It was quite a shock to discover that Exodus: Gods and Kings is an excellent film. Between bad marketing, relentless attacks from all sides, and the fact that Ridley Scott’s last two films were disgraces to film (including what may be the worst film of all time The Counselor). I went in expecting to watch what would be the nail in Scott’s directorial coffin–what I saw was his redemption.
So before I rip into all the bs critics, let me tell you what this movie is. It is the story you know in the sense of the plot. However, instead of using that tale to tell the epic story of how humanity has two choices (tyranny or liberty under the law embodied in the two men of Moses and Ramses II), this film is the story how one deals with (or doesn’t deal with) their relationship with God. Ridley Scott is quite intelligent in trying not to the just remake The Ten Commandments with better special effects, that story was about its core—so much so that DeMille came out before the movie began and tells you what to look for—and for all the dated special effects the theme could not be portrayed better than it was. Exodus chooses to be its own film and show the life of a man who constantly wrestles with God and man who thinks himself above such an action.
So let’s deal with the critiques. The first I have seen is the criticism of casting a young boy as God. And that this God is snotty and hateful to humanity in general. Now I will admit the character the boy plays is rather snotty, arrogant and disdainful. The problem is the boy is not playing God. If you look at the credit his character is listed as “Malak” which when you look it up means “messenger” (you know the same meaning as the word angel). Add to this the first time the boy appears there is a burning bush behind him shown as a completely separate thing. Malak several times refers to “Him” in the third person clearly showing that he is not God, and at one point Moses states he is tired of “talking with a messenger.” The child, quite in line with most actual theology is playing the Voice of God, as humans do not interact directly with God. And in line with a lot of ancient works on angels, Malak, like most angels, is mildly disdainful of humans (there is usually depicted a certain dislike that they being of light are treated in a subservient role to the more flawed humans). Granted this is not the voice of God from the burning bush that talked to Heston, nor is it the angels that Hollywood has come to make us familiar with…but it is quite in line with most ancient studies of angels. It’s sad that everyone is chiding the writers and Scott for actually doing their research…Or to quote from the Voice of God in another film… “Tell a person that you’re the Metatron [the voice of God] and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody is a theology scholar.”*
Now, I will admit that the character does present certain problems as it is very clear there are times when he is acting as the Voice of God and stating God’s word, and there are times that are clearly Malak as Malak the angel disdainful of Moses and all humanity…and then there are a good portion of lines that are not clear which category they’re in. Scott clearly wanted his audience wrestling with this question about the nature of God as much as Moses has to wrestle with God. I personally like this choice, it respects the audience as people who can think and analyze and not just have things spoon fed to them.
The next major complaint is that this treats the plagues and parting of the Red Sea as natural events and not acts of God. I will admit that this does have a good many plausible explanations for almost all the mystical events in the movie: Moses first conversation with Malak is while unconscious, most of the plagues have an explanation, even the Red Sea could be the work of nature and not God…but this is no way a denial of God as some critics have claimed. Scott seems to remember that God works in mysterious means. If you believe in miracles then you know most miracles leave enough room to deny them and explain them away, there is always a portion where faith has to come in and say “this is a miracle.” And that’s how God always works. It makes no sense that God would change his modus operandi. Besides there is no other explanation for the 10th plague in the film beyond God.
Some have complained that this is a hateful vision of God…yeah. That’s the God described in Exodus, a jealous God, a God who repeatedly “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” just to show he is more powerful. If you can’t accept the reality that the Book of Exodus was written at time when Gods where a little more petty than our modern image of the deity, you’re not being honest about the nature of the book. What is shown however is that this is not arbitrary suffering, at least in Malak’s mind, just punishment for the treatment of God’s people. Further it is shown that Moses is not a blind follower who inflicts one plague after another at God’s will. Moses has serious problems with the plagues, he talks about how it is painful to watch this suffering be inflicted on the people he grew up with, and that he feels the punishment may be out of proportion to the crime. You know, the moral questions a sane person is supposed to be asking of their relationship with God, because blindly following and merely submitting to the will of God whether it be right or wrong has never gone well in history.
The last complaint I see is how the dialogue is preposterous. How when first discussing the freeing of the slaves discussions of economics and citizenship come up. Some critics find these lines nothing short of an abomination unto the lord. Probably because they don’t sound like the stylized language of the Old Testament or a Heston film. What it actually sounds like is what men who grew up in the center of power would sound like when discussing issues of this kind. Moses’ comment about paying the slaves is a sardonic remark of “you could pay them, but we know you won’t do that, so you must free them…or else” as anyone who was actually watching the film could see…regrettably while I went into this film expecting to hate it, most critics seemed to have gone in wanting to hate it.
So with that out of the way what does make this film great?
It is the character study.
Moses points out early on in the film that the word “Israelite” means “He who wrestles with God”—and he does a lot of that. Moses begins the film disdainful of all things supernatural, he believes in reason and himself. And when he is called by God, he recognizes that he can’t fully explain to others what he now knows to be truth. He struggles with this. He gets into screaming matches with Malak. At times on the journey to the Red Sea he feels alone, in a dark night without guidance. Some may complain about this, wanting the simple view of Heston’s strong character, but this is far closer to the biography of most Saints and Prophets who have been touched by God. And his watching Egypt suffer the plagues and his battles with Malak, show the importance of his wrestling with God, because it allows him to not become a fanatic…and in the last moment of the film it is begrudgingly what Malak praises him for.
And contrasting with Moses is Ramses. A man who not only doesn’t wrestle with God, he doesn’t even wrestle with himself. He believes he is a god-king by right and that is enough. His flaws are numerous, even his father recognizes his inability to lead, but he thinks (or at least compensates) by saying he is worthy of feats greater than any before or after him. It is a character of self-pity hiding behind ego. A man who won’t even wrestle with himself, let alone God.
And these two character studies come to a head at the climax of the film, which comes not with the destruction of the Golden Calf but in the final face off between Ramses and Moses at the Red Sea (it’s a little silly but it serves an important thematic purpose). Without giving too much away what you will see is that both men act in the exact same way but one does what he does out of faith in a God he doesn’t fully understand but has come to trust and one does it out of ego and the fear of having to accept that he is not the god-king. The fruit of both their characters are what was to be expected (you know how this ends, I’m not giving anything away with that).
This is a thoughtful and powerful movie. It easily gets 5 out of 5. Go see it.
*I can’t help but think that somebody had to be thinking of Dogma when they wrote this part.