I think most of us in the film reviewing business were bracing ourselves for the next wave of controversy over another Biblical adaptation from Hollywood when we heard that someone, in this case Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Prometheus, Blade Runner), was going to again bring the epic story of Moses to the big screen. Much to my surprise, Exodus: Gods and Kings has not even scratched the surface of the “burn the internet” type arguments we saw before, during, and after the release of Noah. One of the biggest questions I am currently asking is “why?”
In answering that question, I want to look at what Noah really did to set people off in the first place. If you’ve forgotten, Mark Wingerter wrote a nice piece about some of the issues people had with the film– and we recorded a podcast episode on it as well. Mostly, I didn’t think the criticism was too even-keeled, as the theological grievances of most people were, at best, a matter of doctrinal opinion, and, at worst, a lack of appreciation of Darren Aronofsky’s particular brand of creative license– which is understandable. Regardless of where you fell on those spectrums, the film took the time to seriously dive into the nature of our characters, especially our two main characters– Noah and The Creator (God). It was hard to leave the film without a very strong feeling about the struggles of Noah or the actions of God. And anytime you have multiple people with strong feelings about a particular topic then controversy tends to follow.
So “secular Hollywood” takes a crack at another Old Testament epic and surely we will get more of the same type of controversy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, right? Well, not so much. Maybe the scope was too large. Maybe when they trimmed Ridley Scott’s original four hour cut down to a cool two and a half hours the edgy parts ended up on the cutting room floor. Whatever the case, the deep exploration of faith and character that would otherwise create waves (Noah) did not take center stage– or maybe it was drowned out by the spectacle of the Red Sea or the Plagues. Because of this, Exodus: Gods and Kings plays out like a long highlight reel of the Old Testament story of Exodus instead of a study or exploration of the struggles that the real nation of Israel had with trying to discern the will of God while in exile. You know, something that would have put a new spin on a story that has been depicted many times before.
If it’s possible to spoil the most widely distributed book of all time– then MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
Ultimately, walking away from this film, the closest thing to a controversy will be the depiction of God as a young boy and even that is fairly tame. Though anytime you give God dialogue that isn’t in the Bible you run into trouble (Noah avoided this by never giving God a direct voice, allowing for interpretation through the ambiguity). Our child-God in Exodus is a convincing young actor, but because of his dialogue, often comes off as petty and petulant and proving quite impatient while talking of things like revenge. The commitment to the premise doesn’t quite land. Unless that commitment is supposed to paint the God of Israel as a fickle and unsure deity.
Outside of that, you have the focus on Moses. Most of us have read the stories of Moses– or had the stories recounted to us throughout our lives, so it is not enough to simply tell us what happened. The best we could have hoped for is to understand what it may have been like being in Moses shoes, wrestling with his identity and who he should be loyal to– and why. Unfortunately, there is so much ground to be covered in the narrative, we simply follow Moses from big (and visually impressive) moment in his life to the next. Sometimes I fear that if we weren’t familiar with the stories, we would have no context for who he is talking to or why it matters. And while the weaving of explanations for the plagues was interesting, it wasn’t enough to have them break the mold of “just another” CGI spectacle.
So where does that leave us? Is Exodus: Gods and Kings a bad film? No, certainly not. But it is a safe– or possibly dull– one. You should not worry about getting spoon-fed excessive amounts of terrible theology if you venture to see the film, but you also won’t be particularly challenged or encouraged either. Sure, it is interesting to see a Hollywood film depicting miracles without pulling too many punches and there is more hope that like many of Ridley Scott’s films, the director’s cut that we may get in the future is better than what we get in theaters. But, until then, we have what we have. Which, for now, is a fairly lengthy visual effects piece that brings to life to some of our most vivid imaginings of Moses’ story, but doesn’t really connect with our hearts or minds.
Are you going to be checking out the film this week? Have you already seen it? Did it stir anything inside of you? Did you feel like the film did the story of Moses and Israel justice? Is there a film about the Exodus that you liked better? Let us know!
Mikey Fissel is the Creator/Producer/Managing Editor of Reel World Theology. He enjoys watching movies more than he enjoys the outdoors and he is unapologetic about this fact.