Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Maria Valverde
The Biblical epic used to be a staple genre of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, with films like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told being amongst the biggest productions in Hollywood. Over the last fifty years, with the marketplace becoming increasingly secular, the Biblical film has largely disappeared from the mainstream. It is therefore a peculiarity that 2014 has seen not one but two major films based on Old Testament narratives, first Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
While timing dictates that there will be comparisons made between Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, they are very different films. While Aronofsky’s film is very much a think piece, Scott’s is much more of a modern incarnation of the traditional Biblical epic – it is a big movie and all the main characters sport British accents. It has been 14 years since Scott breathed life into the swords-and-sandals epic with Gladiator, and Exodus: Gods and Kings employs a similar size and scale. The story of the son of Hebrew slaves raised as an Egyptian prince, who after a period of exile returns with the God of Israel behind him to free his people from 400 years of bondage provides opportunities for real spectacle with the various plagues, the cavalry’s pursuit of the Hebrews and the pièce de résistance, the parting of the Red Sea.
Christian Bale’s Moses is an interesting character. An intelligent and eloquent man, this Moses is not a spiritual man. As an Egyptian, he puts no stock in the advice of the mystics the Pharaoh consults. As a Hebrew, he is scolded by his wife for sowing seeds of doubt in their son’s mind. So when he encounters God at the burning bush, he must first confront the notion that there is a God before considering that God has a task for him. If Moses has faith in anything it is in his own abilities. As an experienced military general, he sets out to win his people’s freedom by training up their militia for guerrilla warfare, only to have God step in with a much faster and more drastic plan. As this plan escalates we see Moses becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the extent of the catastrophe. The question about Moses that isn’t quite answered, though, is what is his motivation? While he is shown to be a just man, he doesn’t have a particular devotion to the Hebrew people. Similarly, he is not presented as an obedient servant of God. We never really know why he is doing what he is doing, other than that is how the story goes.
Exodus: Gods and Kings has a peculiar relationship with the spiritual elements of the story, which is an odd statement to make about a Biblical film, but perhaps not surprising given the director’s agnosticism. The film toys with, without committing to, the idea that Moses’ interactions with God could be delusions. His first encounter with God, who is given the form of a mysterious 11 year old boy, occurs after he has been hit on the head and knocked unconscious during a landslide. Later we see him talking to God, and are then shown the point of view of other characters who see Moses seemingly in animated conversation with himself. This decision to give God the form of a child is also an interesting one. Obviously the booming voice from on high like in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, but giving God the form of a child means that at those moments when God is shown to be angry and vengeful, it comes across as petulant. The film takes an awkward middle ground between embracing the idea that these events were miraculous and seeking to explain them as naturally occurring phenomena. There is no daily ultimatum to Rhamses to “Let my people go” between each plague. Instead the plagues are shown to be naturally escalating one to the next. The blood in the Nile kills all the fish and drives the frogs to the land, when the frogs die that brings the flies, the flies then bring the disease which kills the livestock and the boils which infect the people. Similarly, Moses plays no direct role in parting the Red Sea. Rather the water retreats as it would before a tsunami.
I don’t believe in criticising a film like this for deviating from its Biblical source material. As with any biographical or historical film, deviation in itself is not a problem if it has purpose. A filmmaker needs to be afforded some poetic license in their attempts to turn these well-known but often bare-bones stories into full and vibrant pieces of cinema. But the potentially lucrative Christian market at which this film is targeted can be a tough market to please. Noah was attacked earlier this year for deviating from the Biblical account even though it did so for a specific purpose, with Darren Aronofsky having a clear vision for that film and for the message that he was using the Noah narrative to communicate. Exodus: Gods and Kings, on the other hand, deviates seemingly without rhyme or reason and is sure to ruffle some feathers. This is indicative not of a Biblical accuracy problem, but of a basic story problem. It doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell.
There are numerous angles you can take in telling the story of Moses and the Exodus, but Exodus: Gods and Kings does not seem to have settled on any one particular approach. Four writers have been credited on the film – Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian – and this might go some way to explaining this narrative uncertainty. The result is not really a story of faith nor is it a story of a people. It is not quite a story of Moses’ development into a leader. The closest it comes to a focus is in being a story of two brothers, Moses and Rhamses – an interpretation that takes on particular significance when we see the film is dedicated to Ridley Scott’s late brother Tony – but even then it doesn’t completely invest in this take on the story.
Ultimately, the key test that Exodus: Gods and Kings fails is the “why” question. If you are going to remake a movie or revisit a story, particularly a story that has been told and retold as many times as that of Moses and the Exodus, there should be a reason. There should be something new you want to say, a new idea, a new interpretation, a new point of emphasis. But as much as Scott’s film nails the big spectacle elements – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, even just the recreation of ancient Egypt are all top notch – it lacks a clear central message and ends up just being a bit of a mess.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Exodus: Gods and Kings? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.