In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses is an orange bore and God is an 11-year-old boy
At the end of Exodus, God and Moses are friends and Moses is obediently taking dictation (he’s carving the ten commandments) from God, who is still in his kiddie avatar.
This is a story that has a burning bush, the water of a great river turning into blood and the mother of all chases, popularly known as the parting of the Red Sea. However, this wasn’t enough to make anyone perk up about Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings. One mention of the word “terrorist” was what it took for America to do a double take.
In an interview on Fox News, actor Christian Bale described Moses as an ancient terrorist. "Hebrews were terrorists in terms of the Egyptian empire,” he said. “What would happen to Moses if he arrived today? Drones would be sent out after him." During a different press meet, Bale said of Moses, "I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life."
Some aren't amused by Bale's take on Moses, but the real reason to object to the actor's comments is that it makes Exodus: Gods and Kings sound a whole lot more exciting than it actually is. Ridley Scott is known for being a masterful storyteller, thanks to films like Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Thelma and Louise prove. Unfortunately, Exodus is an example of what happens when a director is enslaved by the studio system at its most money-minded. This is rather ironic since Exodus is about Moses bringing the Israelites out of slavery and leading them to freedom.
Before Exodus’s release, Scott raised eyebrows when he said he hadn’t considered casting non-white actors in lead roles because he can’t get studio financing with such a cast. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he said. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” Consequently, this $140 million film has Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Indira Varma and over 10,000 extras in the cast.
We now know that Edgerton really doesn’t have the eyes to carry off bold eyeliner and that a bald Turturro looks surprisingly natural in eyeliner and a kaftan. Presumably Varma agreed to play the two-bit role of an Egyptian priestess because she got two decent lines and some funky hairstyling. There’s no explanation for why Weaver said yes – she has less than five minutes on screen and all she does in that time is widen her eyes and look like she’s regretting her choice of outfit at this fancy dress party.
More inexplicable than Weaver saying yes to Exodus is Scott’s decision to take the supernatural out of Moses’s story. The waters of the Nile turn to blood because gigantic crocodiles waddle up and start chomping fishermen. Instead of the Red Sea parting to allow the Israelites passage to safety, there’s a tsunami-like situation that requires the Israelites to doggy paddle their way across. Apparently, Scott learnt there'd been a massive earthquake off the coast of Italy around 3000 BCE and decided this earthquake could have caused a tsunami in the area between present-day Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Next to Scott’s reasoning, the official version, in which the waves parted to create a path for Moses and his band of refugees, sounds more coherent.
Ostensibly, Exodus is Scott’s attempt to get into Moses’s sandals and make sense of his story. So the film starts off as a story about two brothers: Moses, who was adopted by the Egyptian royal family, and his cousin Rhamses, heir to the throne. They seem close but it’s obvious their relationship is strained by the fact that Moses is the better warrior and statesman. A conniving politician makes the most of this situation by telling Rhamses that Moses is the Israelite slaves’ ringleader. So Rhamses, who inherits the throne of Egypt and leads his people to ruin, is pitted against Moses, who was chosen by God and the Israelites, and ended up bringing glory to his people.
Ironically for a film dedicated by Scott to his younger brother Tony, this brotherly angle of Exodus is a disaster. Edgerton’s Rhamses is an idiot. His every decision is flawed and childish. (Judging from how he's constantly popping things in his mouth, he’s also either trying to kick a smoking habit or on a really punishing diet.) In contrast, Bale as Moses may have shown bad judgment with his choice of tanning salon – he's distinctly orange for much of the film – but other than that, Moses is the boring, competent, good guy. The only dynamism and complexity in his character comes from the way the hair on his head and face are styled. As far as performance goes, there’s not much to choose between the Edgerton chewing the cud as Rhamses and Bale, who face is constantly scrunched as though trying to figure out what he’s doing in this version of the Book of Exodus.
It’s an understandable reaction considering how long and boring Exodus is, and one that becomes all the more relatable when God arrives on the scene.
In Exodus, Scott imagines God as an 11-year-old boy who looks seriously disgruntled that all he's got to play with are a few black beads and an old man who could do with a shave. The idea of the lord and master, provider and protector of the universe being an 11-year-old boy would give a lot of people heebie-jeebies (particularly parents and teachers of 11 year old boys, no doubt). It's actually a rather interesting idea as far as the stories in the Book of Exodus are concerned.
There's not a cheep from God when the Pharaoh orders all firstborn sons of Israelites be drowned in the Nile. He's similarly silent at how the Israelite slaves are treated with bloodcurdling cruelty by their Egyptian masters for hundreds of years. He only rouses himself when a Pharaoh dismisses him and says the Egyptian pantheon is more powerful. Stung by this irreverence, God unleashes upon Egypt the 10 plagues. This is not the benevolent god of the New Testament, but a flamboyant, mysterious and frequently bloody-thirsty divinity.
A few of the plagues in the Book of Exodus really do sound like cosmic pranks, like unleashing countless frogs and swarms of flies upon Egypt or making Egyptians break out in boils. The plague of frogs and boils sound particularly like the sort of things that would make an 11-year-old clap their hands with glee. But there are others that are no laughing matter. The water of the Nile turns to blood, livestock and babies are killed, crops are destroyed. What is particularly disturbing about God in the Book of Exodus is that he's intent upon showing off and in the process, making everyone – Egyptians and Israelites – suffer simply because he can and because he feels like it.
In fact, the first plague affects all of Egypt, slaves and masters. As one after another natural and supernatural disaster strikes the country, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not power play to free the Israelites. Rather, the plagues are to rub the Egyptian gods’ noses in the metaphorical dust and to somewhat literally put the fear of God into the Israelites. More than once, the Pharaoh says that he's ready to free the Israelites and let them leave Egypt. More than once, we are told God hardens the Pharaoh's heart and the Pharaoh recants that decision, setting the stage for more catastropes. Had God not made the Pharaoh change his mind, there would have just been two plagues.
In some ways, it's perhaps more comforting to think that a child, who is enjoying playing around with his new toys, would behave so petulantly, rather than a grown up god who made us in his own image.
It’s obvious Scott and his team of writers were not entirely comfortable with the idea of Moses being a devotee of such a God and so in Exodus, not only is Moses shown to disagree with God, he’s also sidelined when it's time for the plagues. Moses sits and watches Egypt get ravaged and at one point tells God that it is hard for him to see the people he grew up with suffer like this. In the Biblical version, however, Moses is not a bystander. It is when Moses touches the Nile with his staff, following God’s command, that the water turns to blood. Occasionally, there’s a more complicated chain of command – God tells Moses to tell his brother Aaron to use the staff – but most of the time, God and Moses work together to destroy the Egyptians. Scott doesn’t mind showing Moses as a guerilla commander who blows up Egyptian granaries and ships, but he’s clearly uncomfortable with the idea of his hero being a deputy who follows orders faithfully and unquestioningly.
Still, at the end of Exodus, God and Moses are friends and Moses is obediently taking dictation (he’s carving the ten commandments) from God, who is still in his kiddie avatar. Or maybe there's something in the tea that God serves Moses. You can’t really trust a smiling, twinkly-eyed 11-year-old, can you?
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