Hollywood, still wet from the soaking it took from Noah, has headed for the desert with Moses in the new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings. Surely this time we have a foolproof crowd pleaser filled only with milk and honey? Or, instead, is it going to be a lot of grumbling at bitter herbs?
The movie, which opens today, stars Christian Bale, best known for his Batman portrayal, and is directed by Ridley Scott, no stranger to big screen extravaganzas like his film Gladiator. In 3D, and costing an estimated $140, 000,000, this must have appeared a formidable proposition. I mean, with all of that in a biblical epic, what could possibly go wrong?
After The Passion of the Christ, the studio heads discovered there was a market for movies based on the Bible. Blowing the dust off their copies, they started to scan its pages for gold. And so, this year, along floats Noah, earning just shy of three times its budget. Its mixed reception was too late for 20th Century Fox to reconsider its own pilgrimage to the promised land with this latest Moses movie.
Is it necessary to mention plot spoilers? If you are not familiar with the plot, and even some of the details of the plot, where have you been for the last 3,000 years? Therefore, I will assume most of us know the story and its central character: Moses. In any event, it is the filmmakers’ interpretation here that is key.
So first off let’s look at Bale’s portrayal of Moses. It was telling that the star described in an interview this key figure of the Bible as both mentally ill and barbaric. Was he getting confused with his Batman role? Or perhaps his comments were deliberately calculated to make headlines. They did. Nonetheless, true to his word, he plays the Old Testament figure like a man ill at ease, humorless, vain, and, for all the movies’ 3D imagery, one-dimensional. I was expecting some kind of before-and-after transformation on experiencing the Burning Bush. Well, before he is surly and arrogant and then afterwards, surly, arrogant, and disturbed. All this gives us a “new Moses,” of course, one radically different from what has gone before on screen, especially—heaven forbid—the one played by Charlton Heston. This is Moses for a new generation. Just as in recent times popular media has turned Sherlock Holmes from an English gent into someone the police need to keep an eye on, so we have Moses as the tribal psychopath—a sort of gang supremo with messianic delusions, or just poor medication. He has to be anything other than a leader of a nation of believers sure of its place in the universe as the Chosen People.
To the Plot, Such As It Is
Now to the plot, such as it is. Suffice it to say that this movie is very loosely based on the first 14 chapters of Exodus. There is an epilogue of sorts that does seem to cover not just the rest of Exodus but the other three books in which Moses’ story is told, all in double quick time—20 minutes or so. That said, on this occasion we can be only too grateful that the film makers did not try to include all of Leviticus in this epic—not that they included much of Exodus, come to think of it.
As one would expect in a biblical epic, there is a lot of spectacle. The large crowd scenes, and those of the various plagues, all impress; it’s just that the spectacle starts to wear after a while. Like looking at a beautiful sky or a building, it’s nice, but I don’t want to spend 2.5 hours staring at it. Most audiences like a plot, and there is one. But it is not quite what you might expect.
Moses and Pharaoh have been raised together. Then the former finds out he is not who he thought he was. The audience will also share this feeling by the end of the film. At this point, however, you may be expecting the story to follow the path laid down for it in Scripture. Not at all. Yes, Moses kills some Egyptians, though it’s unclear why. Then he appears to be banished by an Egyptian court for being a Hebrew. Reluctantly, he goes off, and then marries and becomes a goat herder. His new relatives tell him if he goes up a nearby mountain “God will kill you.” Of course, in the next scene, he is heading up the mountain in a thunderstorm. (Only in the movies.)
So here at last, I thought, we are going to have the calling of Moses and the start of the tale we have all grown up with: a return to Egypt and then the plagues, escape into the desert, various wonderings, etc. Well, not quite. You see, Moses suffers a bump on the head—a large boulder hits him—and upon awakening, he finds himself in a pool of mud completely covered except for his face … but there is a burning bush nearby. Hope for us yet? No. This time a young boy appears. Is he some kind of Messianic showing? The boy seems to be “God.” I say “seems” because he is a truculent and bossy adolescent who cares little for the people who will be harmed by his proposals. We are never quite sure whether the boy is a mere figment of Moses’ imagination, or the result of a head injury. I could go on but you get the picture.
The boy’s appearance marks the point where this movie leaves the pages of Sacred Scripture and heads to those of Tolkien, or some latter day mythological super hero. Thereafter, Moses goes back to free the Hebrew slaves for reasons known only to him. On his arrival and on warning the Pharaoh, who is none too pleased to see him back, Moses goes underground, becoming a guerrilla leader who trains his fellow Israelites in the arts of war. Of course, this does no good at all, leaving the Israelites no better off, worse in fact, until the plagues come—and Moses seems as unhappy with this occurrence as the Egyptians. Odd, but odder still is the rationalist explanations for the plagues given to the Egyptian court. After all, if it were all so simple why didn’t they do something about it? Finally, the slaves are freed, and head off into the desert where the climactic scene is the parting of the Red Sea.
One wonders if all this water is what was left over from Noah. I suspect it comes from the same source. Well it floods everything—sorry, another spoiler alert—including Moses who swims ashore. So, why didn’t the Egyptians swim after them? Ridley Scott has said somewhere that he thinks this miracle can be attributed to some form of natural cause, something to do with the draining off of a tsunami—no, I don’t understand that either. Maybe the waters did recede naturally, and the Israelites just walked across by chance; maybe Moses was not really called into the desert before a burning bush; maybe all the plagues were just naturally occurring environmental disasters; maybe there was no Covenant forged in the desert, and maybe…. Well, what are we left with? One tribe wanders around the desert for 40 years much to the chagrin of another tribe, and then wanders into another land where they start fighting with all the local tribes. May as well have made a Western. It would have been a lot cheaper.
The epilogue is worth mentioning only because it is so absurd. Moses heads back home to his wife. On seeing the crowd behind him, she asks, like many a wife would when friends are unexpectedly brought back for dinner, who are all these people?—all 400,000 of them that is. Leaving the audience with the vague suspicion that the whole point of the escape from Egypt was so the Israelites could all come over to Moses’ place for supper. As Moses and his wife become friends again, I hoped that was it, but no. In the last 10 minutes or so—I kid you not—we have the Golden Bull, the inscribing of the Ten Commandments, though they are not called that, and then an elderly Moses in a wagon with the Ark of the Covenant. It says something for a film like this that one is glad to see the Golden Bull turn up: at last, a familiar face.
So we have a biblical epic with much epic and little that is biblical. Lots of loud speech-making by actors, before crowds of Israelites and crowds of Egyptians, lots of chariots and lots of weary trudging about, acres of desert with moving sands, and by the end lots of water sloshing about—but after a while one longs for some kind of terra firma and a conversation about what lies behind all this: faith, or to be more exact, the Covenant. Instead we have a cross between The Mummy melodramas and a Lord of the Rings style escape movie, mystical hokum mixed up with pure hokum.
At times, it all did feel heavy going. Be warned, near the end of the screening I attended, another critic had a panic attack—on thinking he would be at the theatre for the cinematic equivalent of what the Israelites had endured in the desert: forty years; rest assured—it just feels that way.
Where to start with this film’s biblical theology? Perhaps, it is easier to sum up: there isn’t any. This is a Bible-based movie only in marketing terms. The very opening gives the game away: “1300 BCE,” not BC—we are in the secular world’s version of the past, not a faith based one. The only time the word faith is used is when Moses’ wife berates him for confusing their son’s faith in God. By the end of the movie I knew exactly how the lad felt. Those who know their Bibles will come away scratching their heads wondering: what was that? Those that don’t will come away scratching their heads wondering: what was that? I suspect, like the Israelites in the desert, neither will be satisfied with the fare on offer here.
Whether you know or don’t know Moses, what I urge all when near a movie theatre showing Exodus: Gods and Kings, is that you turn around and start to walk—quickly and decisively—in the opposite direction. And if it so happens that you encounter any golden bull on the loose, point it to the aforementioned theatre where it will be very much at home.