Exodus: Pundits and Iconoclasts (Pt II–The Rant)
As I discussed in my previous post, I was blown away by Exodus: Gods and Kings and gave it one of the highest ratings I think I would ever give a film. This would seem to be shocking considering that Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB are all working hard to slaughter it right now (52%, 27%, and 6.4/10, respectively), and the Christian reviewers certainly aren’t helping (PluggedIn: 2.5/5. ChristianAnswers.net: 3/5 “Very offensive” moral rating, Crosswalk: “Psychotic Moses, Scientific miracles ‘Doom’ Ridley Scott’s Exodus”, CBN: “Read the book…worth watching”). In fact, the only mostly positive review to be found (oddly enough) is Movieguide (3/4, minus one on content due to violence). This all begs a serious question… why did my experience differ so much from everyone else’s?
I think I can best sum up the biggest reason for this with a simple quote from the review of Exodus written by Jeffrey Huston over at Crosswalk.com:
My core takeaway from the Noah brouhaha was this: Christians are open to liberties being taken (whether for cinematic framework or even artistic expression) and story gaps being filled just so long as – and this is vitally important – you don’t change the core nature and character of the people (or the Deity) as the Bible describes them. — Jeffrey Huston
I’m all for demanding some semblance of accuracy when it comes to Biblical films. If you are going to purport to have a “Bible movie”, your story should have at least “something” to do with the Bible. However, the above quote demonstrates two key problems in the mentality of both the religious and non-religious audiences. The first is assuming the Bible is a comprehensive and immutable retelling of everything within it — for religious audiences, that means that any deviation away from the sanitized versions of people is anathema while, for non-religious audiences, if you aren’t blowing up the story entirely, you aren’t worth my time. The second is failing to approach either the biblical text or the film INDUCTIVELY.
The first problem is one that should be handled carefully, but the problem of non-inductive information consumption is one that really bothers me and for which we have no excuse. If you read any story, biography, biblical anecdote or tall tale, you have to understand that you are only being given a snippet of a window into who the character is, who they are, and what they’ve done. It is simply impossible to get the entire scope of who someone is by reading a story about them and what relevance they have to a story. This is especially true in the Bible. Everything in the Bible (while true) is also being told to us for a very specific purpose — the Exodus story, for example, has a singular focus on the power and sovereignty of God in contrast to the powerlessness of the gods of Egypt. What that means is that if you told the same story for a different reason, there are going to be different details and different sides of the people involved that we may not have seen before. As I said in a previous post on critically handling information, the two most important filters are “who is telling me this” and “why are they telling me this”.
So Ridley Scott creates an agnostic Moses until he has an encounter with God — Scott considers himself an agnostic, and has made a loud point of dedicating the film to his brother. It isn’t “anti-biblical” because the Bible tells us little about Moses’s upbringing other than that it was in Pharaoh’s house and it opens the possibility that Scott is telling us this as a way of handling his own grief with losing his brother (albeit to suicide). Considering that Moses was a Hebrew and may have grown up knowing that he was “different” than the Egyptians may have made him resistant to the Egyptian religion… the point is, we don’t know; which means there should be at least some room to explore. The Bible will tell us that God hands someone a hefty task (as in the Exodus story), but with the exception of Job and the imprecatory Psalms, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about the inner struggle of the people on the page when they had to process that information. Perfect example: Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac — not once does the Bible give us any insight to Abraham other than that he believed God and did it. Why does the Bible not give us clarity on this? Because the Bible isn’t trying to win a Pulitzer.
This, then, almost becomes “more” important than sheer Biblical accuracy (though not quite) — if you are watching a film and the characterization is not what you are expecting, the question you should be asking is whether or not the change is believable. It is unfathomable to me that so many would willingly put up with the depiction of a near-celibate Xerxes who is fascinated by this new-fangled invention of them there Greeks called “Democracy” and then pitch a fit because Moses has to wrestle through offense when God tells him that the firstborn of everyone belonging to his former nation is going to die. (I apologize if you loved One Night With the King… but it was terrible.)
I fear that for too many people, they shoot the messenger before deciding whether or not he is bringing bad news. After all, outrage can make a prince out of a beggar.
I think the other instructive quote comes from Eric D. Snyder of GeekNation:
This big dud isn’t blasphemous enough to be outrageous, emotional enough to be inspiring, or interesting enough to be good. — Eric D. Snyder
To put it other words, it won’t draw a bunch of boycotts from Christian organizations, there isn’t enough of a Hero vibe for it to be a “faith film”, and it isn’t a mile-a-minute thrill ride. Amazing how the idea of a film taking a fairly even-handed approach to the Bible — acknowledging the events themselves without being overawed by them — with real people that have a realistic pace simply doesn’t cut it. What that review tells me is that the author of it wasn’t willing to have a thoughtful rendition of an old story — it needed bells and whistles, it needed thrills and more stunning animations — when what Ridley Scott was after was a soul-searching character drama to help sort out his dealing with grief after his brother’s suicide.
No, the plagues and the miraculous stuff aren’t the centerpiece. There is no beautifully animated wall of water during the Red Sea crossing. The Pillars of Fire and Cloud are reinterpreted as lightning and tornadoes. They aren’t the point of the story Ridley Scott was telling. If anything, this film can be accused of trying to bring the story “back down to earth” — and it does so in a beautifully respectful way, without even attempting to remove God from it.
From what I have seen, the complaints about Exodus break down into three camps — (1) Not enough of a “reinvention”. (2) Too much acting, not enough action. (3) Da BIBLEZZZ! In other words: (1) “It isn’t heresy!” (2) “It isn’t Hunger Games!” (3) “It’s heresy!” To those I say (in order), it doesn’t have to be, it really shouldn’t be, and it isn’t. It’s a film that shuns cheap thrills in favor of a careful examination of psychology and personal evolution with God as the orchestrator — which is way more Biblically sound than Moses waking up on the wrong side of the bed and deciding that it’s time for the flies. Was Exodus: Gods and Kings really that bad, or was it simply misunderstood by an audience that wasn’t willing to take the time to understand it? Clearly, after having watched the film, I am firmly convinced of the latter.