Ridley Scott’s “Exodus”: An Unbeliever’s Perspective

The first plague strikes Egypt
The first plague strikes Egypt

By striving to appeal to the widest possible demographic, I suspect that veteran director Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings will deeply satisfy no-one.  In terms of visual spectacle, Scott surpasses the former gold standard for biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  But like a tasty soufflé, poke Exodus too hard, and you’ll discover a hollow center.

In refusing to begin with the familiar “baby in the bulrushes” episode, Scott’s Exodus starts promisingly.  An adult Moses (Christian Bale) and his fraternal contemporary, Rameses (Joel Edgerton), are both ordered by Pharaoh (John Turturro) to fend off an army of invading Hittites.  Here, Scott demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his knack for composing excellent action set pieces, as seen in previous films such as Gladiator or Black Hawk Down.  Meanwhile, Moses demonstrates his combat prowess and loyalty to Rameses, saving him from certain death.

Christian Bale as Moses
Christian Bale as Moses

Soon after, Pharaoh departs this life, and his mummification wraps have scarcely dried before Rameses displays his crippling insecurity in the face of Moses’ greater wisdom.  Unlike the biblical narrative, where Moses flees Egypt after killing a brutal slaver, in Exodus, Rameses exiles Moses soon after both learn of the latter’s Hebrew heritage.

From this point on, the narrative sequence will be immediately recognizable for those with at least a passing knowledge of the Pentateuch.  Most of the high points of the book of Exodus make an appearance:  Moses’ sojourn in Midian, the burning bush, Rameses’ stubborn refusal to release the Hebrew slaves, the plagues, and so forth.

Joel Edgerton, an insecure Rameses
Joel Edgerton, an insecure Rameses

And from here onwards, Ridley Scott’s strengths and failures are ever more manifest.  On the good side, the attention to culturally distinctive visual minutiae never ceases to impress.  I enjoyed taking in the massive Egyptian colonnades and statuary, as well as their fine clothing and headdresses.  Just as nifty are the facial tattoos and abundant jewelry of the desert-dwelling Midianites.

The plagues, too, are conveyed inventively and stylishly.  Both on a micro scale (closeups of a grasshopper’s head during the plague of locusts, or of the face of a child taking his last breath during the slaughter of the firstborn) and at a macro level (a great aerial view of frenzied crocodiles in the blood-red Nile), these merit the big screen experience.

One of the many impressive vistas in "Exodus:  Gods and Kings"
One of the many impressive vistas in “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Unfortunately, Exodus’ negatives ultimately drown its positives.  In walking through the familiar Bible story paces, Scott and his screenwriters neglect to give us characters in whom we’re invested.  So much thespian talent is squandered.  Besides the names already mentioned, very good actors such as Aaron Paul (the stalwart Joshua), Ben Kingsley (Joshua’s father Nun), and Sigourney Weaver (Rameses’ maleficent mother) deliver more reaction shots than any words or deeds of substance.

Even when words are spoken, they often feel clunky or anachronistic.  Rameses’ weighing the pro’s and con’s of releasing the Hebrews – it would be “economically problematic” – sounds more like an economist on C-Span than an ancient Egyptian ruler.  Meanwhile, Moses (who starts the film as a spiritual skeptic) resembles a touchy-feely modern humanist when he tells Rameses that he respects Egyptian soothsayers even if he doesn’t personally believe in them, or when he urges his son to believe in himself rather than a deity allegedly residing atop the Midianites’ sacred mountain.

And now we’ve arrived at the problematic intellectual core of Exodus.  Ridley Scott and company contort themselves more than Pokey and Gumby in trying to generate narrative and dialogue that will placate both the godless and true believers, and the result is a contradictory mess.

Depending on the scene, a character might angrily question what sort of god would murder a city’s collection of first-born kids.  Elsewhere, masses are commended for unquestioningly following their religious leader’s unreasonable commands.  Sometimes, God (curiously visualized in Exodus as a preadolescent boy) comes across as irritable, impatient, and impulsive; elsewhere, he’s smilingly benevolent.  Exodus sends up incompatible signals that belief is both a pathological symptom (Moses has his first divine vision immediately after a nasty knock to the noggin) and a virtue (as exemplified by Aaron Paul’s Joshua).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for films offering contrasting points-of-view.  However, it all needs to eventually cohere meaningfully, and this never happens in Exodus.

I can’t help but notice a similar contradictory quality to Ridley Scott’s public pronouncements about his own spiritual beliefs over the past couple of years.  Depending on his interviewer and audience (not to mention which film is being promoted), Scott has described himself as atheist, agnostic, or vague theist.  One can interpret such variance as honest struggles with life’s big questions or as cynical pandering to the ticket-purchasing crowd.

Please permit me to conclude this review by pulling back to a slightly larger vantage point.  Those interested in religion in film realize that this is the second Pentateuch-based movie of 2014 directed by someone who, at the very least, is not a conventional religious believer.  The other film is, of course, Noah, as directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Despite their flaws (I thought Noah reflected a more fertile imagination, though its second half dragged considerably), the main character of each film shares intriguing similarities.  Both Noah and Moses are tragically lonely characters striving to obey a peek-a-boo God (now you see or hear him, now you don’t).  Both are willing to put their families through torturous extremes:  Moses abandons his wife and son in Midian, while Noah chases his family around the ark with homicidal intent.  And both cinematic patriarchs appear mentally unhinged by their relationship to the divine.

Moses and his wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde)
Moses and his wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde)

Heroes of the Bible as lonely, cruel, and delusional? I can see why believers would resist these cinematic portrayals. Freethinkers, on the other hand, can easily tolerate such liberties with the biblical text, since we agree with the current scholarly consensus that Bible stories are already embellished legends at best. I’m still waiting, however, for an artistically meritorious Bible recasting that can stand proudly with the likes of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

2.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide: Exodus: Gods and Kings is rated PG-13 due to its violence. Surprisingly, given all the mayhem implied, it’s a nearly bloodless film. I’d be comfortable letting teens see this.)

5 Replies to “Ridley Scott’s “Exodus”: An Unbeliever’s Perspective”

  1. kenmorefield

    Andrew, thanks for your perspective. (I still haven’t seen the film.) I disagree, obviously, with the assertion that Bible stories are embellished legends “at best,” particularly since one of the links you provide makes no distinction between Old Testament and New Testament. But that’s okay, I knew we disagreed on that anyway.

    I tend to wonder if part of the problem for Noah and maybe Exodus (at least as you’ve described it) is that the filmmakers suspect the modern viewer wouldn’t be comfortable with a God who *wasn’t* peek-a-boo. That is, maybe an (the?) issue is whether a modern audience wouldn’t accept a supernatural text (script) as historical fiction even if it were presented as such. I wrote a bit about this conundrum in my essay about Carl Theodor Dreyer ant Problem of “Christian Realism.”

    That said, if tortured, doubting protagonists in Biblical settings is the fad of the day, can a postmodern Abraham film be far behind?

    Edit: I know neither Scott nor Aronofsky, but I wonder, too, if an issue is that the modern/postmodern mindset is to equate certainty with fanaticism; hence, the artist might think they are doing the text a favor/making it more palatable by showing the characters struggle with doubts. (Certainly that seemed to be true of Last Temptation, which I didn’t care for and particularly true of Agora, which I very much liked. Amenabar said he was trying to make a film that wasn’t anti-religious but anti “fundamentalist.” By showing Christians, Jews *and* Atheists as all being prone to justify violence and oppression because of their own certainty in being in the right, I thought he did a better job of presenting fanaticism/fundamentalism as a human problem rather than just a problem unique to people of faith.)

    • Andrew Spitznas

      Hi Ken:
      Thanks for your comments. I linked to books on both the NT and OT, since as an ex-evangelical, I was brought up to believe in the Truth of both sections of the Bible. I have since reconsidered and see both sections as origins myths, a smattering of history mixed in with plenty of legend. But since I was reviewing a film with its own origins solely in the Pentateuch, I can see your point. (And yes, you’re right, the fact that we would disagree on this is a given.)
      As far as your main point, I dunno, I see the main problem (in terms of Exodus, at least) as Ridley Scott’s unwillingness to commit to a point of view. Though I would’ve disagreed with the premise, as a critic I hopefully would’ve been much more charitably disposed towards a movie that unironically portrayed a man who spoke with God face to face. (And to judge by the crowds that willingly plunked down change for dreck like “God’s Not Dead,” there would be plenty willing to see an artfully made Bible film that takes its stories at face value.)
      And you reminded me that I still need to see “Agora.” After the end of year rush, hopefully…

    • Acintyabedhabedhadasa

      Isn’t that a little too…over the top for modern audiences? Moses forcing idolatrous Israelites to eat molten gold…? Also, dancing Hollywood Africans.

  2. Acintyabedhabedhadasa

    Everyone compares this movie to Aronofsky’s Noah. Why no love for that *other* great Bible movie from this year–the Left Behind remake starring Nicholas Cage?

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