Exodus: Pundits and Iconoclasts (Pt I–The Review)
((author’s note, white text denotes a link for helpful information — TO AVOID POTENTIAL SPOILERS, SKIP TO FINAL PARAGRAPH))
It’s a safe guess that I just saw another controversial movie. If the headline wasn’t enough of a clue, I went and saw Ridley Scott’s new film Exodus: Gods and Kings and thought I would give a review of it… and quite possibly some additional commentary on the controversy. Like with my previous review on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, I’m going to be dealing with three separate areas of filmmaking: The technical expertise, the Entertainment value, and the ultimate literary value.
First off, Exodus is a visual treat. The filters, the use of light, the limited use of CGI, the sets and costume designs are all on point and something that makes Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments look like an advanced Church theatrical production. I cannot complain in any way about the production value or overall “look” of the film. It’s a beautiful production.
Two words about the filmmaking — first, there is one place where the handling of the “God” character (though, more appropriately, it is “God’s Avatar”) could have been done better: either by messing with the pitch and reverb or simply recasting the part (10 year old boys are not the best choice if you are looking for an authoritative tone — they are more shrieky and “you need a time out” when they try)… I appreciate the idea and the point, but it could have been done better. Secondly, there are places where the film feels very fast paced and almost rushed and other places where it feels very slow — the reason for this is that when Scott finished his first version of the film and took it to the studio (reportedly), they said it was really good but that four and a half hours was too long for a theater audience in a single session. Because they had to cut so much of the film, there are some things that Bible purists will miss that may or may not have been cut altogether to save time and some of the “top ticket items” (like the plagues) have been given a reduced screen time for the same reason. However, the strict timeline restriction (to this author, anyway) forced the filmmakers to narrow down their story and really focus in on their reason for telling the story in the first place. That said, I really hope that Ridley Scott gets to release a Director’s Cut of the film that brings some of that two hours that they cut back into the film… it is that technically good.
On a purely technical level, Exodus: Gods and Kings is an elite-caliber film, earning a 9.5/10 from me. It would be a 10 if the one scene I’m thinking of (mentioned earlier) had been handled differently.
Is “Exodus: Gods and Kings” a ‘fun’ movie? No, but it isn’t trying to be either. It is an honest look at how a man can change following the will of God and how it changes his perspective, personality and outlook that makes it one of the best personal dramas of the year thus far. As much as many people try, there is an inescapable reality that many people of a church background still have a mental image of the Sunday School version of various Bible stories — Ridley Scott takes great pains to make Moses and Ramses out to be real people with real emotions, thoughts and desires without slipping into abusing his license. In a rather amazing turn, we see Moses’ progression from prince to general, from general to figurehead/leader, and from leader to servant. It is beautifully done in how we not only see the evolution of Moses, but also are made to feel empathetic for the Egyptians and emotionally attached to the Hebrews as they leave Egypt… which is part of the story that is usually missing from the renderings of the tale that you hear in church. Another highlight comes in the forms of the plagues themselves as they are done in a rapid-fire, almost montage-y style with periodic interruptions for exposition that stops cold in between the 9th and 10th plague. In that interlude, we see a dynamic in the relationship between Moses and God that is entirely unique to Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the story and creates a slow, steady build into the 10th plague that is a perfectly filmed gut-punch upon arrival.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a film that left me emotionally stunned to the point that I wouldn’t even listen to music for about 45 minutes after the credits rolled — and it is one of only three films to ever affect me that much. As such, Exodus: Gods and Kings earns a gold star and a 10/10… Bold Prediction: this film and Whiplash are the two best films this year that will not win any of the majors at the Academy Awards.
Again, this is a film that is fraught with controversy for any number of reasons — whether the “whitewashing” of the cast (“white people in bronzer” is the term Buzzfeed used, if I remember correctly), the biblical accuracy/inaccuracy, the literal or otherwise interpretation of the plagues, the list goes on. In fact, the thing that struck me was how the things that the Bible is most explicit about, the film more or less passes by with a glance; meanwhile the things the Bible doesn’t tell us much about, that is where Exodus: Gods and Kings really shines. If the biblical Book of Exodus is a “top down” vision of what happened in the Exodus account, Scott’s film really is a “worm’s eye view” of the story. For me, that means that the little touches that will make a biblical purist get angsty (ie, Moses carrying a sword instead of a staff, a failed sabotage campaign, the semi-natural explanation of the first 9 plagues, etc) can be chalked up to a lighter-weight version of the “Synoptic Problem” and let go — particularly since none of the tweaks or additions are any more grievous than those of Cecil B. DeMille in 1956.
In broad scope, the largest pieces of the biblical narrative are all there — Moses, the rescued Hebrew that grew up in Pharaoh’s house and lived in obscurity in the desert is called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt after God sovereignly orchestrates their freedom by humbling the Egyptians through a series of natural disasters, culminating in the death of all the firstborn of Egypt and drowning the Egyptian army in Red Sea — however, Ridley Scott’s focus in his film rests in the relationship between Moses and Ramses (primarily), and that of Moses and God (secondarily). So while the major elements are there, they aren’t the main players in the film… because Ridley Scott isn’t telling the story for the same reason the Bible is. To put it bluntly, take this chart. The gray line is the story the Bible tells in Exodus 1-15. The blue line is Ridley Scott’s film. As the authors at Relevant Magazine so eloquently put it, this film feels like a deeply personal one for Ridley Scott (as the film being dedicated to his brother would imply) and as such is a really deep exploration of how the story we all know might have affected real human beings with real emotions, relational connections and life stories. Seeing the torturous wrestle within Moses as he watched God unleash an incomprehensible fury on the land that he grew up in with a brother he still loved and a people he had affinity for really drove home just how personal the entire story would have been for Moses, in ways that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.
At the end of the day, I feel that the literary value of this film surpasses any other I have seen this year and ranks as one of the most important interpretations of Biblical text that I have ever seen — on par with The Passion of the Christ. For literary value, I give Exodus: Gods and Kings a 10/10.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a moving and impeccably executed film with only one small blemish that is, admittedly, a small personal annoyance more than anything else. The faithfulness to the Biblical text meets all the basic minimal criteria, though the Biblical text itself is merely the launchpad for the interpersonal drama that makes up the actual film. The interpretive work put in on the story by the director is one that has certainly caused me to look at the Biblical narrative in a new light and ask a few questions I might not have before. I cannot recommend this film strongly enough.
Stay tuned for Part II–The Rant.