I have been pretty crazed to see this ever since I saw the trailer, because it looked to both provide wild CGI spectaculars and also be utterly misguided, if not ridiculous. And it was pretty much everything I had hoped for: incredibly campy in parts, pretty decent and thoughtful in parts, emotionally powerful in some parts, and guided down such a questionable path that… leaves one a lot to discuss, at least.
I decided a few years ago to read the bible [I was raised absolutely without any religion], so it was all new to me, and it was a absolute revelation—it explained so many things in the world, and why they’re that way. Especially moving is the story of Exodus, with this infinitely powerful—and cruel—God, and Moses, who has to do his bidding and put up with everything he demands. It’s extremely complex—while the material is at the same time quite bare bones—and is so complex, in fact, it doesn’t sort out into thematically-coherent stories suitable for movies, and the characters [especially God] are so extreme they also don’t make nice, admirable movie characters. Which then makes it fascinating to see what the movies do with this material.
We open with a text telling us it’s 1300 BCE, and the Israelites are slaves, but “God has not forgotten them.” We then meet John Turturro as the Pharoah, speaking with a barely-blurred Brooklyn accent. His son is Rameses, plays by Joel Edgerton, and Moses, played by Christian Bale. I really have no problem with having European actors, I understand this is a big-budget film and needs stars, the problem is that it takes a while to get over their many accents and contemporary looks. Moses sounds like a British sailor from a rough coastal town. Every appearance of Sigourney Weaver in Egyptian makeup made me laugh. Joel Edgerton is the only one who is acting like someone from another culture, and thus the only person who seems like he really belongs in that time and place. You mostly get used to seeing everyone in their uncomfortable roles, although chuckles do come back periodically throughout the film.
So the first thing is a soothsayer prophecizes that the one who saves another in the raid today will leads the people some day. Then the Egyptians go on a huge raid of this other tribe, no idea who they were, but it’s our chance to start this movie off with a big action scene, a big battle with big effects. We see that Moses is a blockbuster action hero, whipping his sword around and suchlike, and he saves the life of Rameses. Later, the Egyptians are all upset, because of the prophecy, although Moses doesn’t believe in prophecy, “But I respect that,” he says, which sounded so contemporary it made me laugh.
Now this whole thing of a power struggle and jealousy between Moses and his adoptive brother Rameses is the main narrative of most movies about Moses—but is nowhere at all in the bible. Maybe it’s from a later, non-biblical source, but I think it’s a case where it has just become the common movie narrative, just like most movies about Dracula have Mina as his lost love—even though that is nowhere in the source. Anyway, this movie, like the others, tries to make the conflict between the two brothers the primary narrative, which does automatically take it away from biblical themes, and makes all the other stuff that has to happen—the plagues, for example—things that take AWAY from the main theme, and don’t fit well with it.
Anyway, Ben Kingsley invites Moses to a secret conference, which he attends, where they spill that he is an Israelite. He’s pissed, and goes outside and kills two guards in a fit of unexpected rage. Then someone comes to Rameses and tells him the news, which leads to a confrontation, as well as the second big laugh at anachronistic language, when one woman snaps at another: “Was I talking to you?” Anyway, it comes out that Moses is an Israelite, and—even though Moses has been Rameses’ beloved brother his whole life—he’s in a prison that night, and exiled the next day. Rameses’ mom—that’s Sigourney—send two men to kill him, but Moses slays them with his ultra battle-honed prowess (he impales two on one sword—this isn’t your father’s Moses!). This approach completely circumvents any identity crisis of Moses—and any identification with the Israelites—and any complicated feelings about leaving him out to die when he’s been a part of the family his whole life. I know that we have to skip though some things [the movie is too long anyway], but when the animated kids’ movie The Prince of Egypt is more psychologically complex than your serious big-budget drama, there are problems.
So Moses continues his exile—walking with face uncovered through a sandstorm, he’s such a man—and crosses the Red Sea at low tide, which the movie makes out is totally plausible. In fact, the movie has such a strange relationship with God… God is present, but the movie strains to make all of the incredible phenomena as rationally-explained as possible. Anyway, Moses meets his future wife—their entire love story is a tedious snooze, and if you want to use the bathroom, now’s the time—before wandering up “God’s Mountain” after a stray goat and receiving a massive concussion in a rockslide. This is an example of the God here/not here thing, as the movie presents the plausibility that Moses freed the Israelites because he had a brain injury. Anyway, he wakes, and there’s the burning bush, and also a young British boy. This is God, who tells Moses that he needs “a general” to lead “the fight.” This militaristic language is not in the bible. He tells Moses to go check on how the Israelites are doing. Moses leaves his wife and son, leading to some big emotions. He crosses the Red Sea again on the way back. As you can imagine, the Israelites aren’t doing so good.
Moses tells Ramses to het his people go, which Ramses says “from an economic standpoint, what you ask is problematic at best.” I like the idea—present the real reasons Egypt can’t just let the slaves go—but that language! Why not have a Powerpoint? Then Moses demands Ramses release his people—while holding a sword to his neck! Then Moses goes back to his people and raises an army! He teaches them to fight, and do battle, and wage sieges of the Egyptians! So, I don’t know… I always had the idea [reinforced by, you know, the bible] that Moses was a quiet, contemplative man, and the Israelites were non-violent and patient. Well, not anymore! They are all badass action movie warriors! Humor can be had from shots following two successful sieges, showing Moses slinking around like a serious gangsta mastermind.
So then Moses asks God what’s next, and God says “For now, you can watch.” First, we have a bunch of crocodiles attack fishermen [and each other], making the river red with blood. Then frogs come, then flies [we skip gnats], then boils, then locusts. This whole approach—I don’t understand it. In a way it seems to be taking God out of it, providing more realistic explanations of what happened, and we never explicitly see or hear of God CAUSING these things. Yet, the Egyptians just know that they’re from God. The special effects are fine, but this approach removes some of the most powerful things about the biblical story. For one, in the bible, Moses meets with God and finds out what’s coming, then meets Ramses before each one, the very repetition of him saying “Let my people go” ten times becoming weirdly powerful… although admittedly not movie-friendly. The other thing—and I don’t believe this has ever been addressed in a biblical film—is that Ramses is ready to let the Israelites go after just a few plagues, but God “hardens his heart” and makes him continue refusing, for the SOLE PURPOSE of torturing him. It starts to make Ramses quite sympathetic, and God quite a dick, and the whole thing much more nuanced and complicated. So obviously—can’t have that! So the movie follows the lead of its tacky forbears such as The Ten Commandments and has Ramses just keep refusing until his son is killed in the first Passover.
Oh, and in terms of groaners, don’t miss Moses, upon telling the Israelites to slaughter the sweet widdle lambs, say “If I’m right, we’ll bless them for all eternity!” ….as in, blessed is the lamb, lamb of God, all that stuff to follow. Oh dear. Please don’t have dialogue like that.
Before all that death of the first born stuff, Moses tells God that he “wants no part of this” and God says he’ll “have them on their knees!” which is about as far as they’re prepared to address God’s more sadistic nature in the old testament. Anyway, so he lets them go and they all take off. Please don’t expect any pillar of fire here. You’re like “Oh right, they’re just going to cross where Moses knows to cross,” but they get lost and end up in the wrong spot, which was a surprise. Meanwhile, Ramses decides that he’s not done with them and comes after. In the bible, this decision is also forced by God, who wants to finish off Ramses once and for all.
This is where we get another strange mish-mash of God/symbol/science. You see, we CANNOT have Moses part the Red Sea, as it says in the bible. Too biblical, you know? SO tired. So we have Moses get angry that he missed the turn-off way back there, and throw his sword into the ocean, where it sinks, point-down. THEN! That night, he watches an meteorite land somewhere across the sea. When he wakes, the water is running out, revealing his sword. So, either it was his magic sword [Moses does not have a staff in this version], or an earthquake caused by the fallen meteorite, but the point is… massive tsunami! Right now is when the sea runs out… and the Israelites cross, then the tsunami comes!
So then we have Ramses’ army rushing after Moses and co., while the wave comes in with numerous tornadoes in the background [WTF? Where did the tornadoes come from? Maybe it’s setting up for a sequel crossover: Exodus: Gods and Kings Go Into the Storm]. Ramses’ army turns away from the wave [but not in time, natch], so it’s just Moses and Ramses racing at each other going “RAAAAWWWWWRRRR!!!!” [I shit you not] until they both get consumed by the wave. But Moses—he’s FINE! Not a scratch. Tsunamis, ugh, they’re just a nuisance, nothing more. Nothing really harmful. Ramses, turns out, is fine, too. Everyone else got obliterated, but they’re just the plebs, right? It’s obvious: important people live, everyone else dies. Even from natural disasters. Anyway, it goes on for a while—too long—then goes out with a whimper.
So I had fun at it… it was interesting to see their approach to the material, it was amusing to see the actors in these roles in which they’re all mismatched to some degree or other, it’s campy fun, it had big CGI and fun 3D, good spectacle, and… you know, it’s kind of a stinker. So, it was fun. Now, in terms of it’s “quality…”
It’s really hard for me to see what they were going for here, or why they made the movie at all. Why make this movie if you’re going to all but remove God from it? What is the point of trying to render the plagues and Red Sea ambiguous as to whether they are divine or not? I guess he’s trying to raise the possibility that Moses did all this himself… but even that’s only in half-measures, as stuff like the Passover is obviously divine, Moses couldn’t do it himself. So… why? It’s inherently flawed. On the other hand… I think it would be quite an exciting movie if they really faced that there is this implacable supernatural force that cannot be fought. And, although I know it’s all but impossible, I’d love to see a movie in which God is as sadistic as he is in the bible, and we could have some sympathy for Ramses as he is tortured.
We could also pontificate, again, on WHY Moses has to be an ultimate warrior, doing all the same stuff as every action hero in every action movie, thus dulling anything interesting and unique about this particular character. And we could bemoan how we simply CANNOT have a character that is thoughtful and contemplative and succeeds through persistence and patience. That would be pointless. But given the dead, soulless crap he’s been putting out for the past few years, I can only have the most cynical ideas of why Ridley Scott continues to make films at all.
Anyway, see it if you want to. It will leave you with little but wasted time. I was quite serious when I said that The Prince of Egypt [and, for God’s sake, The Ten Commandments!] tells this story with far greater passion and emotional involvement. In fact, in terms of telling a story that will leave you with the feeling that you haven’t completely wasted your time, The Ten Commandments is far superior to this film in every way. Aside from updated special effects, I can’t fathom why they made this film at all.
If you want. Although The Ten Commandments still works, and it’s parting of the Red Sea is better.