Here however the bromance-turned-sour theme rests on solid performances from Christian Bale (Moses) and his sort of cousin Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Early on their "father" Seti (in an intriguing performance by Coen Brothers' favourite John Turturro) expresses his qualms about Ramses' faults, but when Seti's death coincides with discoveries about Moses' past, the new Pharaoh swoops to secure his throne.
In the run up to Exodus' release I found it hard to imagine Christian Bale as Moses, least of all when portrayed as a combative fighter-general who turns terrorist. In other Moses movies these scenes were played by a pure and upright Heston, a feeble Kingsley, an effeminately drawn Kilmer and by Burt Lancaster's son. But Bale's performance is one of the best aspects of the film, bringing a new angle to Moses and the threat of a Hebrew uprising. Various Moses films have depicted the actions of the fearful Pharaoh who drowned the Hebrew boys. Few have captured the dread and paranoia behind them. Bale's more muscular performance in tandem with Edgerton's subtle and not unsympathetic turn as Ramses take the film into new territory.
Perhaps it's because the two leads perform so well that Scott draws so little on the wealth of acting talent he also had on the payroll. Sigourney Weaver is almost invisible. Aaron Paul hardly speaks. Turturro sparks in his few scenes but is snuffed out of soon. Kingsley gets the next greatest amount of screen time, but even his role is limited.
Indeed other than the leads, arguably the most interesting performance comes from the 11-year old Isaac Andrews as Malak, a figure halfway between God and his messenger. This fits well with the ambiguity in Exodus 3 over the identity of the voice that speaks to Moses. Not a few have objected to this portrayal finding Andrews petulant and inconsistent. One can only assume these objections come from those who haven't read Exodus 4:24-26 in a while (where God, having just commissioned Moses, then tries to kill him).
Yet despite these subtleties, it's difficult to see what persuaded Fox to press ahead with this project. It's been ten years since The Passion stunned movie execs with its surprise success at the box office. But that success was routed in the devout turning out to show their support for a faithful retelling of the pivotal moment in their faith. It was shot on a small budget and as both Hollywood studios and Christian filmmakers have discovered, what will get the devout to turn out has proved perilously hard to predict.
Furthermore Scott's vision of the film, gestated more in atheism than in belief in the supernatural, was the kind of approach that was likely to leave church audiences wary whilst not sufficiently detoxifying the Bible brand to appeal to the non-religious.
As it turns out, though, Jewish, Christian and Muslim audiences need not have been so cautious. Scott's scepticism only results in ambiguity rather than a credible debunking and, for me at least, the film's internal logic undoes much of the scientific theories it presents.
Take, for example, the bump on the head which immediately precedes Moses' first encounter with God. This is arguably Exodus' most controversial moment suggesting that Moses was, in fact, suffering from some kind of hallucination. Yet such a theory suffers because from the very start of the film Moses is the most rational, anti-religious sceptic in the whole film. Wouldn't he, of all people, questioned whether his bash on the head was partly responsible for his new vision? Would such trauma-induced visions persist even for a few weeks, let alone the months and years that pass over the course of the film?
Then there are the plagues. Scott draws on theories that have been around for many years which have suggested that the rivers turning to blood was what drove the frogs onto land, which caused the plague of flies and resulted in various other plagues occurring. Strangely, such theories tend to act like Rorschach ink blot tests: Believers see confirmation of the events narrated in scripture; unbelievers see a rational explanation that removes the need for God.
Exodus: Gods and Kings puts this theory on the lips of an Egyptian professional sceptic played by Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner. However, instead of portraying Bremner's character as a wise, archetypal scientist, centuries ahead of his time, he is played as a comically incompetent charlatan, his sudden execution being played for one of the film's few laughs. It's not unprecedented that such a comical character unwittingly hits upon scientific truth (Pumbaa's "big balls of gas millions of light years away") but these moments are generally for knowing comic purposes themselves rather than for advancing serious theories.
What's also odd is that whereas these domino theories about the plagues tend to see the first plague as the result of exponential growth in the numbers of red-coloured algae, here a plague of crocodiles descend on a fishing boat and having devoured the fishermen they then turn on each other. The modification, though, raises two further critical problems. Firstly even this bloodbath seems insufficient to cause the level of pollution that the film suggests and moreover, what caused the sudden and unusual convergence of all these crocodiles in the first place?
Perhaps the most glaring example of this tendency is in the parting of the Red Sea. Here the film's theory is that the seabed is cleared by the drawback preceding the tsunami which then annihilates Pharaoh's soldiers. It's not necessarily a bad theory, but it's both unnecessary from a biblical point of view and undermined by subsequent action. On the one hand a far simpler explanation can be found in the footnotes of the Bible itself - the earliest manuscripts talk not about the Red Sea, but about the Sea of Reeds - a shallower, marshier area many miles away, where ordinary overnight tidal variations might make all the difference. In any case this section of the film culminates in the movie's most preposterous scene where despite getting hit with the full force of the tsunami both Moses and Ramses somehow manage to survive.
In many ways this gets right to the tension at the heart of such a production which is caught between forwarding rational alternative explanations and presenting a spectacular biblical action movie. So many moments in film history rest on the utterly unbelievable - from Buster Keaton's antics on The General to the spinning hallway scene in Inception. Attempting to explain one seemingly watery implausibility (the parting of a huge body of water) and then randomly inventing another immediately afterwards (Moses surviving a tsunami) them is to go against the flow of the both this specific film and the broader genre. Why not just pass on the whole "dry land" bit and have Moses and his followers surf over on the crest of a giant wave?
Indeed what's strange about Scott's attempts to explain away the supernatural aspects of the story is that far simpler explanations for the miraculous events described in the final texts of Exodus can be found through the work of literary criticism. But then they would not have provided the ingredients for a biblical blockbuster. Ultimately Scott seems to want to have his cake whilst audiences eat it.
And as blockbuster historical epic beefcake goes, it's surprisingly palatable. It's no Gladiator, of course, even to those who question its weaknesses, but it's a far greater film than Scott's woeful Robin Hood and a good deal better than either Kingdom of Heaven or 1492: Conquest of Paradise. As with those films the detailed sets, costumes and CGI make for an impressive spectacle and the pacing and tension are good throughout. Indeed of all the Moses films I have seen none capture the drama of the chasing Egyptian army as plausibly as this. Sadly I suspect that yet another commercial failure by a Biblical epic will lead to a long hiatus in big budget Bible films for the immediate future.