“Exodus: Gods and Kings” isn’t the Moses movie we need, but it’s the one we deserve.
Ridley Scott’s latest swords-and-sandals epic checks off all the important moments in the Moses narrative, but ultimately falls short of reaching the Promised Land it tries to take its viewers. This is because Scott can’t make up his mind on whether or not to make this a film about sibling rivalry, Moses’ changing grasp of faith, a political narrative about an oppressed people rising up and defeating their ruler, or all three. In trying to speak multitudes about all these things, it ends up whispering at hints of what it wants to shout.
“Exodus” is the latest in a bunch of biblically based films in a year that has already given us “Noah,” “Son of God,” “Heaven is For Real,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.” Next year, a biopic about the life of Mary and a period piece on the Nicene Creed are expected to be released, as well as films about Pontius Pilate, Cain and Abel, the crucifixion and another Ridley Scott project about the life of King David. Biblical films aren’t going away any time soon, especially if Christians keep going to the theater to see them. But some have done better than others. The more conservative-minded films of 2014 have outperformed “Exodus” and “Noah” at the box office, probably because they take substantial liberty with the source material.
Personally, I like it when a movie makes me look at my faith through another lens. “The Last Temptation of Christ” made me appreciate the humanity of Christ more than I ever have. Darren Aronofsky’s interpretation of the flood forced me to confront the graphic and violent nature of the story I was told in Sunday school. Scott’s consistent use of science to depict the cause-and-effect nature of the 10 plagues in “Exodus” made me examine the ways in which God uses the natural world to show His power.
But these films have always been a reflection of the times they were made in and not the time they were set. The message from “Noah” was that if humans don’t take care the earth God entrusted to us, we will destroy it, and anger God all over again. Scorsese famously said that he made “Temptation” in an effort to become closer to Christ. “God’s Not Dead” and its ilk are affirmations of the religious right, made for and by conservative Christians.
On first glance, “Exodus” doesn’t really have a point to make. It is a first rate special-effects film that doesn’t need the 3-D it relies on. It gets the costumes and set pieces right, and the plague scene and the sequence where Hebrews cross the Red Sea are arguably worth the price of a ticket. But, other than being released at a time of great societal unrest in America (which the studio could have never predicted), this feels like Ridley Scott just making another film because he could. And then the credits roll, and you’re forced to re-evaluate the entire film because of who it’s dedicated to.
The end credits start with a title card that says, “To my brother Tony Scott.” Tony Scott, who directed some of my favorite movies, like “Top Gun” and “Man on Fire,” took his own life after jumping from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, California two years ago.
Once you keep that fact in mind, “Exodus” becomes less about a man tasked with freeing an oppressed people and more about two brothers struggling to reconcile themselves to each other and to God. And if that’s not biblical, then what is?
The personal nature of this film can’t be avoided, not when its main conflict is between two brothers and a God one of them isn’t sure he believes in. I just wish the brotherly aspect was explored more, and not just hinted at.
Many characters in the film make repeated note of the fact that “Israelite” means “one who wrestles with God.” One wonders whether this is Scott (a self-described agnostic) wrestling with God as well. Christian Bale’s Moses constantly questions God and asks Him why He is doing the things he is doing, right up until the end of the film when he receives the Ten Commandments.
That’s quite the different picture from the voice in the burning bush that tells a shepherd to take the staff in his hand and perform God’s wonders. Many purists will cry foul, but I enjoyed it.
Scott repeatedly said in interviews for the film that having a skeptical director make a film like this was the best option because it would force him to get everything right. This is nowhere more evident than in the plague scene.
The plagues are started by crocodiles, who kill Egyptians in the river, which leads to the river being filled with blood. When the water fills with blood, the frogs run from the watery areas into the city. When the frogs die, the gnats and flies come. This affects the livestock, who then die, and when the people partake in eating the livestock, they get boils. Everything is linked in a cause-effect-cause chain, until the hail, locusts and darkness come, forcing the Egyptians and Ramses to realize that these are works of God. The entire sequence seems like Scott is searching for answers, looking for an explanation for something that can’t be grasped.
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think: Are we Egypt, or the Hebrews? Are our hearts the ones being hardened? Are we about to answer for the atrocities we have committed? The day after this film’s wide release, hundreds of thousands of people protested in New York City to end police brutality. So often in American Christianity, we equate ourselves with the Hebrews, the ones seeking deliverance from a cruel and unjust world. What if instead, we are Ramses? So blinded by our own power and complacency that we ignore the ones that are really crying out?
However, just because “Exodus” might cause Americans to think again about racial politics in a post-Ferguson word doesn’t mean it’s innocent of racial tensions. A lot has already been written about Scott’s decision to cast mostly white actors in starring roles and give the servant roles to people of color. Many organizations called for boycotts of the film. Would it have been so hard to get Egyptians that can act?
In the end, Biblical films are a reflection of the times we live in. And “Exodus,” a messy jumble of mixed messages with a shiny CGI finish just waiting to explore the larger issues lurking under the surface, is a perfect example of the climate it is released in. It’s not the Moses epic we need; it’s the one we deserve.
Featured image found here.