Is Exodus: Gods and Kings Spectacular or Spectacularly Awful?
Will viewers be inspired – to leave the theater? Should there be an eleventh commandment – Thou shalt not pay good $$ to see this film? Is this film the eleventh plague? Will this reviewer say, “Let my people go… to The Hobbit instead?” Read on to find out!
For two decades, not a week has gone by when the shadow of Moses hasn’t loomed over my life. The Biblical account of Moses and Passover are central components of my public presentations and I have authored commentaries on both Exodus and Deuteronomy. In addition, it is no secret that The Ten Commandments has been and always will be my favorite film ever since my mother took me to see it at a Brooklyn movie house during its 1973 re-release. Some eight-year-old boys dream of following in the footsteps of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. In lieu of swinging a baseball bat, I aspired to slinging stone tablets and wielding a staff.
In November I was invited to accompany Dr. Robert Chisholm, head of the OT department at Dallas Theological Seminary, to the Dallas screening of the 50 minute preview reel, which revealed an intriguing selection of cherry-picked spectacular moments guaranteed to stoke a generous quantity of rich anticipation. Ten days prior to the film’s opening, we were invited back for the Dallas critics’ screening. Consequently, my thoughts regarding this film have been percolating for some time.
While the Jesus story may be the “greatest story ever told,” the Passover/Exodus account is certainly the second greatest, second only to the passion of Christ in the powerful display of God’s compassionate redemption. After all, the New Testament explicitly portrays Jesus as a second Moses. Therefore, on a very fundamental level, both Jews and Christians have significant skin in the game.
When I first learned of the new Hollywood project to film Exodus, its director was Steven Spielberg and it was simply entitled, Gods and Kings. As a fan of Scripture, that got me excited. The title led me to believe that this new film would focus, as does Exodus’ own account, on a cosmic, systematic smackdown between the God of Israel and the many gods of Egypt with the final confrontation to be between the living Egyptian god, Pharaoh himself, and the LORD. I looked forward to seeing Spielberg’s magic do with Moses’ story what he did with Oskar Schindler’s.
However, for some unfortunate reason Spielberg took a powder and Gladiator’s Ridley Scott took over. Not terribly problematic, in theory – certainly, the talented craftsman who brought ancient Rome to life so compellingly could easily do the same with ancient Egypt. The film’s title soon evolved into Exodus: Gods and Kings, which I assume was a decision made by a nervous Hollywood committee of bean-counters desperately worried that the unwashed Christian masses would be too ignorant to realize that this was a Moses movie without having it spelled out for them in the title.
Surely the award-winning director of Gladiator would provide the broad scope and breathtaking spectacle, the emotional heft and heavyweight impact to a story like that of Exodus. How did Ridley do? So was there scope and spectacle? Check, and in spades. Seen in 3-D, the film’s look was both impressive and immersive. The plagues are a wow. They are awesomely spectacular, creatively presented and vividly portray their horrific impact on the Egyptian nation. The Egyptian/Hittite battle early in the film brought Biblical warfare to life, although curiously, if I didn’t already know ancient history, I might be left confused regarding who won. Was a detail or two left on the cutting room floor?
As to the film’s emotional heft and impact, after expending all that effort on the details of bringing ancient Egypt to life, I’m afraid Ridley Scott had little game left to bring. As much as I adored seeing the detailed glories of Egypt, the specifics of waged warfare in Biblical times, Moses engaged in the actual nitty-gritty of both military and shepherding duties, and plagues as I’ve never seen them before, I nonetheless expect far more from a Moses film. After all, previous motion pictures have established elevated precedents and set a high bar.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is not a great film, but it is most assuredly not an awful one, either. It’s just an emotionally unfulfilling one that fails to resonate in the powerful way that The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt still do to this day. These two films possess that which their new celluloid sibling lacks: heart. Dispassion and lack of inspiration are not words usually associated with the Moses story. Stunning special effects embedded within a story whose characters fail to emotionally connect with the viewer defines a video game, not a film. It is heartbreaking that the most inspiring aspects of Exodus: Gods and Kings are its trailers. Scott, an avowed atheist, doesn’t believe a word of the material and it shows in every frame as he fails to fully commit to the redemptive heart of the story. You don’t have to be a believer to make a satisfying film of faith, but it appears that it couldn’t hurt.
As a film viewer, I expect films to reflect the director’s point of view, whether or not I agree with it. The absence of point of view should be considered dereliction of directorial duty. Without either passion or point of view, what is the point, period? Indeed, what was the reason for this film to be made in the first place? What justified the tremendous expense? Who is the film’s intended audience? For whom was it made? Surely not the faithful, who are the most likely to be disappointed in the final result. Surely not those of no faith, for whom the story would bear no emotional connection or resonance. Surely not for the younger generation, who have grown up seeing state of the art, special effects and take cinematic spectacle for granted.
So conscientious was C.B. DeMille for his audience not to lose track of the point amidst The Ten Commandments’ massive running length and spectacle that the film actually begins with him personally delivering a filmed introduction prior to the story’s beginning. This is how DeMille introduced his motion picture:
We have an unusual subject, the story of the birth of freedom, the story of Moses. … The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God's law, or whether by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story, but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story, created 3,000 years ago.
Say what you will about old C.B., but at least his film had a clear point of view and an articulated purpose for being made. Furthermore, it aspired to be worthy of a “divinely inspired story.” What was the purpose for or aspiration of Exodus: Gods and Kings?
How about lead actors Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Rameses? I’m generally a Christian Bale fan, but at no time does the viewer have the sense here that Bale understands the man whose sandals he wears. Usually a reliably intense actor, after the film’s battle and intrigue-heavy first half hour, Bale is oddly devoid of passion for the remainder. Although famous for playing Batman, here he is just flat-man. Scott was derelict in his directorial responsibility to assist Bale in navigating the fine line between brooding and bland. There seems to be no emotional journey, no sense of wrestling with his newfound identity as a Hebrew, and most unsatisfyingly, no transformation into a man of faith and conviction, despite Bale’s rare forays into the wild-eyed, mentally unbalanced stance taken now and then in the film’s second half. Bale could take a lesson from Charlton Heston regarding how to meaningfully portray a faith journey and convey the authority that accompanies representing the Most High before the most powerful king on earth. Heck, Bale is even out-acted by Val Kilmer’s voice and animated representation in Prince, no small feat. Perhaps if Bale had simply been given the right prop, say a shepherd’s staff instead of an Egyptian prince’s sword to lug around throughout, he might have more successfully uncovered his character’s motivations.
For what Joel Edgerton was given to do as Rameses, all one can say is that he did his duty, all the while slightly overshadowed by his ever-present guy-liner. He was certainly a more sympathetic character than Moses, and the film seemed skewed in the direction of the audience identifying more with him than Bale. Did he make me forget Yul Brynner? Not for one moment. And once again, even a cartoon with Ralph Fiennes’ voice conveyed more emotional intensity than did the live actor’s performance.
Actors rarely rise above the shortcomings of an unsatisfactory script. It took four (count ‘em, four) credited Hollywood script writers to distort the work of two Biblical authors, Moses and the Lord, neither of whom is given screen credit (likely as they are non-union). With four scriptwriters, it is not surprising that an explicit point of view was lost somewhere along the way, as the film at midpoint attempted a mashup of Moses’ liberating the Hebrews with Spartacus’ leading a slave rebellion.
The script writers clearly did not trust their source material – Moses’ own account of how the Exodus events unfolded. Perhaps assuming they could compensate for the perceived dramatic shortcomings of the original, they brazenly added their own contributions to the story, creating additions and adaptations, some of which were good, some bad and some ugly.
In theory, I have no problem making a few tweaks here and there to the Biblical account for cinematic impact, dramatic effect and artistic license. Those attendees who unrealistically expect a frame by frame, line by line, Classics Illustrated style, graphic novel version of the text are setting themselves up for disappointment. That is simply not how Hollywood functions. Rarely is a Bible film made where we aren’t all thinking, “That’s not the way it really happened.” Indeed, both The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt exercised liberal quantities of artistic license while retaining overall thematic fidelity to the Bible’s account.
Welcome additions included the thrilling depiction of Egyptian/Hittite warfare (which may become standard viewing in some seminary classrooms) and a fleshing out of Moses’ military acumen and prowess as befit a true prince of Egypt. One gratuitous but flavorful addition to the Biblical account included a gang of hungry Nile crocs auditioning for an Egyptian Jaws remake.
It is the script’s ungainly adaptations made to the original story that prove more problematic. For example, once Moses returns to Egypt, he only shares two brief dialogues with Rameses before the plagues commence and prior to the final plague. In the Biblical text and two previous major films, it is the series of escalating confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, punctuated by the plagues, which drives the dramatic narrative. Potent spectacle alongside flaccid human drama make unfulfilling bedfellows. I can only speculate that Scott left some scintillating material on the cutting room floor. In addition, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that Scott portrayed the burning bush encounter as merely a vision that follows Moses being knocked unconscious.
The most controversial decision, however, is portraying the Lord as an eleven-year-old boy (whom I non-affectionately refer to as “God, Jr” or alternatively, “Kid Jehovah”). The character’s identity in the film remains ambiguous, however, because although he self-identifies as “I Am,” Moses seems to believe that he is only God’s messenger. In fact, his name in the credits is Malak, the Hebrew word for angel or messenger. It is as if the filmmakers wished to hedge their bets and provide cover for themselves in case the religious community were to cry foul with their unconventional depiction of deity.
Yet choosing to portray God as a child no sooner offends me than portraying him as an old man. Hollywood famously did so with both George Burns and Morgan Freeman, rocking the “old man with beard” variant. As a religious believer, I do not rigidly demand that all Moses films follow precedent set by portraying God through an electronically enhanced version of Moses’ own voice (as did both The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt). What does offend my sensibilities, however, both as believer and filmgoer, is this film’s portrayal of God as a vendetta-possessing, irate, petulant brat who more closely resembles Willie Wonka’s whiney Verruca Salt (she of “I want it NOW, Daddy!”) than any other cinematic figure, divine or otherwise. At points I half-expected Bale to provide the peevish urchin a good spanking.
When it comes to a “Moses film,” the most pressing question for most will regard the film’s treatment of the parting of the Red Sea. After all, in both Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt, it is the breathtaking, unforgettable “money shot.” Here we are provided a visually interesting, quasi-Biblical alternative (Ex. 14:21) to the traditional parting as rendered in previous films. Regrettably missing was any sense of Moses’ confident faith, an actual sea “parting” (as opposed to displacement) and a divinely placed pillar of fire. What remains unforgiveable, however, was the surprising lack of climactic thrill and absence of emotional impact resulting from God’s act of deliverance. If the ancient Hebrews possessed Twitter accounts, someone might have posted a snapshot with the casual tweet, “This happened.”
The script’s dialogue is largely devoid of inspiration and barren of majesty in its jarringly casual, contemporary tone. Compare the dialogue of The Ten Commandments with the anachronistic conversational style of Exodus: Gods and Kings:
TTC Moses: Lord, why do you not hear the cries of their children in the bondage of Egypt?
TTC God: I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt and I have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. Therefore, I will send thee, Moses, unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring my people out of Egypt.
E:G&K Moses: Nice of you to show up. Where have you been?
E:G&K God: Watching you fail.
TTC Moses: Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go!
TTC Pharaoh: The slaves are mine, their lives are mine. All that they own is mine. I do not know your God, nor will I let Israel go.
E:G&K Moses: (something forgettably grumbled regarding Pharaoh either giving the Hebrew slaves full rights as Egyptian citizens or setting them free)
E:G&K Pharaoh: From an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic.
Ask yourself which of the following two images you would find more inspirational: portraying the Bible’s account of the ten commandments being written on stone tablets with the very finger of God, as does DeMille’s film, or Scott’s scenario of the commandments being casually chiseled onto tablets by Moses himself while he and God have a chat? Or from which final scene would you derive more inspiration: DeMille’s aged Moses solemnly charging the Israelites to “proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof” or Scott’s aged Moses riding through the desert inside a covered wagon (Oregon Trail style) affectionately patting (with his hand!) the Ark of the Covenant nestled beside him?
How can one sit through a Moses film for two and a half hours and remain essentially unmoved? How is it that the only truly emotionally touching moment was the Lord’s judgment on the Egyptian firstborn? Why was the scene of freed slaves exiting Egypt with their freedom so emotionally flat and the Red Sea scene so “been there, done that?” Why, after sitting through a state of the art film that cost 140 million dollars to create, did I yearn instead to again watch a 1998 animation? Probably because The Prince of Egypt powerfully speaks to the heart regarding grand themes like freedom, faith, love, redemption, deliverance and destiny that Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t seem to even attempt.
By the time the film concludes and the credits roll, the only reaction I could muster was a wistful disappointment for the film that might have been and the rare opportunity that was squandered. Big motion pictures featuring Moses do not come along with any frequency. Between 1956’s The Ten Commandments and 1998’s release of The Prince of Egypt was a full generation gap of 42 years. The gap between Prince and Gods and Kings was another 16. Will I live to see another cinematic attempt of quality and fidelity to the Biblical text of Exodus? Paging Mr. Spielberg