Nine months after Darren Aronofsky’s biblical spectacle, Noah, we get Ridley Scott’s biblical spectacle, Exodus: Gods and Kings. I wasn’t a big fan of Noah, but at least it was original and made some effort to bring a 21st-century perspective to the familiar Sunday school story.
No such luck with the disappointing Exodus. Despite the many critics who thought Exodus was controversial and unfaithful to Scripture, I cannot imagine a less controversial attempt at filming Exodus in 2014, unless that attempt was made by Sunday school teachers.
The story of Exodus is, as I mentioned, very familiar, and so there is no danger of providing spoilers here. Exodus: Gods and Kings begins with Moses (played by Christian Bale) as an adult, just before he discovers that he is not an Egyptian, but the son of Hebrew slaves. Given his position as a virtual son to the pharaoh Seti (played by John Turturro) and a virtual brother to Ramses (Joel Edgerton), this revelation has dramatic consequences. When Ramses becomes pharaoh after his father’s death, Moses is sent into exile, where he lives as a shepherd for nine years before God sends him back to Egypt to lead his people out of bondage.
For this film version of the Exodus story, Scott has chosen to highlight the crossing of the Red Sea as well as the 10 plagues that preceded the crossing. This allows him to use his genius for magnificent special effects and stunning visuals to maximum advantage. The crossing of the Red Sea is particularly impressive. But it is curious that Scott has taken pains to make most of the plagues look like natural occurrences when they are clearly depicted as the handiwork of God. The final plague—death of the Egyptian firstborns—and the crossing of the Red Sea are depicted as anything but natural, however.
This ambiguity extends to Scott’s other attempts to provide a modern perspective on the old story. One of the supposedly controversial elements in Exodus is Scott’s choice to have God represented by a petulant 10-year-old boy, who appears after Moses sees the burning bush. This does seem a little risky, but the boy doesn’t say anything that God might not have said to Moses from the burning bush or as a disembodied voice. Moses argues with God a lot, especially about the necessity of the plagues, but eventually seems to decide that God knows best and does what has to be done to bring God’s people from slavery in Egypt to the promised land.
This ending takes the edge off of a second potentially controversial element. After the death of his firstborn son, Ramses confronts Moses with the body, saying: “This is your god? Killer of children? What kind of fanatics worship such a god?”
Such a question deserves serious consideration, but Moses ignores it, not least because it comes from a man who himself would not hesitate to kill innocent children to protect his people. With God and Moses smiling at each other by the film’s end, there is no attempt to revisit Ramses’ profound question, thus minimizing any controversy.
As for the casting controversy—Scott chose to cast actors who are clearly not Middle-Eastern—it points to something that is hardly unusual in Hollywood.
Bale’s performance as a flawed and conflicted Moses is one of the film’s few highlights; another is the excellent cinematography. The rest of the actors didn’t impress me. Neither did the unoriginal and boring screenplay, written by a team of writers who wasted the opportunities to develop characters and create a truly memorable and thought-provoking dialogue between Moses and God.
Early in Exodus, Moses clarifies for Ramses that Jacob didn’t fight with God; he wrestled with God. As I heard this, I thought perhaps it was foreshadowing Scott’s own wrestling with God in filming the story of the Exodus, or at least the wrestling with God that Moses himself would undertake in the film.
“You don’t always agree with me,” God says to Moses, suggesting that it’s okay to wrestle with God. But the film’s attempts to wrestle with God were, in my opinion, far too tame to have any impact on viewers.
Ascribing the horrific deaths of thousands of innocent children to God is a serious matter, although I don’t want to suggest that the deaths of thousands of Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea are less problematic. Such deaths demand that all who believe in God wrestle with Ramses’ question far more conscientiously and persuasively than Moses does in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
—Posted Jan. 14, 2015