An improbably Anglo-led cast aside, Ridley Scott's Old Testament epic is a genuinely imposing spectacle.

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“It’s not even that good a story,” Moses grumbles early on in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods & Kings,” shortly after learning of the mysterious events that transformed a lowly Hebrew slave into a full-blown prince of Egypt. It’s a sly, knowing wink from a filmmaker who clearly has a terrific tale on his hands, yet faces a bit of a challenge in selling it to lớn a more cynical, less easily razzle-dazzled audience than those thatgreeted the biblical epics of yesteryear. What’s remarkable about Scott’s genuinely imposing Old Testament psychodrama is the degree lớn which he succeeds in conjuring a mighty and momentous spectacle — one that, for sheer astonishment, rivals any of the lavish visions of ancient times the director has given us — while turning his own skepticism into a potent source of moral và dramaticconflict.

If thisestimable account of how God delivered His people out of Egypt feelslike a movie for a decidedly secular age, its searching, non-doctrinaire approach arguably gets closer khổng lồ penetrating the mystery of faiththan a more fawningapproach might have managed. Lượt thích “Noah,” the year’s other nonconformist Judeo-Christian blockbuster, this isan uncommonly intelligent, respectful butfar-from-reverent outsider’s take on Scripture, although “Exodus” is less madly eccentric and more firmly grounded in the sword-and-sandal tradition than Darren Aronofsky’s film, and will almost certainly prove less polarizing among believers. Even with a hefty $140 million pricetag & a two-and-a-half-hour running time khổng lồ overcome, Fox’s year-end release (opening Dec. 12 Stateside) should ride 3d ticket premiums and general curiosity lớn muscular returns worldwide, landing closer to “Gladiator” than “Kingdom of Heaven” territory in terms of audience satisfaction and commercial payoff.

If there’s a controversial talking point here, it’s that Scott’s film continues the dubious tradition of castingwhite actors inan English-language picture set at the meeting pointof Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Plenty of ink has already been spilled over the injustice of yet another major historical drama ceding the big roles khổng lồ Hollywood royalty while relegating blacks, Arabs & other actors of màu sắc to the background: In addition lớn Christian Bale’s star turn as Moses, “Exodus”features Joel Edgerton as his stepbrother, Ramses — a transformation made reasonably convincing throughstate-of-the-art bronzing techniques and heavy applications of guyliner (plus the exquisitely bejeweled costumes designed by Janty Yates). Yet while these are problematic choices, dictated by commercial imperatives as old as Methuselah, they are alsoreservations one willinglysuspends asthe strength of the performances and the irresistible pull of thestory take hold.

Scott’s choice of material hasn’t always been as reliable as his visual sense, but the Exodus tài khoản provides him with some solid if well-worn narrative scaffolding; given thatwe’ve all seen or heard some version of this story, the film’s four credit screenwriters(Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian)seem to lớn instinctively graspthat acompletist versionwould be ambitious butunnecessary. Youknow you’re in trustworthyhands when the filmbegins not with an infant floating among the reeds, but with Bale’s fully grown Moses living in the palace of the aging pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) — one of many ways in which the scriptshrewdly foregoes the usual framing devicesin favor of a crisp, present-tense retelling.

The film swiftly establishes the brotherly bond between Moses, a favored general in Seti’s army, & Ramses, the proud pharaoh-to-be, their intimate yet rivalrous relationship sealed by the matching swords they wear into battle. Moses showshis mettle, and inadvertently fulfills a mysterious prophecy, by saving Ramses’ life in a large-scale Egyptian attack on the Hittites, an excitingly staged collision of horses and chariots, lensedby d.p. Dariusz Wolski witha mix of soaring overheadshots và ground-level combat footage.

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Shortly thereafter, Moses pays a fateful visit lớn the city of Pithom, affording us a close-up look at the cruel machinery that has kept the Israelites enslaved for 400 years, toiling endlessly to lớn build palaces & pyramids for their whip-cracking overlords. (The re-creation of ancient Egypt repsa staggeringcollaboration between production designer Arthur Max & visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, supplemented bylocation shooting in Almeria, Spain, a desert backdrop made famousby“Lawrence of Arabia.”) Unsettled by these glimpses of a genocide in progress, as well as by hislifelong identity crisis, Moses eventually learns the truth of his Hebrew lineage from Nun (Ben Kingsley), a wise Jewish elder. Before long, thesecretfalls into the hands of acalculating Egyptian viceroy (a wonderfully louche và loathsome Ben Mendelsohn), hasteningMoses’exit from the royal family và Egypt altogether.

Propelling the film through these absorbingearly passages is Bale’s broodingly intelligent Moses, a cool, eloquent man of reason who disdains the God of Israel as well asthe innumerable deities of Egypt, yet whose calm, rational demeanor can also be provoked tomurderous fits of fury. The story of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” hinges on the gradual reshaping of his beliefs and the healing of his fractured identity: Humbled and exiled, he makes his way khổng lồ Midian, where he becomes a shepherd & marries the beautiful Zipporah (Maria Valverde), though he has a difficult time truly accepting his place among the Hebrews & the Lord they worship.

It’s telling that Moses’first divine encounterfindshimalmost completely submerged in mud, literally a man about to be reformed. Purists may balkatthe notion of God taking onthe earthly size of a cherubic angel, Malak (Isaac Andrews), whose petulant manner và British elocution at times suggest a very young Voldemort. It’s a mild provocation of sorts, a means of getting us to see the Lord as a skeptic, like Moses would initially: callous và whimsical by turns, a jealous, vengeful deity with a literally childish streak. Before long,God orders His servant lớn trigger a horrificcampaign of destruction against Egypt, where the Hebrews are perishing in ever greater numbers under Ramses’ oppressive rule.

At once honoring & eclipsing the showmanship of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), the final hour of “Exodus: Gods & Kings” is a sensationally entertaining yet beautifully modulated stream of visual wonders that make it all but impossible lớn tear one’s eyes from the screen. In one ofhisboldeststrokes, Scott dramatizes the 10 plagues in a seamless, vividly realistic domino-effect montage — the bloody despoiling of the Nile (which takes a surprising page from “Jaws”) naturally giving way lớn a proliferation of gnats and frogs, boils & locusts — that truly does seem khổng lồ capture the intensity of God’s wrath in one furious, unrelenting deluge. In keeping withthe momentum established byBilly Rich’s editing and the superb vfxwork, this Moses does not return khổng lồ Ramses day after day with fresh entreatiesof “Let my people go,” but instead remains in hiding, watching ambivalently as the Lord does their fighting for them.

“You don’t always agree with me,” God says to Moses, effectively inviting all viewers, regardless of persuasion,to wrestle with their own conflicted impulses. Scott, a self-professed agnostic whose films have nonetheless betrayed a restless spiritual dimension (particularly “Prometheus”), seems to lớn have been inspired by his distance from the material, placing hisidentificationwith a hero who never stops questioning himself or the God he follows. Not unlike Russell Crowe’s Noah, và rather unlike Charlton Heston’s iconic barn-stormer, Bale’s Moses emerges a painfully flawed, embattled leader whose direct line lớn the Almighty is as much burden as blessing — & who wearily recognizes that once the Israelites have cast off the shackles of slavery, the truly hard work of governance, progress, repentance và faithfulness will begin.

Edgerton, his dark-rimmed eyes asmolder with pride và contempt, makes a powerfully understated Ramses, one who is not without his own measure ofhumanity:“What kind of fanatics worship such a God?!” he splutters amid the devastation of the final plague. Arriving at a timewhenreligious divisions in the Middle East have become all tooviolently pronounced, the idealof a Promised Land ever more elusive, it’s a question that resonates well beyond the story’s specific moment. And itlingers even as the film presses on toward its Red Sea climax — a brilliantly attenuated sequence that Scott stages with breathtaking suspense and deliberation, the massiveCG-rendered waves never threatening to lớn overwhelm the fraternal turmoilat the story’s core. (Thetheme of brotherhood torn asunder becomes unavoidably hauntingwhen the film reveals its closing dedication khổng lồ the late Tony Scott.)