The story of Moses and the exodus of the Hebrews from Pharaonic Egypt is, when you get right down to it, one of the key works of literary narrative in the entire history of the world, so there's no reason a filmmaker shouldn't poke at it. That's what shared foundational texts are there for. So if e.g. Ridley Scott wants to make a movie based on Exodus that puts a rational materialist spin on a story that is, down to its bones, about faith, spirituality, and the immaterial, I can't immediately come up with a reason he oughtn't, outside of a distinct sense that it's probably a very bad idea.

Then again, I might just think it's a very bad idea because I have seen the result of Scott's experiment in applied agnosticism, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and it's terrible in ways that really don't seem possible. Scott is not an untalented man, and this is not his first dramatic action epic set in the ancient world - it's transparently a stab at doing Gladiator with a Biblical tang, though it ends up feeling more like the compromised, ineptly truncated theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven (and if Exodus is to have a similarly redemptive director's cut someday, it is well-hidden in the current footage). One can, from time to time, spot Scott the stylist waking up long enough to set the camera someplace for a the kind of immense epic wide shot that does all the things movies do best, particularly later on: the sequence of the Egyptians giving the Hebrews chase to and then into the Red Sea hogs all the best shots, whether it's the ethereal sight of an evacuated seabed, or a mountain collapsing and taking the Egyptians' chariots with it, a string of gaudily gilded ants helplessly tumbling to their death. The film is on much weaker ground the closer it gets to its characters, in all senses: the intensely sharp digital cinematography, courtesy of Dariusz Wolski, is so pristine that it gives everything an unpleasantly crisp sheen that makes the close-ups feel slightly nauseating. Though I shall concede that the punched-up realism provided by this does absolutely splendid things for Janty Yates's costumes and Arthur Max's production design, making the ancient trappings feel very physical present and new, without the distant costume drama feel of so many earlier Bible epics.

But even more than the visuals, it's the story that starts to make one's eyes bleed a bit when it attends to much to the characters. For a story that has been told so many times throughout the centuries and given such definitive cinematic form in Cecil B. DeMille's elaborately campy monument to mid-century kitsch, The Ten Commandments, the assortment of four credited writers charged with getting Exodus whipped into shape did an alarmingly terrible job of it. This is a two and a half hour brick of a movie that spends its sullen time plodding through virtually every plot point and still feels like it has to madly rush to include everything. It's one thing to compare it to the bloated DeMille picture, but this isn't even as smart or comprehensive in its storytelling choices as DreamWorks Animation's 99-minute cartoon musical The Prince of Egypt (which remains, against all odds, the most satisfying cinematic treatment of the story to date). Squatting down to watch Egyptian politicking? Oh, yes, plenty of that. The ten plagues, certainly the most dynamic part of the story outside of the Red Sea passage? The movie burns through those suckers with a haste suggesting that, even with a half-committed attempt at giving physically plausible explanations for them (an spike in crocodile activity resulted in clay and blood in the water, which drove out the frogs, which rotted and bred flies...), it's a bit embarrassing for the filmmakers to sully themselves with. It's so hectic that it's basically played for morbid comedy, not to the film's benefit, and it gives short shrift to the outstanding, richly cinematic treatment of the death of the firstborn, a moodily-lit dose of paranormal horror that gives Exodus a badly-needed dose of movie-like energy.

Now, taking all that as given, we could still find ourselves with an Exodus telling the durable human story at the heart of the religious parable, which I suspect was Scott & company's goal. And it is here, in fact, that Exodus is at its very worst, since even the shamed depiction of the plagues involves some terrific effects work and the director doing an outstanding job of framing things with a suitable grand, historically weighted scale. But the writing and acting is just dismal, when it comes to the humans. In the lead role, Christian Bale has observed some previously unimagined kinship between Moses and Bruce Wayne, and he plays the part with the quietly self-amused smirk that he honed in his Batman trilogy; the result brings in the wrong kind of modernism, especially when Bale is contesting with the film's oddly-chosen embodiment of God and/or Moses's post-concussion hallucination, a petulant boy played by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews. The sight of Bale looming over a snotty little deity, the both of them swapping arguments about morality in fussy British tones, is curious enough to almost work as parody, which is not apparently what the film was going for. Playing Ramses, the self-indulging pharaoh whose rage against the Israelites drives the story, Joel Edgerton's problems only begin with the well-publicised fact that he's a white dude wearing enough self-tanner that it qualifies as brownface. Which is a problem, though Bible movies have been putting white dudes in non-white-dude roles for a century or more. Edgerton is just really damn bad in the part, affecting a haughty demeanor that he can't maintain or turn into plausible line readings, though with some of the lines he has to say - a particular howler is his level response to Moses's demand to free the slaves, "From an economic standpoint alone, what you're asking is problematic" - there's not enough acting talent in the world to salvage things. Still, what Edgerton is up to is a kind of terrible, wonderful experiment in playing camp straight, and leaving us with an impossibly unappealing performance in his wake.

Nobody else in an overstuffed cast gets to make an impression, meaning that among those stuck with a five or ten-minute extended cameo are John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Hiam Abbass, and Ben Kingsley, who exudes more gravity his tiny handful of scenes than everything else happening anywhere in Exodus can manage cumulatively. The parade of wasted talent, and worse yet, talent that visibly knows it's being wasted, is the most galling part of a movie in which damn near everything is galling: the harsh digital imagery, the incomprehensible pacing, the ungainly attempt to give the ancient story a contemporary emotional feel, the noisy Alberto Iglesias score, the jagged editing by Billy Rich, lurching through scenes with no clear sense of rhythm or pacing. Somewhere at the conceptual stage, all of this had a shot at being interesting, but the execution is so wanting in so many ways that outside of some well-chosen stills of people striking poses against CGI cloudscapes, Exodus offers damn little in the way of entertainment or human interest, and lacks any interest whatsoever as a freshened-up version of one of the best-known stories ever told.