Old Testament's flagship spectacles.

In the film, Moses' brother, the brawny Pharaoh Ramses (a bald and heavily mascara'd Joel Edgerton), is bearing down with soldiers and chariots on a mountain pass — safety be damned! — having reconsidered his decision to release Egypt's 400,000 slaves en masse. And Moses, appointed by God to free them, is in a pickle. You all know the gist. Except the parting of the Red Sea itself happens without anything like grandeur. It doesn't even part. The only visual cue is a slight, if sudden, current. No one's marching through a petrified corridor, a la Arctic ice shelf, as in the 1956 Charlton Heston version. Scott saves the fireworks for the crashing back of the Red Sea, when the slaves have made it to safety and the soldiers have abandoned the crazed Pharaoh, and Moses and Ramses charge at each other on horseback across the rocky space between them, reckoning directly with the fraternal and tsunamic forces at play.

The film, after all, is a character study. Or at least that's what Scott would have you believe. Though he has called Exodus: Gods and Kings his biggest picture to date — this from the man  who brought you Gladiator and Prometheus — Scott has said he was interested, foremost, in the sibling rivalry at the heart of the story. The marketing folks, on the flipside, would prefer that you view Exodus (the "Gods and Kings" of which was added for copyright reasons) more like Gladiator, with a pedigreed actor in the Maximus role and scenes of war and gore to sustain you through the boring, ancient political stuff, of which there is plenty.

But Bale and Edgerton, with the script at hand, are a very poor man's Crowe and Phoenix. Bale never lands on a geographically discernible accent or a hairstyle that computes with the passage of time. Edgerton is absent for the film's majority. The army of side characters (Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Hiam Abbass) barely registers. Paul in particular, as Joshua, a sidekick-type, has a few moments that hint at invisible story lines, suggesting that hours, not minutes, were chopped from a rough cut.    

Like other directors dealing with biblical source material, Scott is tasked with depicting the sublime. His achievements on this score are erratic: His economical plague montage is a thrilling horror show that hints deftly at theoretical scientific origin; his God, however, is a petulant little 11-year-old schoolboy who conveys neither wrath nor mercy nor much of anything worth worshiping.

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