When God is portrayed as a petulant child, you know you're in trouble
Hey, Ridley Scott, the next time you feel compelled to make a movie adapting a story from the Bible, could you maybe not spend so much time during the film apologizing to your fellow atheists for doing so? Is that so much to ask?
Oh well, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected too much more out of Scott. After all, it’s not like his body of work has been overly kind to Christianity in the past. 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010), they’ve all pretty much carried the impression that the world would be a better place without its largest religion. And now, Exodus: Gods and Kings tells us why that’s so. Because, if this movie is to be believed, the whole Judeo-Christian tradition was founded by wigged-out terrorists serving a petulant, childish God who might not even exist in the first place.
Okay, so I can’t be 100 percent positive that was the underlying message Scott had in mind when he made Exodus: Gods and Kings, but it was definitely the impression I was left with as the credits began to roll. It would also go a long ways towards explaining some of the choices he made over the course of the film.
To begin with, the movie starts with Moses (Christian Bale) already a grown man in Egypt, which is problematic for reasons we’ll get to in a bit. From there, the film wastes no time in establishing that Moses is the favorite son of his adoptive father, Seti (John Turturro), a fact that doesn’t sit very well with Seti’s natural born son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton). In fact, when the two go into battle side by side with matching swords (a gift from their father), Ramses thinks long and hard about putting a spear in Moses’ back.
Oh, about that battle. It’s pretty impressive, being epic in scope and brutal in its depiction. It’s also the only one in the movie. I try not to review trailers here, but I feel like I have to warn those who saw the commercials for Exodus: Gods and Kings and were led to expect that it was going to be Scott’s next Gladiator. If you’re among those folks, let’s just say you’re going to be disappointed. The singular battle exists in the movie for three express purposes. It helps further the love/hate relationship between the two brothers, it establishes Moses as a warrior (which is is important for reasons we’ll get to in a bit) and… well, I suppose if you’re going to make a $140 million movie and charge people 3-D ticket prices to see it, you have to at least give them one big battle for their money.
Anyway, once that battle scene passes, the film moves into more familiar territory, at least on the surface. It isn’t long before Seti dies, Ramses becomes pharaoh and the truth of Moses’ birth is revealed. This revelation forces Moses into a situation where he murders an Egyptian guard, garnering an instant death-sentence. Still unable to kill his brother, however, Ramses exiles Moses to the desert.
If you paid attention in your religious ed class, or at least watched The Ten Commandments on one of its annual Passover/Easter airings, you can pretty much tick off the checklist from this point onwards. Moses makes his way to Midian and starts a family, is called by God (sort of, but we’ll get to that in a bit) to return to Egypt and free the enslaved Hebrew people, witnesses God unleash ten plagues on the country for Ramses’ refusal to cooperate, and finally leads the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea with pharaoh in hot pursuit. In other words, it covers the basics of the Biblical narrative.
And if that were all there were to Exodus: Gods and Kings it would be fine. A little dry and somber perhaps, as the film abandons
The Ten Commandments lively extra-biblical love triangle for a more somber tale of two angst-ridden brothers, but fine nonetheless. But that’s not all there is to the movie.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah from earlier this year, Exodus: Gods and Kings tweaks things.
The least problematic of the movie’s alterations to its source material is the decision to portray the ten plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea as naturalistic occurrences. The Nile turns red with blood because crocodiles attack everything in sight, the blood kills all the fish, the dead fish cause frogs to flee the water and overrun the city, and so on. As for the Red Sea, a meteor crashes to earth and causes the waters of the Red Sea to temporarily recede long enough for the Israelites to cross. All this could be seen as an out for those who wish to see no miracles in the events, but most religious people know that God works through nature all the time, so such a depiction isn’t really that big a deal. Besides, even Scott can’t come up with a naturalistic explanation for the final plague, the death of the firstborn of Egypt.
What he can do, though, is condemn it. Scott accomplishes this by refusing to show the event which brought Moses to Seti’s home to begin with, the slaughter of every male Hebrew child in Egypt. Oh, it gets a split-second mention when Moses first learns he was born to slaves, but that’s not the same thing as showing it on screen. With that part of the story removed, it does away with any sense of justice when the consequence of Seti’s sin falls upon his people. Instead, all we get is an impassioned plea from the unjustly maligned Ramses to Moses to explain what kind of God murders children?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer that, because Scott does it for you. As you’ve probably already heard by now, God is portrayed in Exodus: Gods and Kings by a preteen boy, and not one of those angelic moppets you find in a children’s choir. Scott’s God is a sniveling, hissy-fit throwing brat who demands his way, or else. I’m sure the idea of casting a child as God sounded interesting and daring to a lot of people during the planning stage of the film, but in execution it comes across as a blunt political cartoon and nothing more. No wonder people have a hard time following him in this movie.
Which brings us to the portrayal of Moses himself. The notion of Moses being trained as a warrior isn’t really that far of a leap since he was raised as pharaoh’s son. In fact, that idea could have lent more impact to the change in his person when God provided him his staff. Except Moses never receives that staff in this picture. Instead, he keeps his sword, which is just what that little rascal God desires. Gone is the proto-Christ shepherd figure of the Bible, and in his place stands a reluctant, skeptical general with the know-how to carry out a campaign of terror against the Egyptian people in the name of his God.
This is Moses as madman, and he’s even worse than the nutcase Noah from Aronofsky’s film. At least in Noah we had the benefit of knowing the God the protagonist was following was real. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses bashes his head against a rock right before he sees the burning bush. Afterwards, it’s heavily implied that the God Moses is following is nothing more than a concussion related delusion as nobody else in the film ever hears from him.
But wait, you say, what about when God speaks to the Israelites from the mountain after they make their escape across the Red Sea? Simple, we never see it happen. Remember how a bunch of critics complained that Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic The Ten Commandments got noticeably more boring after Moses left Egypt? Well, I guess Scott took those complaints to heart, because about ten minutes after the Hebrews cross the Red Sea in Exodus: Gods and Kings the movie ends. That’s right. Three hours long, and the movie only manages to tell half the story. Forgot all that pesky God stuff that follows the special effects, who needs it?
You know, it’s been a bumpy year for the Bible at the movies.
Son of God was a pious effort, but artistically it never rose above its television roots. As for Noah, it was a fascinating artistic interpretation of various flood stories from different cultures, one that explored some interesting ideas, yet sadly it inevitably reached some wrong conclusions about the nature of God.
Exodus: Gods and Kings on the other hand, isn’t exploring anything. It’s already made up its mind about its Biblical source material, and what it thinks isn’t very flattering. Every step of the way, it feels as if Scott is saying, “Yes, I’m telling a story from the Bible, but just to be clear, don’t think for a moment I believe anything good about it.” The man just keeps making movies disparaging religion. It makes you wonder if he’s ever taken the time to question why it is a subject he supposedly dislikes so much keeps drawing him back to it again and again.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ivesspends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.