Moses and Errin’ — A Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings

DF-04525 - Moses (Christian Bale) charges into a fierce battle.
You didn’t expect the director of “Gladiator” to deprive Moses of combat glory, did you?

Dear Ridley Scott,

My name is Aaron. I’m the brother of Moses.

In the Holy Scriptures, when Moses balks at God’s call for him to go and free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, claiming a lack of eloquence, God gets aggravated and assigns me to travel with him, to face Pharaoh, and to act as Moses’ translator.

“Moses and Aaron.” To anyone of any religion who has grown up valuing this story, my name has belonged beside my brother’s like Jacob and Esau. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Like Mulder and Scully. Like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. Like Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Frankly… the Bible doesn’t get into this… but I wasn’t my brother’s biggest fan, but he was gifted and I had to work with him, so maybe I should say “like Siskel and Ebert.”

It wasn’t a fun mission — delivering God’s message to that tyrant. It was brutal. I, like my brother, risked my life. I, like my brother, left my family and responsibilities behind in order to provoke the most powerful in our world, trusting that God would come through on the threats we were delivering.

Now, now… don’t get defensive. Yes, I’ve seen your movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, but I’m not here to plague you with complaints about reducing my role in this story from “Major Character” to “Practically an Extra.”

No, I’l let I AM THAT I AM be the judge of your decisions. And that’s good news for you, by the way. Because A)  I think the Almighty’s a big fan of Alien and Blade Runner, so he’ll probably go easy on you. And B) while we believed our God to be a harsh legalist back then; we hadn’t yet seen the fulness of his glory. We hadn’t yet learned just how much he enjoys showing mercy and love. I’ll say more about that later.

For now, I’ll try to be merciful.

DF-08965 - Joel Edgerton stars as the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses.
Ramses realizes that dust sticks to eyeliner — a real problem during a battle.

Believe it or not, I respect the fact that filmmakers who adapt stories from literary sources must often make major alterations. What works in literature is different than what works on the screen, and movies that stick too closely to the source material are often terrible. Revisions that honor the spirit of the source material are to be praised: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina — a book as grand as a mountain range, and considered by many to be “un-film-able” — was paraphrased with near-miraculous imagination and majesty by Joe Wright. Revisions that dishonor the source often fall far short of their source material: Consider those increasingly lamentable Middle-Earth films by Peter Jackson, which have dismantled the heart of Tolkien’s storytelling by an increasingly brazen and sophomoric preoccupation with violence and mayhem.

There are exceptions of course: The movie Children of Men, by Alfonso Cuaron, and the book Children of Men, by P.D. James, barely have anything in common, but they’re both spectacular works of art.

While your movie may not be a great work of art — it’s more a work of decent entertainment — it does honor the heart of the Old Testament story, and it gives God the last word, as any respectable version of this story should. Exodus: Gods and Kings bears little resemblance to the story that my brother and I lived. But in its fictions, in its technical execution, and in its visual artistry, it has some admirable qualities.

I’m particularly fond of how you’ve brought our “Old Testament” world to life. (I hate that term: Old Testament. Everybody assumes I deserve a senior discount because I’m from the Old Testament.) Anyway, you honored us — the Israelites — by depicting the way we suffered in slavery at the hands of the Egyptians — the endless, heavy labor; the hiding; the intimidation; the public executions. We spent hundreds of years staring at the sky above the Pharaoh’s statues; now I know what the place looked like from an eagle’s vantage point.

And the plagues — wow! I couldn’t watch those locust swarms: The 3-D made it all come rushing, creeping, and crawling back. Special effects have improved so much since I was a kid. Nice work, by the way, coming up with some rational ideas about God’s methods for turning rivers to blood — I’ve always wondered how he did that, and your speculation is fascinating. (Although I must say, the more that the plagues unfolded, the less I felt that I was watching one of history’s great dramas, and the more I felt I was visiting an amusement park.)

I also applaud the casting of Christian Bale as my brother. I’ve loved him since his first — and best — leading performance — Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun — so it’s great to see him once again trying to help a suffering “prison camp” in this, the “Empire of the Sun God.”

Little Mo was something of a wild man in those days — ambitious, muscular, intelligent, capable in halls of power and capable in the wild. As he watched your movie about him, I saw him get teary-eyed during certain scenes, like the one in which he learns his own origin story. But he howled with laughter during those corny love scenes you gave him here. You realize, don’t you, that the “sweet nothing” you have him and Zipporah whispering to each other — “Proceed!” —  is going to end up in memes and mash-ups with Captain Picard’s “Engage!” and “Make it so!”

To be frank, the dialogue was, um, plagued by clumsy writing. The audience actually laughed when Ramses said, “From an economic standpoint, what you’re asking is problematic at least.” 

exodus-gods-and-kings-DF-02915_2917R_rgb
Moses reveals that he’s the ancestor of Katniss Everdeen.

And speaking of Ramses: Joel Edgerton looks very silly in all that makeup. Then again, that’s actually rather true to life. He was an odd one, with his penchant for makeup, for rash decisions, and for sulking like an 8-year-old.

But did you really need to fill in the gaps with so many recognizable actors? It became distracting. Why invite Sigourney Weaver into your movie and then give her so little to do? That jars the audience out of their suspension of disbelief and turns the film into a “Hey, is that Sigourney Weaver? Ben Kingsley? Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad?”

I’m afraid the film has just as many stumbles and lapses as it does strengths. At so many points, you seem to have taken the Peter Jackson route — throwing out storytelling richness so that you can make things more sensational. When we encounter God as a burning bush, for example… what better opportunity could you ask for to go beyond 3-D thrills to something like holy ground? Instead, you go for burying Moses up to his face in a mudslide for some kind of baptism imagery that ended up reminding me, quite unfortunately, of a moment in the film What Dreams May Come.

What’s more: I don’t recognize the accents. The people are strangely fair-skinned. Again, I’m not here to complain — merely to point out that such details become somewhat distracting.

And by the way — my brother wants me to say (Oh, how I used to get tired of prefacing statements with “My brother wants me to say…“) that he is quite appalled to find a grumpy pre-adolescent moping about as an avatar of the Almighty.

When God appeared to Little Mo, it was in such a way as to make him drop to his knees in terror and worship. This kid looks like he needs to attend an after-school program.

exodus-gods-and-kings-DF-02676_rgb
Moses learns rather unsettling details about his origins.

But seriously — in this, the age of True Detective, did you give no thought to the dramatic possibilities of depicting the brotherhood who stood before Pharaoh? Think about it. Pharaoh looked down at Moses, the brother he thought he had, only to discover that Moses had claimed a more authoritative kind of brotherhood — the brotherhood of the family that had been stolen from him. Ramses might have reached out and accepted my hand, and we could all have become brothers! He might have seen the sin of slavery in that moment. But no, he did not. He chose to act as a tyrant instead of a brother, as a false god who stands alone instead of admitting that he was only one of many children of God. That’s drama, if you ask me.

I think it’s a pity that you passed over (no pun intended) that possibility.

What really blows my mind, though, is that you became so preoccupied with the brotherly bond between Moses and Ramses that you allowed Moses to behave in a way that seems preposterous to me during the climactic moments of the film. Mo and I were never close growing up, but our experiences during Plague-o-pocalypse bonded us in a way that few brothers will understand unless they’ve fought together in battle. Even so, if I looked back and saw my brother … well, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that if I saw him falling into an abyss, I would not jump into the abyss in some doomed attempt to save him, because I do not have wings. What your Moses does in these moments is equally ridiculous, and it’s included for the sake of… what? Drama? It doesn’t work. I think almost every moviegoer is going to watch Moses’ behavior at the closing of the Red Sea and say “What was he thinking?”

exodus-gods-and-kings-DF-02427R_rgb
Ridley Scott reunites with his “Alien” star Sigourney Weaver.

Anyway — your movie is made, and it is probably going to be the last attempt at portraying these events on the big screen for a long time to come. While I appreciate that you respected Mo’s relationship with the Almighty; that you included allowed my sister Miriam at least one important scene (and invited an excellent actress to portray her); and that you brought the plagues to life with such passionate attention to detail… I remain perplexed as to why you saw fit to perpetuate Hollywood’s erasure of my contribution to the proceedings. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much. The source material — the story of I AM THAT I AM, the story which is still unfolding — will bury all big-screen Bible epics like the Red Sea closing over that misguided Egyptian “director.”

Our questions about God’s nature continue to this day — everybody, even my own people, have conflicting ideas about his mind and methods. Me, I’ve always sensed that the plagues were something God hoped to prevent: Pharaoh’s abuses of God’s creation were going to bound to bring heavy consequences for all. You can’t neglect your garden and them blame God when everything rots. God did everything he could — even sending Moses (and me!) with warnings, hoping to awaken Ramses’ conscience and bring him to his senses. Ultimately, I believe God decided to let Ramses sleep in the bed he’d made, the way a heartbroken parent sometimes realizes that there’s no talking sense into a rebellious child.

Later, the Christ would would come — and he would show us how much we underestimated the Almighty: He is love, and he’s desiring our redemption even when we do our worst. But that’s another story.

DF-04130_R - Christian Bale stars as Moses in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS.It is in that spirit, by the way, that I want to express my condolences to you over the loss of your own brother in 2013. I was moved by your decision to dedicate this movie to him. God blessed you both with extravagant artistic talents, and at your best you have both created art through which God has provoked audiences to soul-searching and insight. May God grant you comfort and peace.

Sincerely,

Aaron

P.S. I was surprised. John Tuturro makes a pretty good Pharaoh. And those Red Sea waves looked pretty sweet in 3-D.

P.P.S. Please don’t let anybody make Blade Runner 2. Not unless you want to end up like George Lucas, accused of spoiling what was once your greatest work. Nobody wants to call you “Blade Ruin-er.”

 

 

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  • Cole Matson

    Wanted to point you to another excellent review in Thinking Faith:

    http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/exodus-gods-and-kings

  • Christopher Williams

    I went into this film wanting to applaud it for taking the story seriously or ready to be angry if it missed the point. Instead, I shrugged. Nothing about the movie captured me enough to do more than squeak out a typical review.

    I usually like Bale, but he always strikes me as too modern here. I don’t know why you’d bring in Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul and give them absolutely nothing to do. And I thought the idea of showing a natural way for the plagues to occur was interesting…until the film lost interest in them and just treated them like points on a checklist.

    There’s so much beauty to the Exodus story. Moses is a great flawed hero — often angry at God, too afraid to speak…here, he’s any other Hollywood action hero. I love the way the plagues seem designed to mock the Egyptian gods…Scott doesn’t include it here, which is fine, but they seem rote and typical here, nothing special. The fight in front of the tidal wave is laughable, and I’d be okay with God being portrayed as a child, but this angry, petulant toddler is just silly.

    I do like Joel Edgerton here quite a bit. The way he reacts as the plagues pile up and he gets vexed with his advisors is really funny, and I wish he’d had more scenes opposite Bale once Moses returned to Egypt.

    This isn’t a bad movie. It’s just so bland. I missed the vitality of Noah, the feeling that an artist was wrestling with the text. This just felt like Scott shrugging “I need a hit to finance something more ambitious down the road.” I hope “The Martian” is that movie.