Exodus: Gods and Kings
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an movie that manages to extract most of its dramatic force from the relationship between its protagonist and God. However, by not caring about virtually any other character, Ridley Scott sabotages the potential of the story.
Exodus tells the story of the prince of Egypt, Moses (Christian Bale), who, after discovering he is Hebrew and adopted, is exiled by his brother, Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Beginning to live as a shepherd far from the city in which he grew up, Moses, extremely skeptical, decides to climb a mountain considered forbidden by God. The shepherd then has an accident and, trapped by a thick layer of mud, encounters God (Isaac Andrews), who encourages him to save the Hebrews and take them to the Promised Land.
The exodus itself, however, only occurs in the movie’s epilogue. The story of Exodus is, in fact, similar to that found in the animation The Prince of Egypt, but with a different focus: both narrate the clash between Rameses and Moses, following the ten plagues that the God threw on the people of Egypt; however, Exodus is more concerned with the relationship between Moses and God than with that between the shepherd and the pharaoh.
Ridley Scott constructs the movie as an epic, with a lot of open shots to showcase the grandeur of the settings, where huge statues, pyramids and sphinxes under construction help make the people insignificant in size. Likewise, the brief battles are filmed following the genre’s conventions, with a shot that begins with the camera showing the heads of horses galloping in a row and then descending to focus on their hooves hitting the ground. The plagues themselves are a visual spectacle, with the special effects creating shocking scenes as they show thousands of frogs and locusts invading Egypt.
It is important to notice that the script, while clearly presenting the plagues as works of God, strives to give natural explanations for their occurrence – even if they sometimes seem a bit absurd, such as suggesting that the sudden low tide that allowed the Hebrews to cross the Red Sea was due to an approaching tsunami. This stance of trying to give some logic to events that at first glance seem devoid of it, however, is adequate because it resembles the worldview of the protagonist.
Moses appears as a skeptical man who does not hesitate to question the fragility of the beliefs of those around him. He recurrently sums up these beliefs in simple sentences to expose the absurdity that rules them. At a certain moment, for example, when his son tells him that it is forbidden to climb a specific mountain, he mocks the arbitrariness of the rule, asking the boy if his God prevented men from climbing mountains. Christian Bale embodies the role perfectly, preventing his attitude from appearing disrespectful rather than full of genuine curiosity.
It is for this reason that the dynamic that the character maintains with God is fascinating. Moses never fails to object to the actions of God which he believes to be questionable in nature. The protagonist, for example, does not fail to ask why He had remained inert during all that time of slavery and, suddenly, wanted to resolve the situation. Moses even goes against God’s indiscriminate methods that affect both the guilty and the innocent: when the decision to kill the firstborns is revealed to him, Moses first reaction is to refuse to be a part of it. That is, the protagonist is forever contesting precisely who is willing to help him, making his situation more complex.
Exodus certainly is not a movie that will please religious fundamentalists. God here is presented not only as a psychopath, but also in an infantilized form. He appears on the scene always in the figure of a child: a boy who, now and then, acts in a spoiled way. Although immeasurably powerful and terrible, the God depicted in this movie is not even mature, easily yielding to provocations. When Ramses near the climax says “Let’s see who is more effective at killing,” any viewer who has heard of the Old Testament will inevitably laugh, thinking “Wow, you’re going to lose terribly”.
This approach is fundamental for the movie to succeed, since the dynamics between the two constitute the central conflict of the story, even eclipsing the relationship between Moses and the Pharaoh. The protagonist finds himself having to follow a God of whom he disagrees on several levels because He also intends to help the Hebrews to get rid of slavery. That is to say, God is, on several occasions, seen as a necessary evil, almost as a weapon, for Moses to reach his goal – a vision that God also seems to have of the shepherd.
Thus, it is important to understand how the director decides to film the scenes involving God. The first time the character appears to Moses, the protagonist is aware that the situation makes him look mad. Ridley Scott then applies this conception in the following scenes between Moses and God, performing cuts amid the discussions between the two to quickly show the protagonist screaming alone with a stone in the middle of nowhere.
Despite the conflict between the two characters being at the heart of the story, the movie is structured following the battle between Moses and Ramses. On the one hand we have the protagonist inciting the Hebrews to revolt and commit attacks on the Egyptians – basically a terrorist – and on the other side we see Ramses retaliating the attacks with even greater gestures of violence, with God appearing now and then to show who really is in charge in Egypt.
Moses, in fact, presents political insights well ahead of his time, at one point explaining to Ramses the concept of self-determination of peoples, at another giving the Hebrews a guerrilla class on how to pressure a ruler to give in to the demands made. And by expanding the analogy of terrorism, if Moses can be considered a terrorist, the strategy Ramses uses to counter him serves as an excellent critique of current antiterrorist tactics, since all his violent gestures to restrain the revolt only serve to intensify it.
Although the relationship between the two characters obviously changes throughout the movie, going from friendship to complete hatred, Ridley Scott does not put much emphasis on this narrative arc, preferring to focus on the dynamics with God and the scenes involving the plagues. Not only that, as the very performance of Joel Edgerton, who plays Ramses, does not illustrate the transformation very well: from the beginning, contrary to what his dialogues suggest, he does not seem to feel great affection for Moses, appearing often with a hard countenance and forced smiles when he is close to the his brother – a feeling that is further reinforced by his reaction to a prophecy uttered at the beginning of the film. The narrative wants the viewer to believe that the two characters loved each other, but the actors never interact by showing affection on screen. With this, the Pharaoh’s arc loses much of the impact it could cause on the viewer.
Other secondary characters suffer a worse fate, either failing to present any narrative function or, after fulfilling it, being basically forgotten throughout the rest of the movie. Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver), Ramses’ mother, for example, has only half a dozen lines in the whole movie. When Ramses asks her advice on how to deal with Moses, stating that she has never liked him, viewers may be surprised that she has at some point interacted with someone and still formed opinions, since until then she had hardly opened her mouth. After this scene, she disappears. The character of Aaron Paul is another one that does not serve practically any function and even his remarkable characteristic – they affirm that he “does not feel pain” – leads nowhere. And the old Hebrew Nun, (Ben Kingsley) that tells Moses his real origins at the beginning of the movie, disappears later without any explanation. Therefore, Ridley Scott never populates the universe of his movie with interesting characters and presents Moses arguing with God about the fate of people with whom viewers could not care less.
This lack of development is probably the result of more than two hours of film being cut: the first version of Exodus reached the mark of four and a half hours in length. This would also explain the pacing of the movie, and the constant use of huge ellipses, especially at the beginning, to move the story along, cutting off events that viewers can infer by themselves. Thus, Moses when finds a woman, he exchanges a brief look and a conversation, and, in the next scene, the two are already getting married. Other ellipses, however, feel more artificial, such as the one that cuts the death of Seti (John Tuturro), father of Rameses. In the scene before his mummification, he appears in bed, sick, but viewers do not have much time to understand the gravity of the situation, making the event too sudden.
The movie also slips up during its climax, in which both Moses and Ramses survive the breaking of a tsunami only because the screenwriters wanted – after all, such a scene runs counter to the realism of the other actions scenes.
In the end, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a movie that presents a fascinating dynamic between its two main characters, Moses and God. However, director Ridley Scott forgets to surround them with other equally interesting characters, thereby failing to take advantage of the full potential of the story.
December 04, 2018
Originally published in Portuguese on April 13, 2015.
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Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Christian Bale, Indira Varma, Isaac Andrews, Joel Edgerton, John Tuturro, Sigourney Weaver.