Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, the most recent in the trend of big-screen Bible epics, is a gritty Moses movie, far more so than Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic The Ten Commandments or Dreamworks’ animated Prince of Egypt. The film opens with a fully immersive battle scene in which we meet Scott’s version of Moses, portrayed by Christian Bale, and Ramses, quite effectively portrayed by Joel Edgerton. There is no Moses origin scene of a floating basket; it’s just straight into the swords and sandals action that Scott excels at filming.
This grit, and the visual effects surrounding it, is what keeps the film afloat. But when God enters the picture, the story falters. It’s not that I expected Scott, an unbeliever, to get every biblical detail right, nor did I even expect him to accurately portray the true character of God. But I left the movie unsure and confused about this version of God. Is He kind and gentle like a child? Is He cruel and capricious? Powerful? Not powerful? The ambiguity that consumes Exodus, which probably testifies more to the worldview of its director than anything, undermines its powerful action and visuals.
**Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
Moses initially meets God after getting hit in the head during a mudslide. God appears in the form of a petulant boy, whose screen time is mostly spent debating with Moses or asking for his permission to act. The scene of Moses’ calling plays more like a rock-to-the-noggin delusion than a true and life-altering encounter with the living God. There is confusion as to whether the encounter is real, or if Moses is just delusional.
From here, the film begins to lose more confidence and conviction. When Moses argues with his family about why he must return to Egypt, neither his family nor the audience is buying it because Moses himself isn’t buying it. He’s unconvinced and unimpressed with this trickster-type representation of God. However, Moses does eventually return to Egypt to begin a “war of attrition” in the form of training Israelites for guerilla strikes on Egyptian targets. As at the burning bush, he again debates with God about the timeline of events. God responds, “For now, you can sit and watch,” as the plagues consume Egypt.
And the plagues genuinely impress with full cinematic splendor. They are every bit the visual effects extravaganza you would hope. It is in the plagues that the film gives its clearest presentation of the mighty hand of God. (I’ll say this: You’ll never look at crocodiles the same way again.) But, again, their miraculous might is difficult to connect with the debating boy-God portrayed in the film. Scott doesn’t fill in the gaps or help us reconcile the dichotomy that exists between these starkly different versions of God.
The confusion continues in the story of Ramses. This well-developed character is a tender father to his infant son whose anguish moves us when that son later dies in the Passover. Ramses confronts Moses while holding his son’s lifeless body and screams that only the insane could follow a god who kills children. We feel the weight of this accusation on the faces of both men. But then Moses tells Ramses that no Hebrew child perished that night, and the tension resolves into awe. It’s a powerful scene, but based on our already confused view of God at this point, it mainly adds to the muddle.
It was during the engrossing Red Sea portion of the film that I realized Scott was concerned with telling us not about the bending of Pharaoh’s will, but of Moses’ will. For a brief, shining moment we see Moses, pitted against both the sea and an oncoming army, casting his sword into the water’s depths in an act of surrender (perhaps worship) to a God who is no delusion.
I found this moment to be moving despite Scott’s many missteps when portraying God. But unfortunately the moment doesn’t last long. Moses again picks up the sword, even as God delivers the Israelites through the sea. The film then quickly skips through its resolution. We see a faint outline of the golden calf at the Sinai celebration. We see Moses carving the Ten Commandments with the boy-God looking over his shoulder. The final shot removes boy-God from the picture and shows only Moses crafting the commandments.
And this summed up for me the point of the film. Throughout, Moses’ brash impudence is presented mostly as virtue, with God acting largely as his sidekick. The Ten Commandments are presented as though a delusional Moses crafted them and handed them to the people.
Exodus: Gods and Kings cannot make up its mind. Its presentations of the miracles of God are mighty and awesome. But its presentations of God Himself and of the man He calls are utterly unconfident and hard to relate to the true story of God intervening in history to save His people. At one point, halfway through the plagues, Moses exhaustedly approaches the film’s representation of God and says, “I was impressed at first. But not anymore.” My reaction to Ridley Scott’s retelling of Exodus was much the same.