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Non-Review Review: Exodus – Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings might be more traditional in structure and execution than the year’s other big biblical epic, but it shares a lot of the same core sentiments of Noah. Both films posit the Old Testament God as a primordial and almost unfathomable force, transforming biblical parables in epic horror stories. Both accept the divine as inhuman, almost by definition; both offer harrowing and unsettling depictions of stories that many viewers will know from childhood or have heard dozens of times before.

Exodus: Gods and Kings suffers a bit with its pacing, trying to boil the core Moses stories down into a single two-and-a-half hour narrative. The film runs through a check list of iconic moments, struggling to squeeze so much in that the story of the reed basket is mentioned only in passing. Instead, the film moves from Moses’ relationship with Ramses II through to his exile through to his epiphany through to his military rebellion through to the plagues through to the exodus.

"Well, I got back to Gotham in six days, I think I can get us to the Promised Land."

“Well, I got back to Gotham in six days, I think I can get us to the Promised Land.”

It is an epic story in almost every sense of the word, and Exodus: Gods and Kings struggles to contain it all. Often key elements are only present for moments before the film has to hurry along – the burning bush lingers in the background; the golden calf is glimpsed only from the distance. So much ground is covered that it is occasionally difficult to maintain focus, as Moses seems to lose and gain families with each passing act break. Exodus: Gods and Kings holds itself together under the pressure, but the strain can be felt.

Nevertheless, Exodus: Gods and Kings largely works. Feeling more like Kingdom of Heaven than Gladiator, the movie does a wonderful job of building a massive and sprawling (and foreign) world. Exodus: Gods and Kings looks and feels like a more traditional biblical epic than Noah, and Scott’s efforts to ground the film in a tangible reality only serves to enhance the awe-inspiring scale of the horror on display here. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an exploration of faith and devotion, asking uncomfortable questions and leaving the answers to the audience.

"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings..."

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…”

The elements of the story are familiar to people. The story of Moses is one of the most detailed and iconic religious stories in the Abrahamic religions. Moses is the most frequently-named individual in the Quran; there is a wealth of material built up around him and the larger exodus in Jewish apocrypha; Moses is even frequently referenced in the New Testament. The story is one that has been told and re-told time and again over the years. Director Cecil B. DeMille was so fascinated by the story that he told it twice, once in 1923 and again in 1956.

However, what sets Exodus: Gods and Kings apart from many of its predecessors is the sheer brutality of the film. Just as Darren Aronofsky refused to shy away from the horror inherent in the premise of Noah, Ridley Scott does not flinch when it comes to portraying the uncomfortable aspects of the myth. After all, this is story featuring the murder of all the first-born children of Egypt; Exodus: Gods and Kings does not shy away from this aspects of the story. The revolt of the Hebrew slaves against their Egyptian masters is packed with awe-inspiring terror.

Rain of terror...

Rain of terror…

The terror is not merely confined to the imagery. The future haunts Exodus: Gods and Kings, looming just over the horizon. This is a tale of ancient terrorism and guerilla warfare. Early on, addressing the assembled Hebrew elders, Moses explains that his army lacks the strength to attack the Egyptians head-on. Instead, they target infra-structure, attack civilians. If the revolt can turn public opinion against the Pharaoh, they will make Egyptian policy untenable. It is a familiar story, even outside of the Middle Eastern setting.

More than that, the script of Exodus: Gods and Kings gently broaches questions about the future. As Moses plots the eponymous escape, he wonders aloud what happens next. He is guiding his followers to the East, in search of their homeland; however, their homeland is occupied by hostile forces who are unlikely to welcome the returning migrants. Even beyond the question of external enemies, Moses ponders how he might hold this vast tribe together once they have settled. Inevitably, schisms and fractures will occur.

Fare thee well, Pharaoh...

Fare thee well, Pharaoh…

Exodus: Gods and Kings is loaded with political and philosophical subtext – asking probing questions about foreign policy and realpolitik. As the situation escalates, Moses finds himself questioning the will of the divine – unsure just what he can and will condone in this quest to liberate his people. Despite the historical setting, Exodus: Gods and Kings anchors itself in the familiar. The revolt engages in insurgent tactics and economic warfare; even the plagues descending upon Memphis are presented as something akin to biological warfare.

Scott cleverly blends the visual style of the historical epic with something a bit darker and more unpleasant. There are moments when Exodus: Gods and Kings feels more like a horror movie than a biblical adventure, with lots of large empty spaces that are poorly lit by flickering torches. A lot of sequences are shot to create the impression that there is no external lighting in place. Sure , there are sprawling combat sequences and high-stakes battles that one expects from a film like this; but there are also quieter moments amid the scale and the carnage.

Ramses thinks Moses is a real basket case...

Ramses thinks Moses is a real basket case…

Indeed, there are points where Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to subvert the expectations of the biblical epic. The saturation is turned way down, making it clear that this version of Moses is living in a world quite distinct from The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt. The ceremonial make-up applied to Ramses II is designed to look fake; at one point the audience can see the string holding that iconic Egyptian false beard in place. The result is that Exodus: Gods and Kings feels strangely grounded in a world that feels substantial and organic.

This careful attempt to lend verisimilitude to the design of ancient Egypt pays off when the movie reaches the inevitable “plague” sequences, when the divine strays into the realm of man. In Prometheus, Ridley Scott posited the divine as alien and unknown; Exodus: Gods and Kings reinforces the idea. Nature itself becomes a weapon under the control of a force beyond human comprehension. Crocodiles move like laser-guided missiles, frogs migrate in patterns that look like tidal waves.

How sharper than a Pharaoh's sword...

How sharper than a Pharaoh’s sword…

The fact that world looks so grounded makes the intrusion of these fantastical elements seem all the more miraculous and unsettling. There is something not quite right about all this, because Exodus: Gods and Kings has gone out of its way to stress the humanity of the people inhabiting this world. Scott does a great job bringing that discomfort to life, and Exodus: Gods and Kings feels like a horror story on a truly epic scale – putting the viewer face-to-face with something that has unfathomable power.

That said, there are problems. Exodus: Gods and Kings runs for about two-and-a-half hours, and yet it never feels entirely flashed out. Moses and Ramses are both reasonably well-developed, and brought to life by Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. However, other great actors seem to lurk at the edge of the frame, bringing life to characters who exist as spectres or outlines. Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Ben Kingsley all feel like they are not bringing as much to the film as they might; they seem like shadows of better-drawn characters.

Stone-cold rebel...

Stone-cold rebel…

At the same time, the movie has a great deal of trouble structuring Moses’ character arc. Moses loses his family and gains a new family several times over the course of the film. This is in keeping with the source material, but it does mean that the film tends to stop and start; the plot seems to move in tangents, playing almost as a set of five half-hour television movies airing back-to-back. It eventually circles back through lingering plot threads, but it feels like there is always a diversion or two along the way.

Watching Exodus: Gods and Kings, one cannot help but wonder how much material ended up on the cutting room floor in one form or another – whether from the original outline, various script drafts, or early cuts. Ridley Scott has earned a reputation as a director whose work shines in alternate or extended cuts; a director who has been lucky enough to let his own creative voice shine through eventually, even if not on initial release. One can almost sense the absences or rough spots here and there, the gaps left by ruthless editing sessions.

Shadow play...

Shadow play…

At one point in the film, Ramses II admonishes his architects for failing to complete his palaces and tombs on time; they are still works in progress as the deadlines loom. It feels like something similar might be said about Exodus: Gods and Kings. It is a bold and ambitious piece of work, occasionally beautiful and thought-provoking, but it feels somehow messy and clumsy; simultaneously over-cluttered and under-sketched. The result is fascinating and intriguing, albeit not entirely satisfying.

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5 Responses

  1. I doubt I am going to be seeing this movie, but your write-up is, as always, interesting and insightful.

    You touch upon some points that occurred to me earlier this year. I had seen the version of The Ten Commendments with Charlton Heston a number of times when I was younger. I always thought it was pretty good, albeit much too long.

    So earlier this year it’s around the Passover holiday. I am at the laundromat washing a huge pile of dirty laundry. The Ten Commandments happens to be playing on the TV at the laundromat. So as I’m waiting for the washing & drying to finish, I’m watching the movie. And it suddenly occurs to me “The story of Passover is seriously messed up!” And when i say this, I’m not just talking about the movie, but the Book of Exodus in the Torah.

    Think about it: the God of the Old Testament wants the Hebrew people freed from slavery by the Egyptians. How does God go about it? Does he slay the Pharoah and his advisors, the figures of government who are in charge of policy, who are keeping the Herbrews enslaved? No, instead God inflicts a series of ten increasingly awful plagues upon the Egyptian civilian population. And after each one of them, the Pharoah is actually ready to let the Hebrews go. But each time God changes his mind, subverts his free will to have him keep the Hebrews enslaved, because the Egyptians have not yet suffered enough for having exploited the Hebrews.

    Even when I was younger I was troubled by some of this. I asked my father and my Hebrew School teachers and a rabbi about this, and the answer I typically got back was that the Egyptian people as a whole were complicit in the enslavement of the Hebrews, they benefitted from it, they did nothing to stop it, and so they were deserving of punishment.

    Looking at this from the persective of 2014, that is EXTREMELY troubling. That is exactly the sort of justification that terrorists such as the September 11th hijackers trotted out to justify murdering thousands of innocent people. They basically said “Your government and your corporations have exploited the Middle East, destabilized our governments, and stollen our resources. All of you in America just stood by and let that happen, and you benefitted from these policies. You are ALL complicit in these crimes, and therefore you are ALL legitimate targets to be attacked.”

    I think it is not at all surprising that I am not especially fond of organized religion, and that I prefer to focus on my own individual spirituality.

    • To be fair to Exodus and Noah, I think they are the first big biblical epics I have seen that actually grasp how uncomfortable the Old Testament stories are. Which is fascinating, because I had the experience of learning them at school as a child, as an example of God’s love for His people. However, when you actually think about these events in terms of human lives, it is harrowing. (As a child, I remember being horrified by the murder of the first born children, being too young to understand that the other plagues would have led to countless deaths indirectly. I wondered why God simply couldn’t transport the Hebrews to the Promised Land, being all-powerful and all.)

      Truth be told, I’m really not comfortable talking about my own religious beliefs, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that I am never entirely sure what I believe, and I think it’s important that I leave my beliefs open to modification or revision as I grow and change myself; commenting on them means committing to them, I think. Similarly, I’ve always felt that faith is a deeply personal thing, and it can be very hard to talk about your own religious beliefs without it seeming like you are foisting them on others.

      But I do think that faith can be both a beautiful and a terrifying thing. It gives people incredible strength. I know people who have used it to help them accomplish great things. However, it can also be used to justify horrendous atrocities. I think that trying to apply a blanket term to something as large and encompassing as faith is a fruitless exercise, and perhaps my biggest quibble with people like Dawkins.

      And I am skeptical of large organised religions of all sorts. I suspect one of the reasons I drifted away from Catholicism was due to disillusionment with the Church itself, and very little to do with the spirituality. (Although, the official attitude of the Church towards anybody who isn’t a straight man also unsettles me.) That said, I maintain that The New Testament is (broadly speaking, and with more than a few exceptions) a great vehicle for humanism. “Turn the other cheek” and “do unto others” are beautiful ethical sentiments.

      (Though I could never fathom a deity who treated faith as a prerequisite for redemption. If a being is that powerful and that all-knowing, what does it matter whether you believe in it or not? I can’t fathom any religion that would exclude an individual from their eternal reward because they happened to pick the wrong faith. I’m not sure that such a being would deserve worship.)

      That is to say that I largely agree with a lot of what you said.

  2. It’s not the first time a movie has been hyped up like crazy on the internet only to fizzle out at the box office.

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