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Holy Moses! ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ could have been so much better

I hate sounding like a literary snob, especially considering how infrequently I read. But when it comes to “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which chronicles Moses’ leading 400,000 of his fellow Hebrews out of captivity, the book was better.

Granted, had the original brought the explosions, urban warfare and giant crocodile attacks to the forefront like this, I would have paid more attention in Sunday school.

Then again, the source material didn’t come with such a motley, distracting assortment of accents. And it never depicted God as a British street urchin.

“Exodus” bypasses the basket and the reeds, so we first see Moses (Christian Bale) as a general in the army of his uncle, Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), who’s never treated him much differently than his own son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton).

When Ramses, next in line to be pharaoh, considers his father’s orders to check in on the slaves at Pithom beneath him, Moses volunteers. During that fact-finding mission, the slaves’ spiritual leader, Nun (Ben Kingsley), shares an incredible tale. Stop me if you’ve heard this: Moses, Nun tells him, isn’t Egyptian; he’s really a Hebrew who was hidden by his mother during a time when all Hebrew children were being slaughtered and was eventually adopted by Seti’s sister.

“The truth is,” Moses scoffs, “it’s not even that great a story.”

He still doesn’t believe it even as Ramses, who’s succeeded Seti as pharaoh, is having him exiled for it.

Years later, after taking a wife (Maria Valverde) and having a son, Moses is tending to his goats when he’s knocked unconscious by a mudslide. He awakens next to a burning bush and receives a revelation from God in the form of that British lad (Isaac Andrews).

That’s nothing compared to the rock monsters Darren Aronofsky cooked up in this summer’s “Noah,” but that depiction — from director Ridley Scott and writers Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian — is still going to rile up certain moviegoers. The scenes of Moses, Joshua (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) and other Hebrews committing acts of terror against Egyptian civilians likely won’t sit well, either. And “Exodus” already is being slammed for “whitewashing” the story — i.e., having Caucasians in all the leading roles.

Some of the actors are made to look sufficiently swarthy, but Bale and Paul stick out like a sore Gentile. And it’s hard not to wonder what kind of odds you could have gotten from a young Turturro, growing up in Brooklyn, that one day he’d be portraying a pharaoh in a major motion picture.

Speaking of casting, Sigourney Weaver turns up as Ramses’ mother, Tuya, just long enough for you to think, “Is that Sigourney Weaver? Oh, wow, it is! Wait, is that really all Ridley Scott had for Sigourney Weaver in their first collaboration since ‘Alien’?” — and then send you scrambling to IMDB to remember they worked together two decades ago on “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” But still, she’s pretty much wasted.

And as for Bale, he’s a terrific actor, but at no point does his performance make you feel as though you’re watching Moses.

The trailers cut up the movie’s one scene of warfare (in which Moses and Ramses defeat the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh), Ramses’ pursuit of the Hebrews and the parting of the Red Sea (portrayed with more tornadoes than ever before) to make “Exodus” look downright action-packed.

It isn’t.

Even the plagues — the frogs, the flies, the locusts, the boils that leave Ramses looking like the star of a Proactiv commercial — lack energy.

The cities, the quarry at Pithom and the crossing of the Red Sea are rendered well, but there’s nothing here that will take your breath away. And there’s certainly no need for the 3-D upsell.

Bale’s protestations aside, the story itself is pretty fantastic.

But, holy Moses, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” could have been so much better.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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