In retrospect, it appears we may have been too hard on Noah.
When Darren Aronofsky’s movie about a family and a flood was released in March, many of us thought it was going to be the worst big-budget Bible-based movie of 2014. But with two weeks to go before the deadline, Ridley Scott slipped in an entry that is even worse.
Exodus: Gods and Kings had the potential to be one of the greatest films of all time; instead it’s one of the worst movies of the year. Director Ridley Scott aspired to produce the next Ten Commandments (1956) and instead gave us a revisionist version of the story that is almost as lame as the justifiably forgotten Wholly Moses! (1980).
In the future, this movie should be taught in film schools to show all the ways a movie based on a Bible story can go wrong. Here are a few of the lessons Scott's film can teach future generations of filmmakers about how to ruin a movie about Moses.
Moses is a central figure in three of the most populous world religions. He’s mentioned more times in the Qur'an than anyone else, and more times in the New Testament than any other Old Testament character. In Judaism he's not only the central figure, he quite literally wrote the book on the religion. He has, in other words, a lot of name recognition.
Moses was also part of one of the greatest co-writing teams in history. Along with the Holy Spirit, Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the biggest bestseller of all time. His writings are time-tested, copyright-free, and have a bigger fan base than the Harry Potter or the Hunger Games series combined. Any competent director who faithfully adapted Moses’s material would likely produce one of the highest-grossing films of the century.
So why does Scott go out of his way to ruin the story of Moses? The reason can’t be chalked up to “artistic license,” because that would imply some sort of artistry behind the decision. The changes Scott makes, though, are not only art-less, they’re nonsensical and spoil anything of value in his film.
Take for example, when Moses tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” That command—one of the most famous lines in history—is entirely missing from the film. And it’s missing because Moses doesn’t speak to Pharaoh prior to nine of the ten plagues. In one of the most important confrontations in human history, Moses is absent.
Moses confronts Pharaoh face-to-face once, prior to the plagues, and then again before the last one. When the actual plagues begin, though, Moses is off-screen. We only know the plagues have anything to do with the Hebrews or their God because a message is sent to the Egyptians, written in blood on a white horse (it’s even dumber than it sounds).
2. Make Moses an Egyptian general rather than a Hebrew prophet.
The Bible doesn’t fill in many details of Moses's story from the time of his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter until the murder that forces him to flee to Midian. Scott uses that silence in the text to create his own version of Moses as a warrior-prince, a beloved member of Pharaoh’s family and a valiant general in his army.* That version is not entirely implausible, and works well for the first third of the film. But it soon becomes clear that an Egyptian general is all Scott wants Moses to be. He has no interest in Moses as prophet.
For example, in a scene not found in Scripture, Moses leads the slaves in a futile insurgent attack on the supply lines of the Egyptian people. In an inexplicable decision, Scott cuts most of the true story of Moses’s life yet includes a scene from an Ancient Near Eastern version of The Battle of Algiers.
Scott, obsessed with Moses-the-warrior, replaces the iconic shepherd's staff—central to the biblical account—with a custom Egyptian sword. This is probably fitting since Moses seems to care more about the Egyptian people than he does the Hebrews, a people with whom he has no real emotional or spiritual kinship or connection. At one point Moses argues with God because he’s upset about the harm being done to the Egyptians. Even when he switches sides (if not his true allegiance), Moses remains more interested in being an army general (albeit a rather incompetent one) than a prophet of God.
3. Waste the imagery.
Scott is a visionary director capable of creating epic films (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator). And there are indeed majestic and inspiring scenes within his latest film. Yet Scott appears to have been bored when faced with presenting one of the most exciting visual challenges in cinema: portraying the 10 plagues of Egypt.
In the film, the plagues are presented in quick succession, as if they were plot points that needed to be checked off so Scott could get back to the battle sequences. Only one of the plagues (the death of the firstborn) carries any real weight—and that is because we care more about Ramses and his infant child than we do about Moses and his people.
4. Make God look silly.
Did I mention God is portrayed by an 11-year-old British boy? Yes, God is portrayed by an 11-year-old British boy who may or may not be a figment of Moses's imagination.
After you've seen a pre-teen Brit version of God making high tea (apparently there are no crumpets on Mt. Sinai), you’ll yearn for the reverence and gravitas of George Burns's portrayal of Yahweh in Oh God! (1977).
There are dozens of other complaints that could be made about the film—the anachronistic agnosticism, the miscast and misused actors (especially Christian Bale as Moses), the absurd Red Sea showdown. You’ll soon discover them for yourself (no matter how distorted the story, Christians will watch almost any movie based on a Bible story), but my advice is to wait till it comes out on video. After watching Exodus: Gods and Kings you’ll complain about wasting your time and money, so you might as well do it from the comfort of your own living room.
*In Scott's defense, the idea that Moses was an Egyptian general is a claim by the Jewish historian Josephus. In The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes: “The Egyptians, under this sad oppression, betook themselves to their oracles and prophecies; and when God had given them this counsel, to make use of Moses the Hebrew, and take his assistance, the king commanded his daughter to produce him, that he might be the general of their army.”