Bringing familiar Bible stories to the silver screen is a risky enterprise. A director must avoid mere rehash of previous tellings (think Cecil B. DeMille’s opus The Ten Commandments) but without allowing artistic license to veer off into offensive parody. That’s a difficult task when some 3.8 billion people believe the source matter is sacred revelation from God himself. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott teases out fresh internal struggles within the major characters without straying unforgivably far from Biblical orthodoxy.
Scott introduces us to an agnostic Moses (Christian Bale) and his prideful and equally skeptical adoptive brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton). When Ramses ascends the throne, absolute power works its corrupting influence, leading him to buy into his own divinity cult and turn Egypt into a Bronze Age fascist state. As Moses learns the truth about his secretive past, he flees to Midian and into the arms of the enchanting Zipporah (María Valverde in a stellar, breakout role). On Mount Sinai, Moses loses his religious skepticism and returns as God’s general to deliver Israel. Throughout, Scott raises the questions Who is my brother? Who are my people? Who is my God?
It’s worth seeing Exodus in theaters solely for the experience of watching the ten plagues unfold on a big screen in 3D. Unlike the rhythmic refrain of “Let my people go!” that punctuated each plague in The Ten Commandments, Scott’s sequence is a crescendo of the spectacular and grotesque, making one feel as though swarms of locusts have truly invaded the cinema. In this battle between deities, the self-importance of Pharaoh — who gives voice to every human’s rebellious cry, “I am God!” – is no match for the might of the God of Israel. Scott captures the panic and devastation that each catastrophic plague brings upon the people, reminding us that “when the wicked rule, the people groan.”
Pharaoh’s adviser expresses an anachronistically modern desire to explain miraculous occurrences as natural phenomena, no matter how improbable. Scott’s depiction of the plagues leaves room for Pharaoh’s adviser to comically interpret them as the result of natural causes. As David Hume put it in his famous argument against miracles, “Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen.” Such an unusual death, however, is precisely the miraculous sign that breaks Pharaoh’s hardened heart. By the time he reaches the Red Sea, there can be no doubt that the I AM alone is God.
In his most significant departure from the Biblical account, Scott personifies the God of Israel as a capricious, petulant, and sometimes vengeful young boy (played by eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews). Christian Bale defended the boy-God portrayal in pre-release interviews, pointing out the difficulty of representing God in film and wondering what plausible alternatives might be. Admittedly, bringing in Morgan Freeman to voice The Almighty might be cliché. But Scott’s portrayal implies a sort of Marcionism, the early Christian heresy that the Old Testament God is a morally underdeveloped tyrant and different from the benevolent God of the New Testament.
Perhaps the reason we doubt Moses’s success in Exodus is that we question his deity’s truthworthiness and reliability. Moses wonders whether God’s final plague is “cruel” and “inhumane.” Grieving for his lost son, Ramses asks Moses, “What kind of fanatics worship such a God?” Israel’s redemption was costly, foreshadowing the infinitely greater cost of mankind’s redemption at the Cross.
At this point, it’s hard to avoid comparisons with the other big-screen Bible story of 2014. Both Noah director Darren Aronofsky and Scott (neither of whom are religious) project their own spiritual anxieties onto their characters, posing provocative questions about God’s justice and mercy. The Exodus script suffers from occasional tacky dialogue, a few missing logical links in story flow, and some Hollywood embellishment, but at least there are no rock giants or thinly veiled environmental-propaganda messages. Exodus is a better movie than Noah, both in its pacing and in its fidelity to the spirit of the Scriptural account.
— Josh Craddock is a writer living in New York City.