I really wanted to like Exodus: Gods and Kings. The film Noah was life-altering for me, and I was hoping for a small taste of Noah’s greatness in Exodus.
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Unfortunately, Ridley Scott made it nearly impossible to enjoy his depiction of the Exodus story. It failed in almost every possible way, whether by omission, inclusion or interpretation.
The colossal failure made the small successes seem much more important and virtuous, because they were juxtaposed with so much bad.
I have three huge issues. First, the film lacks flow and does not invite the viewer to interact with its totally uncompelling world. The highly choreographed battle scenes don’t connect to the political scenes, which don't connect to the special effects. None of it matched the score. It’s hard to enjoy a film when it is so disjointed.
Some elements that seemed symbolic or portentous were never explained at all. The film was full of red herrings with no payoff! For example, Ramses toys with snakes, but we don’t get a scene of staffs and snakes like we do in the Bible story. God plays with ten dice but they are never explained at all. The Israelite Elders use a symbol, and we have no idea if it means anything. There are many examples of similarly wasted opportunities.
A second big problem is the way the Bible characters are portrayed. I love Christian Bale. I love Moses. I hated Christian Bale’s Moses. Somehow Exodus made the hero of the film into an irrelevant, boring, soulless person. This Moses is a great warrior who is a pretty cool guy when he’s the second in command. But as a leader, he’s the worst. Moses has no role in the salvation of his people. He has no connection to them, he doesn’t develop any relationships with the Israelites, and the story gives little justification for the Israelites to trust Moses or believe in him.
Similarly, God in Exodus: Gods and Kings is psychopathic child who has no relationship with Moses, gives Moses no reason to believe in Him, and most of all, does not explain why Moses is involved in this story at all. Would anything have changed if Moses never showed up? Not in this movie.
An even more profound character in the film drives this point home. It’s unquestionable that most viewers will leave Exodus and feel most attached to one particular character. Ramses II is awesome. He is conflicted. He is trying his best. He loves his son. He has demons. He struggles with those demons. He loses almost everything he has in Exodus. Ramses II is played brilliantly by Joel Edgerton, but almost too brilliantly. He’s the only person in the film with an ounce of emotion or conflict. I thought Ramses II was awesome. When God is an annoying child and Moses is a boring dud, being an awesome Pharaoh is a huge problem.
The biggest problem with Exodus is more an issue of scope and ambition than execution. Nothing is added to the Exodus story with this retelling; things are only removed. For example, a bunch of plagues disappeared. Moses is introduced to us as an adult (there are no flashbacks.) Moses doesn’t break any tablets. God is whiny. The plight of the Israelites is almost imperceptible. Moses doesn’t have a staff. Moses doesn’t do anything. The sea didn’t really split. The people never heard the Ten Commandments (maybe there were only seven, like the plagues). Too many things were eliminated without any payoff, and nothing was improved by those choices.
Put simply, Exodus is a terrible retelling of a great story with so much opportunity for insight and profundity, and we got nothing. The disappointment is the worst part. Ridley Scott took the best ingredients in the kitchen and decided to make toast. Then he burnt the toast. And smeared it with motor oil instead of butter.
When I tell the story at my Seder, I tell it better than Exodus: Gods and Kings. This is the beloved story of the plucky Israelites escaping the long arm of Egypt with help from the outstretched Arm of God. But the film wasn’t that story, and not because of details that were changed, but because it packed no punch. This should be easy. Slavery is really bad, God is really powerful, Pharaoh is really stubborn and arrogant, Moses is the prodigal son, and the plagues are epic. Somehow, Exodus told the same story without any of the drama.
There were a few things I liked and couple of insights I was able to salvage from this train wreck of a movie. The depictions of the plagues were visually impressive. They captured the horror of the plagues very well and provided the few bright spots in a dull movie. The plague of the first born was heartbreaking and depressing.
I did enjoy the humanized version of the Pharaoh, though it actually hurt the rest of the movie because no one else was humanized the same way. God was literally humanized - but in such an awkward way that it fell flat.
There were also some hints to interesting theology that I enjoyed. First of all, young Moses is portrayed as a skeptic in the movie - he thinks the Egyptian mythology is ridiculous. Then, in a tiny debate about God, Moses says “why isn’t it enough to believe in yourself?” Pithy and trite, but this is as deep as Exodus gets. Anyway, Moses sees a bush being electrocuted while he is almost completely buried alive in a landslide (for real), and the GodChild appears to Moses for the first time. They have an awkward conversation, and just as God is about to leave, Moses asks God, “who are you?” God says “I am.” This is an adaptation from “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” - I will be what I will be. But it was cool that Scott may have been interpreting Ehyeh into a version of “I am.”
I also gained a few literary insights into the story thanks to Exodus: Gods and Kings. For example, in the Bible the story of the Israelites is told to Moses by God in the burning bush. God begins by saying “I have heard the screams of the Sons of Israel.” In the movie, we hear those screams. Later on, we hear more screams. The second screams are the wailing of the Egyptians as the first-born children are executed in their sleep. The Bible mentions this as well. The film highlights a literary device that bookends the beginning of the Israelite suffering and their freedom. It began with screaming and ended with screaming.
Finally, it’s easy to compare Exodus: Gods and Kings with another of this year’s big films, Interstellar. I see Interstellar as a tale of Biblical proportions, and I’ve compared the main character Coop to Moses. Interestingly enough, they both leave their families, promise their children they will return, and almost don’t make it back. It’s harder to justify Coop leaving his family in Interstellar. How can he just abandon his kids? It’s a tough existential question, and it was easier for me to understand Coop by thinking of him as a Moses archetype. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses does the exact same thing. That’s pretty cool, though a million times more dramatic and compelling in the context of watching Interstellar, because Exodus: Gods and Kings was such a disaster in so many ways.
The bottom line: Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible movie, but you should see it anyway for its minor contributions to the biblical story - and so you can appreciate Noah even more. This was no Modern Midrash. This was Modern Mutilation.