Warning: the following contains spoilers from director Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. But come on — is this really the first time you’ve heard this story?
Within the first half-hour of Exodus: Gods and Kings, we find Moses, portrayed here by an impressively bearded Christian Bale, speaking with Egyptian administrator Hegep about his Hebrew slaves. The young Moses — destined savior of the Israelites but still living as a prince in the Pharaoh’s palace — is deeply skeptical of the Hebrews’ faith (and faith in general), but is nonetheless sympathetic to their plight. Hegep, however, dismisses the group as treacherous and rebellious, justifying his harsh treatment of them by saying, “Do you know what ‘Israelite’ means in their own language? ‘He who fights with God’.”
But Moses corrects him, shaking his finger and shooting back, “‘He who wrestles with God’. There’s a difference.”
The exchange is brief, but the theme of a skeptic struggling to discern the will and influence of God remains a constant throughout Scott’s contemporary retelling of the ancient biblical story. Unfortunately for moviegoers, the movie becomes less about Moses and more about Scott’s own wrestling match with faith, one that leaves both religious and skeptical audiences wanting more.
It should be noted up front that Exodus, in addition to being marred by blatantly racist casting, has been widely panned for its disjointed and emotionally unfulfilling script. This criticism is well-earned, but the faith-vs.-science question is interesting in spite of those facts, especially since Scott openly identifies as an atheist. Atheism shouldn’t be a shot against him, of course, as atheist directors have produced a number of powerful films about faith (Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes to mind, as does Darren Aronofsky’s recent take on Noah). But unlike others who have tried to embrace the miraculous elements of religious stories, Scott — who has a habit of casting religion in a dim light onscreen — has been highly public about his desire to tell a “practical” Moses story.
“I’m an absolutely very, very practical person,” he said in an interview with the Religion News Service. “Any liberties I may have taken in terms of how I show [miracles in Exodus] was, I think, pretty safe ground because I’m always going always from what is the basis of reality, never fantasy… So the film had to be as real as I could make it.”
True to his word, Scott’s Exodus seems to revel in challenging traditional understandings of God, relying instead on a series of scientific “explanations” for the more fantastical elements of the biblical yarn. Whereas the Moses of the Bible stumbled upon the legendary burning bush on a mountain, for instance, Bale’s Moses only encounters the divine after being knocked unconscious by a mudslide. From then on, Moses’ regular interactions with Malak — a precocious eleven-year-old “messenger” of God, here admirably portrayed by Issac Andrews — are sprinkled with doubt. Moses can see the child, but whenever someone else peeks in on their conversation, Malak is suddenly invisible, raising questions as to whether the sub-deity is just a figment of the prophet’s imagination.
This explainer-style approach to storytelling also extends to the famous plagues of Egypt, which Scott frames as a logical (or at least plausible) sequence of events. A sudden surge in crocodile attacks fills the Nile River with blood, which promptly causes frogs near the water to flee and die, whose decaying bodies give birth to a torrent of flies, etc. Even the parting of the Red Sea is given a scientific rationale, with the waters rushing away from the beach after a comet strikes the earth, only to return as an unfathomably huge tidal wave — just in time to drown the armies of the Pharaoh, portrayed by a golden-faced Joel Edgerton.
There is, of course, something deeply ironic about a science-fiction director scoffing at fantastical story elements. Scott didn’t seem especially concerned with demystifying the otherworldly xenomorphs in his Alien, for instance, and I’m still waiting for someone to give me an adequate explanation of whatever the hell happened in the plot-hole-ridden space epic that was Prometheus. But while Scott leaned on the inexplicable to make those films compelling, his dismissiveness of the fantastical ends up being Exodus’ greatest sin.
By removing almost everything divine from the Exodus narrative — including God — Scott renders Moses’ motivation awkwardly unclear. The audience is told that Moses leads the Hebrew people because God tells him to, but since we’re not entirely sure if God exists, the hero-Moses of Exodus quickly transforms into a deluded man whose life just happens to coincide with a series of cataclysmic events that work in his favor. Scott barely takes belief seriously, making Moses’ defeat of the Pharaoh feel less like a victory and more like blind, undeserved luck. Moses’ shouting matches with God don’t seem to matter; one quickly begins to wonder whether Moses’ story is worth telling at all.
Granted, Scott certainly isn’t the first person to offer practical explanations for the plagues, nor is he the only movie director to challenge the supernatural elements of faith. Various scientists have posited for years that Exodus’ atrocities possibly resulted from natural phenomena, with some arguing recently that a radical climate shift in ancient Egypt could have triggered a series of events resembling the plagues. And as for testing the faith of prophets, one of the central themes of Aronofsky’s filmic midrash Noah, released earlier this year (and thus destined to be compared to Exodus), was the question of whether or not the famous Ark-builder was following God’s orders or just responding to selfish impulses/deranged delusions of grandeur.
But unlike Scott attempting to rationalize the Exodus narrative, Aronofsky gave the question of Noah’s faith weight by juxtaposing it with a wealth of supernatural happenings. In Noah, enchanted seeds instantly give birth to thriving forests, barren women are made pregnant by a sacred touch, and Noah and his family are protected by a dramatic interpretation of the biblical nephilim as giant, combat-ready rock monsters — all without any explanation other than “that’s just how it is.” Scott, by contrast, has distanced himself from Aronofsky; he even told the Religion News Service, “Listen, I think [Aronofsky] is a great director, but rock men? Come on. I could never get past that.”
Ironically, the most powerful moment of Exodus arises not from an explanation but from the film’s only unambiguously supernatural event. The final plague — the killing of firstborn Egyptian children — is not given a logical catalyst but is depicted in almost stereotypical fashion, complete with a dark shadow that extinguishes lives and candles as it moves across the city. The tragedy leads to a haunting encounter: while confronting Moses in the street, the Pharaoh holds the body of his dead son aloft, tearfully demanding to know why anyone would worship “a God who kills children.” The line is delivered by a Pharaoh who calls himself a god but who has also murdered multiple children in his quest to root out Moses, and it is profound largely because it makes all this God-talk mean something. It raises questions about faith, theodicy, and the “greatness” of a god who is no less cruel than humanity itself.
But as bright as the moment is, it quickly fades, with Scott moving on to yet another lifeless special-effects sequence with characters we still only barely care about.
There are a couple of interesting films — for both believers and atheists — hidden somewhere within Exodus. A doubt-filled tale where Moses has to defend his possibly delusional faith could have been riveting, for example, or perhaps a script where the reluctant prophet is guilt-ridden over the horrific damage his faith in God causes. But Scott’s struggles with the divine seem to get the better of him in Exodus; although the Moses character undergoes a religious conversation over the course of the film, our storyteller clearly rests his belief in practicality instead of God, or even his own characters. Where Aronofsky and other directors drew strength from a willingness to embrace holy stories on roughly their own terms, Scott’s skepticism-fueled wrestling match with God ultimately leaves the story pinned under the weight of boring characters, inconsistent writing, and the director’s insistence on offering explanations instead of what the story really needs: a little faith.