Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014)

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014) December 12, 2014

exodus-DF-02770Early on in Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s a scene in which Moses, who is still an Egyptian prince oblivious to his Hebrew heritage, confronts an Egyptian viceroy named Hegep, who is supposed to be building a new city for the Pharaoh but seems to have diverted some of the funds towards his own luxurious lifestyle. Hegep tries to deflect Moses’ attention by pointing to the troublesome Hebrew slaves, and says he needs more resources to deal with them. As proof of how rebellious these Hebrews are, Hegep says, “Do you know what ‘Israelite’ means in their own language? ‘He who fights with God’.” An annoyed Moses replies, “‘He who wrestles with God’. There’s a difference.”

It’s a key distinction, and one that applies just as much to Ridley Scott’s film. Scott, whose self-identification over the years has wavered between “agnostic” and “atheist” — and whose dim view of religion in general has been made abundantly clear in the way he has promoted films like Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven — doesn’t reject the concept or even goodness of God altogether, at least not within this particular story. But he’s troubled by God. He’s troubled by how God could let people suffer for centuries. And he’s troubled by the violence that follows when God does decide to intervene on behalf of the oppressed. And so he wrestles with God, as does the Moses of his film.

That struggle — like the struggle between spirit and flesh in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, or the struggle between Mel Gibson and his demons in The Passion of the Christ — certainly makes Exodus: Gods and Kings interesting in a way that I hadn’t quite anticipated. But being interesting doesn’t make a film good, and this film, as a film, is something of a bust, I’m afraid. Ridley Scott’s track record is very hit-and-miss, and on this occasion, I’m sad to say, he missed, on a number of levels.

As of this writing, I have seen the film only once, so what follows are my first impressions, grouped by theme or subject. Warning: there are some spoilers here.

vlcsnap-2014-10-01-12h44m11s245The character of God. One of the first surprises, for me, was the opening title cards, which state not only that the Hebrews haven’t forgotten their God, but that “God has not forgotten them.” Right there, possibly before we’ve seen a single image, the film asserts the existence of God, and also that he cares for his people.

This is strikingly different from the opening title cards in Kingdom of Heaven or 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which, if memory serves, established that those films were taking place in pre-modern eras clouded by superstition. Exodus certainly makes that point a few minutes later, within the drama, but in these opening seconds it asks the audience to accept a different narrative framework for what we’re about to see.

Much, much later, we meet God himself, or at least a “messenger” who speaks as though he is God. (This ambiguity is present in the Bible, too, where “the angel of the Lord” sometimes speaks of God in the first person, and sometimes in the third.) The only person who can see this messenger — named Malak in the credits — is Moses, so the film allows for the possibility that Moses might be hallucinating. But Moses learns things through Malak that he could not have known in any other way, so it seems pretty clear that Malak and God really do exist within the world of this film.

But what kind of a God does Malak represent? Malak is played by an 11-year-old boy, and at times he seems kind of rude or petulant. More crucially, there is little sense here of the partnership between God and Moses that the biblical story suggests.

Yes, the God of the Torah loses his temper at times, and Moses sometimes has to calm him down (in Exodus 32 and Numbers 14, God gets so fed up with the Israelites that he threatens to wipe them all out except for Moses and his descendants, and Moses talks him out of it by saying it would be really bad for God’s reputation if he broke his promise to Abraham). But during the period covered by this film, Moses is supposed to be God’s representative, telling Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go and warning him of the consequences if he doesn’t — and there’s very little of that in this film.

vlcsnap-2014-10-01-12h46m32s141For example, when Moses returns to Egypt, instead of performing the signs and wonders that the biblical God told him to perform (for both the Hebrews and the Egyptians), he begins a guerrilla warfare campaign that accomplishes very little, and then God shows up and tells him to stand back and “watch” as the plagues begin. So the guerrilla warfare is Moses’ doing, and the plagues are God’s doing, and the two are basically entirely separate things. The sense one gets is that Moses and God have competing strategies; they certainly don’t present a united front.

Also, unless I’m forgetting something, Moses speaks to Ramses only twice during this entire stretch of the film — once before the guerrilla campaign, when he steals Ramses’ horses, and once before the plague of the firstborn, which Moses objects to and tries to prevent (“I want no part of this!” he tells Malak). Moses also sends Ramses a horse with a message written on its side. So again, there’s very little sense that Moses is confronting Ramses as God’s spokesman here.

However, all that being said, I really, really liked the way the film handles the crossing of the Red Sea. Moses leads the Hebrews to what seems like a dead end by the edge of the water, and he goes to sleep confessing to God that he has let everyone down. But then he sees a shooting star — a meteorite that will cause a tsunami that will allow the Hebrews to cross over to safety. And then, in the morning, he wakes up and sees that the sword he threw into the water is now visible above its surface.

In other words, the sea level is going down. Moses had given up the night before, and now, as he wakes up, he sees that God is intervening once again.

Some people might complain about the film’s “naturalistic” interpretation of the miracles, and certainly the film’s rendition of this scene has nothing in common with the Bible’s description of Moses stretching out his hand all night as a giant wind separates the waters. But the way the film shows Moses coming to the realization that God really is looking out for him and his people is quite moving (and kudos here to the film’s composers; this is one of the best moments on the movie’s soundtrack album).

vlcsnap-2014-11-10-10h42m17s9To put this another way: when Moses realizes that God has intervened again — in a positive way that helps the Hebrews, and not just in a negative way that afflicts their enemies — I get the feeling that Ridley Scott, for all his disbelief, knows what an answer to prayer might feel like. He might not believe that God is looking out for him in real life, but he can imagine what it would feel like to discover, to his happy surprise, that he was wrong. And that’s no small thing.

Pointless violent interludes. One of my big complaints about the film version of The Lord of the Rings, back in the day, was how Peter Jackson kept trying to complicate the story by introducing new plot twists, only to have the characters pull a U-turn and take the story back to where it was going anyway. (Frodo sends Sam away, then Sam comes back; Faramir takes the hobbits back towards Minas Tirith, then lets them go; the Ents decide against attacking Isengard, then attack it anyway; etc.)

The action sequences in Exodus, which have been the primary focus of the film’s marketing campaign from the beginning, seem to me to be just as gratuitous and pointless as those quickly-abandoned plot twists in The Lord of the Rings.

Take the opening battle against the Hittites. What purpose does it serve? It’s not clear whether anybody actually wins the battle — which may be true to history, since the historical Battle of Kadesh led to one of the earliest known peace treaties — and after the Egyptians make their way home, Seti listens to a soldier’s report and then basically tells his council to move on to the next item on the agenda. The battle itself, and the Hittites as a whole, are quickly forgotten, and never referenced again.

Compare this to how The Ten Commandments began with Moses bringing the king of Ethiopia back to Egypt to pay tribute to the Pharaoh. In that film, the sequence helped to set up the differences between Moses’ benevolence and Ramses’ arrogance (Moses brings the Ethiopians not as prisoners but as allies), and it is referenced later on when Ramses tries to poison Seti’s attitude toward Moses (“now he holds Ethiopia in his left hand, Goshen in his right, and you, my Pharaoh, are in-between them”).

vlcsnap-2014-11-10-10h36m03s74But in Exodus, there’s really only one narrative purpose that is served by this sequence, and it’s a contrived one. During the battle, Moses saves Ramses’ life, thereby fulfilling the first half of a prophecy that someone will save a leader and then become a leader himself. Ramses gets paranoid about the second half of that prophecy — fearing that Moses will take his place as Pharaoh or something — and this is supposed to explain why Ramses is so quick to send Moses into exile a few scenes later, despite supposedly being “close as brothers” with him.

But this just raises another problem with the film: the relationship between Moses and Ramses is so poorly defined in the first place that we don’t really feel the rift that grows between them. They’re not playful friends who begin to sour on each other only after Moses becomes a Hebrew prophet, as they were in The Prince of Egypt. Instead, almost as soon as we are introduced to them, the film indicates that Ramses is paranoid about Moses — and it’s all because of this prophecy.

So while the battle sequence may offer the filmmakers a decent, spectacular marketing hook, on a narrative level it exists pretty much only to facilitate this plot device — and it’s the sort of plot device that takes the place of true character development.

(The prophecy also raises another issue, but one that doesn’t bother me much: If the Egyptian high priestess can predict the future correctly, then it would seem the Egyptian religion is not entirely “superstitious” after all. But that’s actually fine by me, as the Bible itself says the Egyptian magicians were able to replicate some of the miracles performed by Moses, from turning staffs into serpents to turning water into blood. Theirs was a weaker religion, based as it was on weaker or nonexistent gods, but that didn’t mean it had no connection to the spiritual realm.)

exodus-DF-02915_2917RTwo other action sequences were added to the story but then kind of abandoned.

First, Moses mounts a guerrilla-style “war of attrition” against the Egyptians, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. It just comes to an end when Malak shows up, expresses his impatience, and starts sending the plagues instead.

Second, at the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses leads the Hebrews in a cavalry charge against the Egyptians — but then all of the horses and chariots turn back, when their riders and drivers see the tsunami coming. (The only ones who don’t turn back are Moses and Ramses, who get swept up in the wave — which is silly.) On this occasion, the film seems to be setting up a violent clash, but it never actually happens.

Again, I don’t entirely object to the idea that Moses armed the Israelites and trained them for combat. The Bible says the Israelites were engaged in bloody battles of one sort or another almost from the moment they left Egypt (e.g. when the Amalekites attacked them on the way to Sinai). So it makes sense to explore this side of their story. It’s just not integrated into the film in any sort of satisfying way.

Where are the characters? It is impossible to watch Exodus without thinking that a lot of things got left on the cutting-room floor. (A colleague of mine tells me Ridley Scott said there might be an extended edition of the film when he was asked about this at a recent junket.) Several major characters, some of them played by major actors, pop up for one or two scenes and then inexplicably vanish from the film.

exodus-ramses-womenTake Sigourney Weaver’s Tuya, the mother of Ramses. Weaver said in an interview that her character plays a big part in making Ramses Pharaoh after Seti dies — but there is no evidence of that within the actual movie. The publicity stills include a picture of Tuya talking to Ramses and holding his arm before he goes off to battle at the beginning of the film — and we never see that happen, either. I also suspect that the images of Tuya sitting at the dinner table come from a scene that was cut from the film; at any rate, I don’t recall seeing her wear that particular headpiece at any point onscreen.

Or take Ben Kingsley’s Nun. In an interview a few months ago, Kingsley said Moses’ biological mother would be sitting behind Nun when Nun reveals to Moses that he’s a “holocaust survivor”. But there’s no evidence of that in the film, either.

Then there are Hiam Abbass’s Bithia and Tara Fitzgerald’s Miriam. They should be fairly major characters, but they pop up just long enough to give Ramses an excuse to send Moses into exile, and then they’re forgotten. We never even see them when Moses returns to Egypt and meets his brother Aaron, and we certainly don’t see Miriam lead the Israelite women in celebration after crossing the Red Sea.

The relationship between Moses and Maria Valverde’s Zipporah is similarly reduced to a few plot points. They meet in one scene, he meets her father in another, they exchange a few words while tending the flock, and before you know it they’re getting married and professing the truest of love. Where did that come from?

Repeatedly throughout this film, the characters simply fail to exist as people in their own right. Instead, they exist more or less just to move the plot along.

Say what you will about The Ten Commandments and its Victorian theatricality, but it had characters, and it focused on the relationships between those characters and what those relationships stood for. Just look at how that film develops Seti: the way he teases his priests and Nefretiri, the way he reprimands Ramses, the way he’s heartbroken when he learns of Moses’ Hebrew ancestry and is compelled by his own prejudice to turn his back on his favorite “son”. Or look at how it develops Moses’ relationship with Zipporah, who discusses the nature of God with him and ultimately agrees to marry him even though she knows she is not his first love.

exodus-yahoo-3There is nothing like that in Exodus, at least in its present form. The closest we get, I think, is when Ramses admits to his mother Tuya that he’s awfully conflicted about whether to send Moses into exile. I also liked the bit where Ramses stands over his son’s cradle and says, “You sleep so well, my boy, because you know you’re loved. I’ve never slept so well.” That line hints at a world of inner feelings and regrets that could have been fleshed out more (and Joel Edgerton is certainly this film’s MVP, acting-wise).

There is also a scene, before Moses encounters the burning bush, in which Zipporah asks Moses, who is still a skeptic, not to undermine their son’s faith, and it plays very superficially. It also feels very modern, not least when Zipporah says their son can choose his own beliefs some day. Here I was reminded of Sir Ridley’s comments, from the Kingdom of Heaven junket, about religion being nothing more than a “label”, and faith being something a person either has or doesn’t have. There’s no serious engagement with the nature or substance of faith in this scene.

You also can’t help thinking that maybe this is one of those issues Moses and Zipporah should have discussed before they got married. But the film basically skipped over that part of their relationship in its rush to get them married, so there you go.

Miscast actors. Sigourney Weaver is every bit as miscast as you’d expect — and it’s especially jarring to see her introduced in the very same scene as Hiam Abbass, a native Palestinian who also plays a member of Egyptian royalty. They just kind of pop up together out of nowhere, and they don’t look or sound alike whatsoever.

But I think my favorite random actor in this film has to be Ewen Bremner, aka Spud Boy from Trainspotting, who plays an Egyptian “expert” who tries to explain away the plagues — and who doesn’t exactly hide his Scottish accent while doing so.

Modern dialogue. I mentioned how the bit where Zipporah says her son can choose his own beliefs some day felt rather modern. (The fact that Moses says he wants their son to grow up “believing in himself” didn’t help.) To this I would add Moses’ early declaration that people shouldn’t “abandon reason” in favour of omens and his later statement that Hebrews should have the same “rights” as Egyptians. There’s a post- Enlightenment sensibility to his dialogue that doesn’t say “ancient Egypt” to me.

exodus-yahoo-6The vows said between Moses and Zipporah at their wedding also feel like the sort of thing you get when people write their own vows today. They don’t feel very traditional, for lack of a better word, and I also can’t help wondering if bridegrooms would have pledged to love their brides so exclusively back then, given the existence of polygamy.

Beyond the modernity of the dialogue, there is also its banality. Whether it’s Seti saying that the people who want power the most are the least likely to use it wisely, or Moses telling his son not to say what people want to hear, or Moses and Zipporah discussing what it’s like for a city boy to live in the country, the script is full of clichés that offer little unique insight into the characters or the themes of the movie.

Deviations from the Bible. Moses not only kills one Egyptian, but almost kills a second one. And he strikes out at them them because they mistook him for a Hebrew slave, not because he was trying to save somebody else. And then, when Ramses learns about this, he doesn’t care! He goes ballistic because he learns that Moses himself is a Hebrew, yes, but the death of the soldier? Who cares. Royalty has its privileges.

Regarding the “naturalistic” interpretation of the miracles, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but there’s something about the character of the plagues that seems a little off, to me. Specifically: there’s a crescendo of sorts in the biblical plagues, where God goes after the water and the animals and the plants and eventually even the sun, but he doesn’t actually kill any human beings — not directly, anyway — until he kills the firstborn. But in this film, the first plague begins with God sending crocodiles to attack innocent fisherman (and each other), thereby spilling lots of blood into the Nile. And seeing God target actual human beings at the start of the plagues arguably undermines that later mass death when the plague of the firstborn strikes. Dramatically, I mean. I don’t know what to make of it theologically yet.

vlcsnap-2014-10-01-12h40m43s174Also, the bit where Moses shouts “Is that meant to humble me? Because it will not!” is, indeed, something he yells at God — which is curious in light of the Bible’s description of Moses as the most humble man on the face of the earth.

There’s also a bizarre glimpse of the golden calf at the end. Bizarre, because Moses has just walked up the mountain, and hasn’t been gone for the long period of time that led the biblical Hebrews to give him up for dead and create a new form of religious expression in his place. Bizarre, because the film doesn’t tell us what the golden calf means at all; the filmmakers seem to be hoping that the audience will fill in the blanks, there. And bizarre, because Moses has not yet received the Ten Commandments yet, so the golden calf doesn’t represent an actual violation of the law yet. It’s a strange thing when a movie relies on an audience’s familiarity with a story yet strays from it in a way that shows no affinity for the original story.

Finally, it turns out the Moses of this movie has already been to Canaan, even before he learns of his Hebrew heritage — and indeed, it’s quite possible that he passed through Canaan on his way to the opening battle and back. (The Battle of Kadesh was fought in Syria. Google Maps estimates it would take ten solid days to walk there from Memphis on foot — and that presumably doesn’t include breaks for eating and sleeping.) How, I wonder, would this affect the bit in the Bible where Moses is allowed to see the Promised Land before dying, but is not allowed to actually enter it?

Odds and ends. Another sign that the film left a subplot or two on the cutting-room floor: there’s a scene near the beginning in which Ramses plays with some snakes and says, “A little venom in your blood is a good thing. Makes you less vulnerable to the next poisonous bite, maybe even my father’s.” It feels like this scene was supposed to be setting something up, but the film never returns to it.

exodus-facebook-141006Artistic considerations. Christian Bale’s performance is very strange in the early scenes. He speaks with a strangely deliberate, stiff pomposity that reminded me of the bureaucrats in Monty Python sketches. (Maybe he shouldn’t have watched Life of Brian before making this movie.) This is a problem, since the script is so sketchy to begin with that we already have no real reason to care about Bale’s Moses; the fact that he plays the character as such an arrogant jerk just makes you want to get away from him.

He gets better after Moses is sent into exile, though. And it all builds up to that glorious scene by the Red Sea, which I already mentioned. So there’s that.

Most of the other actors are given too little screen time to make any sort of impression, but Joel Edgerton at least gets a chance to give his villain some emotional complexity. His reaction when the plague of the firstborn strikes is heart-rending. I hope to see more of his Ramses when the inevitable extended edition comes out.

I was disappointed in the cinematography, but I wonder if that was due to the projection at the theatre where I saw the film. Ridley Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski produced such fantastic 3D images for Prometheus that I was really looking forward to what they might do with this film — but what I saw was darker and a bit less sharp than I expected. I’m going to withhold judgment on this aspect of the film until I have a chance to see it again, in a different theatre.

The music, for its part, is excellent. I have listened to the soundtrack quite a bit over the last few weeks and it works very well within the film.

All in all, this film is a mixed bag. Spectacular visuals and stirring music on the one hand, lousy screenwriting and iffy performances on the other hand. It’s certainly nowhere near as interesting or compelling as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.

My opinion might change with subsequent viewings, but for now, I cannot help but regard this film as a missed opportunity, and I cannot help but wish that Steven Spielberg had gotten around to making his movie about Moses instead.

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