Biblical epics are having a bit of a moment in 2014, with Ridley Scott's "Exodus: Gods and Kings" arriving months after Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" re-fashioned the flood as an act of environmentalist wrath.
Scott's crack at a later chapter in the Bible attempts a similarly serious-minded consideration of the story, rejecting the Cecil B. DeMille method of simplistic mythologizing by stressing the humanity of Egyptians and Israelites and the sadism inherent in some of the 10 plagues.
He's got Christian Bale, the consummate professional, playing an intense and brooding Moses, and Joel Edgerton giving a measure of humanity to the otherwise cartoonish Ramses II.
It's clear that Scott wants to shift the focus inward, to consider the emotional and spiritual journey of Moses, a slave raised in the Egyptian palace who discovers his true identity amid great upheaval while inherently sanctioning a morally-questionable display of awesome heavenly vengeance.
Yet "Exodus" is just one-third of an interesting movie.
The filmmaker's instincts keep pulling him in a familiar direction. The screenplay frames Moses as a warrior and general, so we get big sword-and-sandal battle scenes and other similar set pieces that feel like re-treads from "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Gladiator."
This depiction epitomizes a film at war with itself. It intends to be a character study, regarded as a serious exploration of who this biblical icon might have been, but it also packs on the humdrum, CGI-heavy combat and tired military characterizations.
It's as if Scott and his colleagues (or some studio executive) felt the need to pad out the budget by packing on the familiar elements to make this a safer commercial bet. There's really no reason to tell this story, though, if you're going to expend precious resources on the same basic clanging and clashing of troops we've seen thousands of times before.
Then there's the camp factor, which is unavoidable to a certain extent whenever you're making a picture like this but has the effect of undermining the moral crisis at the center of the film's vision of Moses.
There are plenty of examples, but we'll highlight one: No disrespect to John Turturro, a wonderful actor, but if you cast him as your pharaoh and have him say things like, "What do the entrails say" after a priestess guts a bird to see the future, you're not going to be taken seriously.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro