There are many bad decisions in British director Ridley Scott’s new movie Exodus but the worst has to be the choice of the voice of God: an eleven-year old prepubescent British child with a speech impediment (drawing on Moses perhaps?). The vengeful Lord of the Bible is rendered as an impudent imp, a chav who deserves an ASBO.
Some of the best moments from the Bible are left out. No baby in a basket in the bulrushes. No snakes or rods. No “let my people go” announcement (Blazing Saddles did it better).
Little prehistory is given as the film begins in media res after a brief contextualisation. Thus we do not know why the Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt or indeed who they really are. We are simply introduced to them as a “conniving, combative people” who argue with God.
Silly sequences abound. When Moses and his wife Zipporah argue over the education of their child, Gershom, they sound like a contemporary interfaith couple. Moses is seemingly able to sneak in and out of and around Egypt at will, including the Pharaoh’s own palace. Is he, drawing on Christian Bale’s previous roles, some sort of biblical Dark Knight? A Bat-Moses?
The casting has already attracted controversy for its racial overtones – all the leads played by whites and their underlings played by Black and African actors. The film also continues Hollywood’s time-honoured tradition of having the evil eye-lined Egyptians voiced as faux British, including a very camp Ben Mendelsohn as Viceroy Hegep and an amusing Ewen Bremner as an “expert.” As Seti, John Turturro reprises his Jesus Quintana from The Big Lebowski. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul plays Joshua; fans of the series will note the similarity in desert terrains and wonder if Joshua plans on cooking up as they cross the wilderness.
The film resembles a montage of Ridley Scott’s previous efforts. The opening battle sequence of the Egyptians against the Hittites recalls the opening of Gladiator and all of Black Hawk Down. Many of the establishing shots of Memphis, the Egyptian capital, mirror the imperial architecture of Scott’s tv series Rome. And, initially, Moses plays like a medieval knight from Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps in order to make the story accessible to a modern post-Holocaust audience, Scott liberally peppers the film with references to the Shoah. The Egyptians are presented as Nazis, hanging innocent men, women and children in order to flush out Moses who is hiding among them. The Hebrew slaves are shown concealed in cellars in order to escape an Egyptian Aktion. Pithom becomes the Warsaw Ghetto and Moses Mordechai Anielewicz.
Later in the film when Moses asks Joshua, “What happens when we stop running?”, one has to ask if Scott is implying that Israelis have become the new Egyptians, and hence Nazis? Troubling parallels are also suggested in another moment when Pharaoh says to Moses: “Is this your god, killer of children? What kind of fanatics worship such a god?”. ISIS is the contemporary answer.
Exodus: Of Gods and Kings is neither a biopic of Moses nor a rendering of the Book of Exodus. One wonders who the film was made for and why. It just made me want to re-watch The Ten Commandments.
Nathan Abrams is Professor of Film Studies at Bangor University. His most recent book is The New Jew in Film: exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (2012).