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Exodus: Gods and Kings, an epic folly

There’s an old adage (usually accurate) that the book is better than the movie, and the sentiment was frequently applied in jest to the plethora of biblical blockbusters that proliferated on the big screen during the 1950s and 1960s: The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Bible (1966), et al.

With the 2014 releases of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, this has proven a banner year for the old saying. Not only was the book better, so were previous films based on the same stories.

The Ten Commandments might have been florid and campy, and the 1999 animated feature The Prince of Egypt (1998) sanitized and child-friendly, but neither of those films was dull. Exodus is a remarkably forgettable experience. Scott brings his customary epic scale to Exodus, but for all the clanking swords, thundering hooves and CGI wizardry, it’s an empty spectacle.

Christian Bale has the beard and the bearing as Moses, while Joel Edgerton preens and sneers as Ramesses. Although raised as brothers, there’s little sense of a bond between the two, so their inevitable clash carries little dramatic weight. Thanks to a visit from the Almighty, presented here as a young boy (Isaac Andrews), Moses has taken it upon himself to lead the Hebrews from their enslavement in Egypt. Trouble is, of course, Ramesses isn’t about to let them go. In one of the film’s odder moments, he complains to Moses about the economic implications. In another, Moses and a merry band of Hebrews commit acts of sabotage upon the city, implicitly suggesting and endorsing the notion of terrorism — which might have added a provocative new wrinkle to the proceedings had it been explored any further.

Cue the plagues (and the CGI), which ultimately persuade Ramesses to free the Hebrews, but the real plague in Exodus is its lumpy screenplay, which adds absolutely nothing fresh to a story that a vast majority of the world’s population knows by heart. The four credited scribes are a varied lot: Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Tower Heist), Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener) and Oscar winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), the latter among Tinseltown’s top script doctors.

Aside from Bale and Edgerton, no one has much to do except stand around or march wearily through the desert, thereby wasting such talents as Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn and Ewen Bremner — and whose idea was it to cast John Turturro as Seti, the old Pharoah?

By the time the story finally gets to the climax — that would, of course, be the parting of the Red Sea — one is grateful that the end is finally in sight. As far as the special effects in this sequence, this round (again) goes to Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments. !

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