Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Directed by Ridley Scott
As with other Old Testament epics making its way to the big screen (think Darren Aronofsky’s Noah), we should not expect much from Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings in way of biblical accuracy. My rule of thumb is to take it for what it is and hope for the best that biblical themes are present.
Overall, Scott’s take on the story of the exodus hits all the major plot points in the biblical narrative, with the expected crowd-pleasing embellishments. (Some spoilers below, but hey, you should know the story already, right?)
Human weakness. Moses (Christian Bale) is supposed to be unsure of himself and self-effacing. That’s part of the reason why God uses the unexpected and the lowly–to showcase his own power. In the book of Exodus, Moses is actually an old man by the time he returns to Egypt. In contrast, Scott’s Exodus treats Moses like Russell Crowe’s gladiator, but now in ancient Egypt.
Many of the battle scenes could just as readily be Roman. In one of the first action sequences, the Egyptian army launches a surprise attack on the Hittites in a clash that will immediately remind Scott fans of the opening scene of Gladiator where the Roman legion quells a barbarian horde. Not to mention Ramses (Joel Edergton) definitely has the makings of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus. When he returns to Egypt to free the Hebrews, Moses forms a group of guerilla fighters to fight a war of attrition. He is intent on freeing his people by his own strength.
Admittedly, Scott returns to the true form of the story when God takes matters into his own hands with the classic plagues, leaving Moses on the sidelines. But the given reason is that Moses’s way would take too long.
Divine sovereignty. God is sovereign over all creation and natural phenomena, which is clearly demonstrated in Exodus. All the plagues come from his hand. And the priestess that serves the Egyptian gods proves impotent.
Some reviews have indicated that there is some ambiguity here and that Scott left it unclear whether Moses was hallucinating (he sees the burning bush after he hits his head) and the plagues are natural phenomena. I think Scott made it quite clear and if you have any hesitations while watching the film, remember the tenth plague.
At the same time, Moses’s disagreements with God’s plans is in a way praised. In a conversation with one of the Egyptian viceroys, Moses reminds us that “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” Sure Moses definitely reasons with God in the Old Testament, but the way Exodus portrays it is a bit too chummy. God even verbally observes this trait about Moses in an endearing fashion. This is of course the same God who just brought death upon every Egyptian firstborn.
Slavery and racism. Hebrews are not considered people in Exodus. In Scott’s revisionist take, Moses does kill an Egyptian or two, he is not exiled because of it. He is exiled because it comes out that he’s a Hebrew. The parallels with the history of slavery in the United States are blatantly obvious. Even before his exile, Moses is portrayed as sympathetic toward the Hebrew slaves, though not an abolitionist until he returns to make pharaoh let God’s people go. This leads interestingly into the unresolved theodicy of the film
Theodicy. Why does a good God allow manifestations of evil? Well, Exodus doesn’t actually make the claim that God is good. In perhaps the most pointed conversation in the whole film, Ramses asks Moses how he could worship a God who kills children. The response? No Hebrew children died. In one sense, this is perfectly consistent with scripture, but it reduces God’s justice and his moral judgment of the Egyptians to a single-dimension ethnic conflict.
Moses’s answer does, however, implicitly explain why God chooses to only set free the Hebrew slaves, leaving the black slaves who make many appearances throughout the film under the foot of their Egyptian overlords.
I will end with a broad observation. I think an important redeeming quality of Scott’s Exodus is that he portrays God in such a way that sits uncomfortably with the audience. Much like the portrayal in Noah, there’s friction with the God of universal love and peace often preached by Hollywood. God is vindictive, bloodthirsty even. And this God who comes in judgment is not only a god among gods, but the sovereign lord of all the earth and its inhabitants. It’s odd that Scott chose the subtitle “Gods and Kings”…plural. It seems that in the film there is only one God and there is only one true King.