Reflections on Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings
I know the story of Moses.
I grew up to countless retellings of it — in children’s books, in TV shows, in movies. DeMille’s The 10 Commandments was a Lenten staple, and Charlton Heston has been the image of Moses in my head ever since I was a kid. I also grew up watching Super Book and The Flying House.
I didn’t expect Exodus: Gods and Kings to offer anything new, except to make it more “real” in my head, and perhaps to replace good ol’ Charlton with the sexier Christian Bale. And, since it was a Ridley Scott movie, I did expect it to rock and thrill. And it did.
I don’t want to talk about how many stars the film deserves from the critics, or whether it should be nominated for anything in the coming awards season. I just thought I’d talk about some of the more challenging and thought-provoking elements in the film that I’m still gnawing on 3 days after watching it.
First, on the character of Moses. In my head he’s always been a prophet, the first of his kind. The Bible and the countless depictions of him presented him as fiery and temperamental — volatile, even, with a strict grandpa vibe, despite Charlton Heston’s occasional chest-baring outfits in the movie. In Exodus, he’s smart and strategic, and a kickass soldier and general. He kind of prefigures Christ himself, as savior. And just like in the case of Jesus, there was a misunderstanding on how exactly he is to fulfill his role as the one who will lead Israel into freedom. Moses himself thought that he would accomplish his mission by making use of his military skill, employing warfare tactics to get the pharaoh to release his slaves, when actually he was to do was be a spokesperson and leave the warfare tactics to God.
Then there’s the interesting take on the plagues, the decalogue, and Moses’ dialogue with God. All the flash and magic of previous Moses films is prominently missing from this one. All of the ten plagues were presented as a chain of plausibly natural phenomena — starting with the river turning to blood explained by croc attacks, which explained the mass migration of the frogs and fish death, which explained the maggots and flies, which explained the diseases, and so on. The iconic parting of the Red Sea is nowhere to be found here, only a serendipitous low tide. This questions our concept of miracles, and God’s deeds. Does the possibility that there are scientific explanations for the miracles make them any less miraculous and wondrous? I think it challenges us now to look deeper into the mundane and natural and discern God’s hands in them.
The only elements that retained their supernatural miraculous status were the burning bush and the 10th plague, aka The Passover. But even the God’s big booming voice is missing.
And then there’s the film’s depiction of God. He is not a faceless voice here. He appears to Moses as a precocious little boy with ancient eyes. I found him just a little bit creepy. Also, he has the tendency to seemingly disappear at inopportune times, or remain quite silent — something we all can relate to. And Moses’s relationship with him is kind of casual and familiar. They argue and yell at each other, and Moses often gets frustrated with him. While I miss the drama of the usual prophetic call scene, I found the kid-as-God strange and new and interesting.
Which brings me to faith. Because of how the film depicted God and his works, making the supernatural as close to natural as possible, our idea of faith then becomes murky. In the movie, it isn’t a crystal-clear conviction that arises in the face of indisputable evidence, but more of a gut-feel. It is not one hundred percent “certainty”, but a “probably” that the faithful grasp onto and stake their life on. There is room for questions and oppositions, as well as a whole slew of doubt, even doubt of one’s own sanity.
So all in all, I found the film quite insightful. There’s less drama and wow factor, though, but I think that was what it was going for.