Ridley Scott as director. An all-star cast including Sir Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale. A modern retelling of The Book of Exodus. An estimated $140m budget. Epic battles. The scale and subject matter of Exodus: Gods and Kings means it’s destined for success. But is it any good?
Before I start, it’s important to note that my experience of the film has been informed by the fact I’m an atheist. Not only that, to my shame I actually went into the film without a clear memory of the story of Moses. I’m probably in the minority on that. I mean, I remember the stuff with the frogs and the locusts and the parting of the sea and the burning tree. It’s all in there, for sure. I just couldn’t remember why any of those things happened or what order any of it came in. I was approaching it with an air of naivety that was perhaps self-inflicted, both in my youth and subsequent life choices, but also in a lack of effort to remind myself of the story before I went in to the première.
To cut a long story short, I can’t tell you whether or not this is a faithful representation of the Book of Exodus. What I can tell you is that it’s a pretty spectacular experience. The story itself is a gripping tale of two brothers battling for power, one of whom is struggling to understand his own place in a world ravaged by slavery, elitism, poverty and racism, a world where he has grown up believing he is something he is not.
It is the kind of tale that has been brought to the big screen many times before, though rarely on such a grand scale. Scott probably had his work cut out to keep all parties happy. He has stated that he would have had difficulty getting financial backing for the film had he not cast a white A-list actor in the lead role, though this has caused dissatisfaction amongst those that want something more accurate to the story (or is that disgust…?). Clearly, deviating from the Book of Exodus would have been a terrible move too, so most of the time he plays it safe. The story doesn’t need to be embellished to keep it interesting, so there’s no cause for panic there.
One of the things that impressed me most – and it’s something that has caused a lot of debate after the previews – was the scientific explanations of the various aspects of the story. In particular, the parting of the Red Sea is apportioned to a tsunami. Actually this is a pretty robust explanation and I can see how this would work, though I do wonder how the 400000 Israelites about 10ft above the wave on a small rock survived en masse whilst the Egyptians were wiped out as they were at sea level (sorry, spoiler alert). I also question how Ramses managed to be the lone-survivor when he was the worst positioned of everyone. That said, the fact an explanation is offered, along with the hints at Moses having hallucinations rather than seeing a real-life messenger, anchors the story in the real world and makes it far more believable. Whether a devout Christian would see it the same way is another question.
On a side note, anyone attempting to boycott a film before it has been released will probably never enjoy anything in their life. So much media attention has focused on the casting of the leads, with accusations of “white-washing” being the main issue. I was on review lockdown ahead of watching the film so I wasn’t aware of it ahead of the screening, but it wasn’t something that jumped out at me whilst I was watching. Maybe I need to see it again to see if I missed it, but it seems disrespectful to suggest that Scott would choose such a late point in his career to intentionally start showing racial bias in his films. Also, if the popular imagery of Christianity is going to be criticised then a better starting point might be the generally accepted depiction of Jesus as a tall, white man with long brown hair, which I think humanity will eventually agree probably isn’t what he would have looked like at all.
Despite some pre-film trepidation, I was pleasantly surprised that I could enjoy a Biblical film so much. The way Scott has constructed this retelling makes it accessible to all cinema goers. Hopefully it isn’t at the expense of the Christian market.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is released in the UK on 26th December 2014.