Monday night I watched Exodus: Gods and Kings while sitting in a plump theater seat that was designed for someone five inches taller than me and 150 pounds heavier.
Visually, Exodus was top-notch. Sweeping panoramas of the Ancient Egyptian landscape fill the screen, massive pyramids reduced to putty figures, square houses like a minecraft screenshot, and smoke drifting upwards from ten thousand oil lamps. The receding Red Sea at the end of the movie probably would have been equally breath-taking, if not for the super-wave in Interstellar. Director Ridley Scott also takes the camera close, capturing the sweat glistening on the backs of slaves and white boils ozzing on the faces of Egyptians. The ancient world was both gorgeous and brutal. Many critics applaud Exodus for the special effects, but then add that the story and characterization were weak. I would argue that the landscape itself is a story and a character. Egypt is a tyrant, majestic and beautiful, yet dependent upon the labor of slaves. The Nile River gives the people life, but also breeds frogs and blood. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie is the death of all the Egyptian first-borns. One of the major themes of the movie is that nature is no respecter of mankind.
And yet there are obvious failings to the movie. Exodus has many promising story lines. Moses’ relationship with Ramses is a prime example. They are both fast companions at the beginning of the movie, and when circumstances complicate this relationship toward the middle of the film, the stage is set for an interesting conflict. It never materializes. There are a few stilted exchanges which are intended to demonstrate the change in their relationship, but then suddenly they are sworn enemies. I would have liked to see much more the struggle of childhood companions pulled apart by political circumstances. Both Moses and Ramses also border on insanity as the movie progresses, which removes the subtlety of interaction that sanity brings. As the respective leaders become more angry, it appears as if they are moving towards a climactic duel, but it never happens.
The are several other story lines which offer promise such as Moses’ romance and marriage with the Midian Zipporah. Moses ends up being forced to leave both families, but I found myself not caring. I wish the writers of the movie would have picked less storylines and then made them work. I wanted to feel something, but it was all so quick.
And then there is the portrayal of God. When I first heard that the Lord Almighty would be portrayed as a twelve-year-old, I was skeptical. However, I was willing to give it a shot for several reasons. First, any representation of God is problematic, because it will always come up short. That is part of what makes Him God. Second, Jesus did choose to reveal himself as an infant in Bethlehem. The concept of children may not have the same connotations to God as it does to us. If God was a bearded old man, would that have been better? Third, this movie is a story, and the script-writers are story-tellers. Let them do their craft.
So, does it work? My first reaction: this is very strange. Yet, I could see how it might go. God’s commands can appear rather childish to our understanding, and yet we should still follow him with child-like faith because he is much wiser than we are. Then the child becomes sassy, temperamental, and rather annoying. Giant crocodiles rip apart fishermen, horrific skin diseases sweep Egypt, and first-born children drop dead. All the while the God-child smugly smiles. Moses is just distraught as Pharaoh. “What kind of God are you serving?” Ramses asks. Moses never answers, and I don’t think he knows.
The main questions this movie asks are “which god do you serve, and who exactly is he?” The Egyptians serve many gods but they are completely unable to do anything to stop the plagues. The God of the Hebrews displays great power, but he is distant and capricious. This is repulsive to evangelicals, and rightfully so, but it matches the typical secular understanding of the Old Testament. To them God often borders on being an impulsive tyrant who the supports the stoning of homosexuals, the subjugation of women, and the wanton slaughter of those who stand in his way. God as a small child is not so strange with that understanding of the Old Testament Jehovah.
I feel bad for Moses’ character. After a tumultuous exit from Egypt, he settles in Midian, where he begins to live quite happily. But then God-kid shows up in a thunderstorm and cryptically tells him to go to Egypt because the Israelites are still lives. So Moses tells his family he needs to leave. They became angry, but he goes anyway. Once he gets there, he begins building up an Israelite army. Then God-kid shows up again, and says that he is displeased with what he is doing.
“Then why did you tell me to leave my family?” Moses asks.
“I didn’t.” God says. “You did.” Whaaaaa?
“Just watch.” God says and then proceeds to wipe out all of Egypt. What is Moses supposed to do? God never tells him, but he still gets angry at him. At least as angry as a twelve-year-old can get.
At the end of the movie, after Ramses army is destroyed in the Red Sea, there is a scene in which Moses chisels the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets. The God-child comments that he is not very pleased with what Moses does. Moses says that he is not very pleased with what God does. God responds by saying that the Law will guide them. With both of them acting like children, it seems like the best plan.
I went into the theater not expecting Exodus to follow the Bible. I tried to view as its own unique story, but even then it didn’t quite work for me. This isn’t just because the Biblical narrative and orthodox theology is cemented in my mind. Ridley Scott is an atheist, and so it is unfair for me to expect him to show the same for the Bible as a Christian would. However, secular critics are also giving this film a negative review. The movie lacks cohesiveness. I think it could have worked, but it didn’t. Perhaps Ridley Scott should move closer to the Biblical narrative, not just because it is the Word of God, but because the Biblical account actually works as a story.