Back in ancient times, say, 1956, when Charlton Heston led the Israelites on their epic march out of Egypt in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, miracles like the parting of the Red Sea were, indeed, miraculous. Matte paintings, rear projection, a gigantic U-shaped water tank, hundreds of costumed extras leaning into wind machines, all that livestock, the duck that waddles out of the frame - the coordination of actors, animals, machinery, props, hair stylists, dolly grips, truly astounding!
That VistaVision vision of Moses leading the legion of slaves across the suddenly pedestrian-friendly seabed was one of the great feats of the day.
Sure, you can argue that when Christian Bale - playing a more haunted, hungry Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings - points his dubious minions straight toward the churning waves as Ramses and his chariots barrel around the bend in pursuit, the gyring funnels and flashes of lightning and the sideways reverse tsunami look slicker and more lifelike than DeMille's. But it's the kind of CG-driven visual effect we've grown accustomed to in Transformer movies and Godzilla movies and Middle-earth movies.
Parting the Red Sea? That's what fractal landscaping, motion capture, and bidirectional texture function can do. Computer-generated imaging has advanced spectacularly over the decades, but moviegoers, and gamers, have been there every step of the way. Miracles aren't as impressive as they used to be.
Which, in Exodus: Gods and Kings, leaves us back with the basics: the screenplay, the stars, the 1300 B.C. couture. When Ramses (a shiny-domed, eyelinered Joel Edgerton) and adoptive brother Moses lead their preemptive strike against the Hittites, Scott brings the camera close in to catch the respective glints of courage (Moses) and uh-oh (Ramses) in their eyes, then pulls back to reveal the virtual armies going at one another. This tactic - first the close-up, the human scale, then the wide, CG shot of teeming throngs amid grand edifices - is repeated over and over through the 21/2 hours of stultifying Old Testament reenactments.
If there's anything daring in Scott and his screenwriters' take on this oft-told tale (DreamWorks Animation's The Prince of Egypt, a cartoon version, came out in 1998 - way more fun), it's the decision to depict God, or his earthly iteration, as a bratty kid with an English accent. As Moses struggles with issues of faith, madness, and spousal neglect (he marries the tribeswoman Zipporah - María Valverde - and then takes off to lead the slave rebellion), this pint-size Brit (Isaac Andrews) challenges Moses to rise to the occasion. The lad warns the beleaguered Hebrew of the coming plagues, browbeats him, taunts him. If you want a less portentous title for this big and curious cinematic endeavor, The Prophet and the Pip-squeak could work nicely.
As for Bale, he seems to have lost his compass. His accent strays, his famous intensity wasted on clunky dialogue. ("Ready yourselves, we cross here!") Edgerton is a one-note Ramses, and other cast members - Ben Kingsley as the Pithomite who tells Moses of his true heritage, Sigourney Weaver as the Egyptian queen, John Turturro as a mover-and-shaker in the pharaoh's court - serve an odd and unintended function. That is, they become objects in a Name That Star guessing game: I know that actor in the robe and sandals, that actress beneath the gold headgear and glammy makeup - come on, who is it?
And wait, isn't that Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman over there in the beard and long hair, getting whipped by one of the pharaoh's soldiers? You betcha.
Directed by Ridley Scott. With Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, John Turturro, María Valverde. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, plagues, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText