Exodus God's and Kings
Dir: Ridley Scott
With Darren Aronofsky's Noah earlier in the year and now Ridley Scott releasing his version of the Moses story, Exodus – Gods and Kings, Hollywood has gone mad for biblical epics. Noah saw some significant creative additions to the plot: rock monsters assisting in the construction of the ark and Noah facing an Abraham/Isaac style test of faith to name a few. How does Moses fare?
Ridley Scott has built a significant canon of cinema with protagonists on a variety of emotional journeys. If there's any thread through those it's about trusting in yourself to get a job done. Only Rick Deckard in 1982's Blade Runner needed help and for him in came in the unlikely form of mercy from his nemesis, Roy Batty. Jewish and Christian readers know where Moses finds guidance and Scott does not alter the story in this regard.
Starting at a point where Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) receives council form his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) over and imminent attack on the Hittites, Exodus establishes its style quickly. This is a Biblical epic in every sense of the word. Wide-screen has never been wider. The music swells at volume 11. There are more extras on the screen than People's Day at the RNA Show. After that battle, skilfully filmed at both helicopter swooping heights and bone crunching close-up, the story unfolds in the familiar way. Dealing realistically with the unfurling of Moses' identity as one of the reviled Hebrews, we follow him as he is exiled and eventually encounters an unusually flame resistant bush. It's here that I became most intrigued. Sir Ben Kingsley's Nun had talked about God earlier but now we have the grand entrance. In this version of the story, Scott has God incarnated as a ten year old fairly scruffy looking child. TV's Joan of Arcadia (2003-6) often featured God in this way but this seemed a brave though satisfying move. The sometimes petulant God of the Book of Exodus was suited to such depiction. From there we see a series of plagues for whom the word gruesome was invented. This is not pretty stuff and definitely not for Sunday School use. In fact the whole film amps up the grue to such an extent that horse lovers might choose to stay away. I'm sure the use of CGI means no human or animal was in danger but there is plenty of death. In particular the first Passover slaughter of Egypt's children and the massacre at the Red Sea are handled so that the terror of these events leaves one seriously pondering this deity! Having said that, there is no doubt who the heroes of the piece are, as scruffy and soiled as the Hebrews seem.
Once the Law has been handed down, the film flashes forward and finishes quite suddenly, almost as if the film-maker had run out of steam. And where are we left? The film handles some of the nuances of the presence and absence of God more sensitively than I would have imagined. The dichotomy of the God of the Old and New Testament has been drawn so starkly in the former sense that I was left quite staggered. I'd be fascinated to hear how someone totally new to the story might experience it. There seemed to be some shorthand (even in an 150 minute film) that would leave questions for newcomers, which might be a good thing. The plot-driven nature of the film means that Moseys remains a fairly lightly sketched character despite the good work of Christian Bale; Ramses seems to receive more attention in terms of character arc and Edgerton shows admirable restraint in a role that might have involved scene chewing from a lesser actor. But Sigourney Weaver as Tuya and Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul as Joshua must have parts that largely ended up on the cutting room floor. They'd be lucky to have ten lines of dialogue in total.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an intriguing addition to the stable of biblical epics. Sure it's overly gruesome and certainly flawed but has just enough theologically to fascinate viewers with strong stomachs.