An “Exodus” Plagued by Extravagant Mediocrity

Ridley Scott’s telling of the story of Moses has numerous flaws. Better to read the Good Book instead.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating:
Reel Rating: (2 out of 5)

There are several film and television adaptations of the story of the Exodus and subsequent events—most notably, of course, Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments—so director Ridley Scott had to do something distinct with Exodus: Gods and Kings. Unfortunately, aside from one interesting (but not positive) development, most of the film’s 150 minutes consists of a rehashing of old approaches and a reworking of ideas that covered many times already.

Granted, these do come with some pretty awesome special effects, although the parting of the Red Sea is still better in DeMille’s version, despite being produced almost sixty years ago, with obvious technical limitations. In short, Exodus isn’t a bad movie, just one that’s better enjoyed on DVD, with doughnuts, while writing a high school religion paper comparing the biblical account to the cinematic re-telling.

The first half is almost verbatim a combination of The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ animated 1999 feature, The Prince of Egypt. Like Commandments, Scott paints an epic world of towering statues, brilliant costumes, and exotic accents. Like Prince, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) were raised together “as close as brothers,” then gradually grow apart when a closely guarded secret is discovered.

Many good actors have played Moses, including Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, and Mel Brooks. Bale’s prophet is a pragmatic general who puts his faith in knowledge and skill rather than the Egyptian religion. He would rather speak to the Hebrew elders than kill them, not because they are equal but because it will halt sedition. Edgerton’s Ramses knows the responsibility that will pass to him, and he wants to lead well, but he is often blinded by his own arrogance. It’s bad enough being an only child; being constantly told that he is a god does not make things easier.

In typical fashion, Moses is exiled, falls in love with Zipporah, and becomes a shepherd. Never a believer, he suddenly meets God in a strange encounter that almost completely ignores the biblical narrative. When Moses returns to Egypt, he first organizes a Hebrew army that engages in guerilla warfare before God takes over and tells him to “sit back and watch.”

The ten plagues begin with a swarm of crocodiles attacking a fleet of ordinary Egyptians. This feeding frenzy—which is very graphic for a PG-13 film—causes the Nile to turn red, which in turn drives frogs onto the land, which then dry and decompose, bringing swarms of gnats. The implication is that although God is the impetus, these calamities are perfectly reasonable from a scientific standpoint.

It is in the depiction of the suffering people that Exodus finds its most powerful theme. Watching poor farmers starve and a woman suffocated by flies creates an intense empathy for the Egyptians. The worst plague brings the Angel of Death, who steals the breath of children in the night, leaving them lifeless. Ramses is not spared this divine wrath as he finds his adorable infant son lifeless in his crib. Wailing uncontrollably, he tries to wake his only child, shaking him like a ragdoll. “Is this your God,” he asks Moses, cradling the swaddled corpse, “a child killer?”

It’s an incredibly honest question, and Moses seems taken aback by it. God does not author evil. Rather, this action was the direct result of the Ramses pride; his son was a holy innocent, just like the poor children who died at Herod’s hand or David and Bathsheba’s first son—and the millions of children who die from infanticide, abortion, in vitro fertilization, malnutrition, starvation, and abuse. They die because sin is present in the world, and every person of good will has the solemn responsibility to protect them. “The Hebrew children lived,” Moses responds. They were saved because their parents cared enough to follow God’s law and place their trust in him.

Other than that brief exchange, Exodus rarely rises above the level of mediocrity. Its depiction of God is strange and uneven at best. First, Moses does not encounter God in the burning bush (see Exodus 3). Instead, God appears to Moses with the bush (in the background) after the prophet nearly dies in a rockslide, allowing the viewer the option of believing that the revelations seen and heard by Moses were mere hallucinations. Later, when Joshua catches Moses talking to God, it appears that Moses is simply talking to himself. Second, God is portrayed by a young boy (Issac Andrews) who is quite pushy and rather scary. The credits claim he is actually an angel, but the film is unclear.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic film of great scale and with impressive effects, but with little substance or depth. Scott spends millions of dollars on displaying combat and miracles but misses huge opportunities to flesh out the story and enter into the real drama. The writing is uneven and sometimes awkward, and major figures—notably Aaron, the brother of Moses, and Joshua, the successor of Moses—are essentially ignored. Aaron Paul, the multiple Emmy winner from the mega-hit show, Breaking Bad, is cast as Joshua but has only about five lines. Other fine actors, including Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, are hardly used. And, finally, major events are given short shrift: it takes ten minutes for Moses to walk across the desert in exile, but the golden calf and the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai are glossed over in seconds.

This film simply doesn’t bring much to the story and, at times, undermines the story. I rarely ever say this, but the book really is better. Much better.

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.