|Bale and Edgerton in Exodus|
“Another Moses Movie”
A Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Two Reels
There are dozens of film adaptations of the Exodus, so director Ridley Scott had to do something distinct to create new insights into this classic tale. There is one interesting development but most of the film’s 150 minute runtime is a re-hashing of the same ideas that have been covered again and again, albeit with some pretty awesome effects (although the parting of the Red Sea is still better in De Mille’s version, now almost sixty years old). Exodus isn’t a bad movie, just one that’s better enjoyed on DVD with doughnuts for a high school religion paper.
The first half is almost verbatim a combination of The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Like Commandments, Scott paints an epic world of towering statues, brilliant costumes, and elated accents. Like Prince, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) were raised together “as close as brothers” who gradually grow apart when a closely guarded secret is discovered. Many great actors have played Moses including Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, and Mel Brooks. Bale’s prophet is a pragmatic general who puts his faith in knowledge and skill rather than the Egyptian religion. He would rather speak to the Hebrew elders than kill them, not because they are equal but it will halt sedition. Edgerton’s Ramses knows the responsibility that will pass to him and wants to lead well but is often blinded by his own arrogance. It’s bad enough being an only child; telling him he is a god will not make things easier. In typical fashion, Moses is exiled, falls in love with Zipporah, and becomes a shepherd. Never a believer, he suddenly meets God in a strange encounter that almost completely ignores the biblical narrative. When Moses returns to Egypt, he first organizes a Hebrew army that engages in guerilla warfare before God takes over and tells him to “sit back and watch.”
The ten plagues begin with a swarm of crocodiles attacking a fleet of average Joe Egyptians. This feeding frenzy (which very graphic for a PG-13 film) causes the Nile to turn red, which in turn drives the frogs onto the land, which dry and decompose, bringing swarms of gnats. The implication is that although God is the impetus, these calamities are perfectly reasonable from a scientific standpoint. Yet it is in the depiction of these suffering people that Exodus finds its most powerful theme. Watching these poor farmers starve and a woman be suffocated by flies creates an intense empathy for the Egyptians who did not deserve this harsh punishment. The worst plague brings the Angel of Death, who steals the breath of children in the night leaving them lifeless. Ramses is not spared this wrath as he finds his adorable infant son lifeless in his crib, eerily similar to the syndrome every new parent secretly fears. Wailing uncontrollably, he tries to wake his only child, shaking him like a ragdoll. “Is this your God,” he asks Moses, cradling the swaddled corpse, “a child killer?” It’s an incredibly honest question, and Moses too seems taken aback. God does not author evil. Rather, this action was the direct result of the Ramses pride. His son was a Holy Innocent, just like the poor children who died at Herod’s hand or David and Bathsheba’s first son – and the millions of children who die from infanticide, abortion, in vitro fertilization, malnutrition, starvation, and abuse. They die because sin is present in the world, and every Christian has the solemn responsibility to protect them. “The Hebrew children lived,” Moses remarks. They were saved because their parents cared enough to follow God’s law.
Other than this brief exchange, Exodus rarely rises above the level of mediocrity. It’s depiction of God is strange and uneven. First, Moses does not find God and the Burning Bush, but God appears to Moses with the Bush (in the background) after he nearly dies in a rockslide, allowing the viewer the option of believing his revelations were purely hallucinations. When Joshua catches Moses talking to God, it looks like Moses is just talking to himself. Second, God is portrayed by a young boy (Issac Andrews) who is quite pushy and even scary. The credits claim this is actually an angel, but the film is unclear. At first Moses, is hesitant, even hostile toward the mission. Gradually, he comes to accept God, even if it means not reaching the Promised Land himself.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic film of great scale but little substance. Scott spends millions of dollars on displaying combat and miracles but misses huge opportunities to flesh out the story. Aaron Paul, the multiple Emmy winner from mega-hit Breaking Bad, is cast as Joshua but has only about five lines. It takes ten minutes for Moses to walk across the desert in exile but the golden calf and Ten Commandments are glossed over in seconds. This film simply doesn’t add much to the story. I rarely ever say this, but the book really is better.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on December 13th, 2014.