“Exodus: Gods and Kings”
Why Ridley Scott’s Upcoming Film Might Be a Hit with Christians
The article below, written in July 2014, was an estimated guess — an optimistic one — about Ridley Scott’s new film, whether it would portray the Exodus in a way that people of faith would embrace. After seeing the film, I must confess that my speculation/guess below was wrong. Although the acting, special effects, and settings were excellent and full of powerful nuance, the script’s portrayal of God and His interactions with Moses were deeply disappointing. Here is an excerpt from my official review of the film and a link to the full text of the review:
In Ridley Scott’s film, when the script isn’t portraying God as quasi-villainous or throwing little darts of critical questions and subtext at Heaven, it has Moses lecturing God and talking down to Him — literally. God, portrayed as a boy, looks small, sneering, and conniving in Moses’ oft-critical presence. The boy has a British accent, he comes off as calloused, and he’s often shouting orders at Moses. The Great I Am sounds more like one of those angry British youths who sang in that Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick In The Wall.” I was expecting God to break out in song at any moment with his thick English accent: “We don’t need no education…”
If you haven’t heard, Ridley Scott, the genius director behind movie masterpieces like Gladiator and Blade Runner, has adapted the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus into an epic, larger-than-life movie starring Christian Bale as Moses. It comes out December 12, 2014.
This year’s turning out to be the Year of the Bible in Hollywood, with releases like Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, Mom’s Night Out, The Perfect Wave starring Scott Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s son), the ever-controversial Noah starring Russell Crowe (read my review of Noah here), and another movie called The Song, which is a modernized Walk the Line meets the Song of Solomon that comes out in September. (I’ve seen a preview screening of The Song already, and it’s amazing.)
And, almost like some kind of grand finale to close out Hollywood’s historical Year of the Bible, one of the greatest directors in movie history is applying his seasoned chops to one of the most legendary heroes in the Bible: Moses and the great Exodus.
And I believe this movie, unlike Aronofsky’s Noah, will be wholly embraced by Christians.
[Editor’s Note: Since the initial publication of this article earlier in the year, a controversy has arisen around Ridley Scott’s use of white actors in most of the lead roles, especially the Egyptian roles. In late August, Ridley Scott addressed this controversy here. In November, he addressed it again here. His comments, however, haven’t been enough to stop a few actors-activists from calling for a boycott of the film. Although I can understand the frustration — I have a friend who is a non-Caucasian actor in Hollywood, and sometimes he experiences some frustrating things in his auditions — it appears, according to his comments, that Ridley Scott chose his cast for purely economic reasons.
The Prince of Egypt Formula
However, some Christian moviegoers might criticize me and quickly point out, “Hey, wait, isn’t Ridley Scott an atheist?”
Three words: Prince of Egypt.
Remember that animated movie from Dreamworks that came out in 1998? It was a huge hit. It cost $70 million to make, and by the time it ended its theater run, it had made over $100 million, which was a nice chunk of change for films in the ’90s, and it went on to gross another $37 million in rentals. Every Christian family I knew owned it, and the film stayed faithful to the Biblical account.
And, as far as I know, none of the filmmakers behind Prince of Egypt were Christians, and I knew plenty of non-Christians who loved it and went to see it.
Ridley Scott, of course, is not making a cute animated family film. That’s not my point. What he is doing, however, is zooming in on the story of brotherhood between Moses and his half-brother Ramses, the same specific plot device that made Prince of Egypt resonate so effectively and broadly with millions of people, religious and non-religious alike.
Five (And a Half) Other Reasons Why “Exodus” Could Be a Hit for Christians
Here are five other reasons why I think Exodus will stay closer to the Bible than Noah:
1. Ridley Scott, in my opinion, does not have a history of injecting his private beliefs with the kind of aggression that we saw with Aronofsky in Noah. Scott has always struck me as a guy who just wants to tell a really good story and make a great work of cinematic art.
2. Moses and the Exodus is less open to reinterpretation and subversion compared to Noah. There are more details in the Bible, for one thing. Noah’s account has mysterious oddities like the Nephilim and the sons of God, which just beg for fantastical reinterpretation by artists with vivid imaginations.
3. The Exodus story is such a critical core to cultures — from the Ten Commandments in our judicial system to Judaism and its memorializing of the Exodus story every year during Passover — that it would, in my estimation, be much harder to get a script through Hollywood that desecrates the Exodus account. Noah, however, does not have the same place in our culture’s conscious of Political Correctness. People in non-Christian communities are more protective of the Moses story than they are of Noah — at least, that’s what I’ve seen in my friendships and associations with non-Christians over the years.
4. Although studios can be sneaky with what footage they select for trailers, by all accounts the first official trailer for Exodus depicts a film that follows the Biblical account closely. (Though I was surprised by the casting choices for the Egyptian roles.)
5. With each passing month in 2014, movie studios seem more and more eager to find a hit with the faith-based crowd. Even with the controversial Noah, Paramount eventually realized its error in marketing and released a statement that Noah was “inspired by” and not a direct adaptation of the Biblical account. And, from what I’ve personally seen and heard from publicists and studios, this renewed sensitivity to Christian moviegoers has only grown stronger since Noah came out.
5a. (Added 11/27/14) As noted in the updates at top, on 11/27/14, Variety published an interview with Ridley Scott in which he said that it’s time for Hollywood to stop bashing people of faith. This seems to be yet another sign that Exodus might be a faithful telling of the Moses story.
Why I’m Excited about “Exodus,” Despite the Atheism Issue
I’m particularly excited about the special effects. The glimpses in the trailer are jaw-dropping. They go well beyond the Heston classic The Ten Commandments. This live-action behemoth, guided by the deft hand of movie genius Ridley Scott, will most certainly take our breath away with its visuals and skillful storytelling.
But what about the whole atheist thing? This might anger some readers — though that’s not my intent — but just because someone’s an atheist or a non-Christian does not mean they can’t tell a fantastic story that honors the Biblical account. As I already mentioned, the filmmakers behind The Prince of Egypt (i.e. Steven Spielberg and company) were not Christians (as far as I know), and in those days in the ’90s, Hollywood was not as concerned about reaching out to the faith-based crowd like the studios are now. They simply saw a fantastic story in the Biblical account of Moses, and they wanted to tell it.
Ridley Scott seems to have the same mindset. He has exhibited a self-effacing — some might even say humble — humor about the fact that he’s an atheist making a Biblical epic. The irony has not been lost on him, in other words, and his comments so far have been a refreshing response compared to the stiff-arm that Darren Aronofsky offered to the “noisy” evangelical crowd, as Aronofsky called them.
For example, when asked about being an atheist who is making a Biblical epic, Ridley Scott said, “[that’s] actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.”
That made me laugh when I first read it. It was surprisingly refreshing to see a legendary director perceive the irony of his situation and poke fun at himself a little.
The Violence of “Exodus” Might Be a Concern
All of that being said, I suspect that this movie won’t be a family-friendly affair for all ages. According to comments from Christian Bale, it looks like the movie will focus on many of the battles and violent conflicts in the Exodus story.
The Passion of the Christ and its R-rated violence wasn’t exactly an all ages event either. My prediction is that Exodus will be a huge hit among Christian adults, but too mature for kids. (Plan to get a babysitter, in other words.)
Conclusion: “Exodus” is an Opportunity for Christians to Engage Our Culture
Ultimately, any film that handles Biblical material, even if it’s not accurate to the Bible or is some way disrespectful, is a wonderful opportunity for Christians to engage our culture. It’s a chance to go see a movie with our secular friends and have meaningful, respectful, fruitful conversations with them about our Biblical worldview.
And, if we know the Bible well, if we’re quicker to listen than to lecture, and if we stand up for our worldview with articulation but also with a spirit of love and sensitivity, our post-movie conversation could change another person’s life — even more so than the film that sparked the conversation.
I like how this article “Can an Atheist Make a Good Bible Movie?” by Brett McCracken from the Gospel Coalition puts it:
“Even if their adaption of a beloved text is less than faithful to the source material, I try to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. If a source text is powerful enough (and the Bible fits that bill I think), it invariably inspires a variety of passionate perspectives and disparate interpretations…
“Christians assessing Bible films should certainly consider what’s ‘right’ or ‘accurate’ in the fact-checking sense. Even more, they should consider whether the films succeed as art that communicates something valuable; art that moves us; art that, in its very beauty, brings glory to God. In the best of both worlds we get films of both quality and accuracy. But given the choice between a mediocre filmmaker committed to accuracy and an exceptional filmmaker committed to beauty, I might be more interested in seeing the latter’s version of the Exodus story.”
Even if some controversy emerges about the content of Exodus: Gods and Kings, I plan to see it regardless and engage the culture around me in meaningful conversation about the Bible.
However, I strongly suspect that Christians are going to love Exodus: Gods and Kings. And that would certainly be a fantastic finale to Hollywood’s historic Year of the Bible.
[Update 11/29/14: The first review of the film, from Hollywood Reporter, is published online. Although it’s hard to see clearly through the reviewer’s personal views about the Bible, including his broad “Old Testament God of wrath” stereotypes, according to him “Exodus” mostly stays true to the Bible except for a scene where God appears to Moses in the form of an angry youth (why couldn’t there just be a voice from the flames in the bush as it is in the Bible?) — and what appears (not entirely sure) to be attempts to provide a more rational explanation (instead of supernatural) for two of the miracles in the Moses account, though the reviewer is not clear how the film portrays God’s role in those instances, so it’s too early to come to any firm conclusions. The reviewer says the film in general is spectacular, especially the special effects, though the script/plot flow has some weaknesses. There is no mention of how the Passover — the portion where the angel of death passes over, and the Jews smear the blood of the lamb on their doorposts to remain safe — is depicted, unfortunately, as that is one of the most important elements of the Exodus account, from a religious point of view. That’s something I’ll be looking for when I see the film and review it.
Update 11/27/14: Ridley Scott says that he has attempted to show respect to the Biblical text in his film and says it’s time for Hollywood to stop bashing people of faith. He also says he is agnostic (which is a change from years past when he described himself as atheist). He also finally addresses the “whitewashing” controversy with a direct answer about why he cast mostly white actors for the lead Egyptian roles. Full interview here.
Update 11/27/14: Christian Bale describes the film as a story about a revolution, which he says makes it relevant to any time period and any audience, and he describes the revolutionary Moses as being someone who would be hunted down by drones if he were alive today. Details here.
Update 11/13/14: Ridley Scott has cast a child to play the voice of God. Details here.
Update 11/3/14: Christian Bale, who plays Moses in the film “Exodus,” made comments calling Moses “barbaric” and “likely schizophrenic.” It is unclear if the film portrays Moses that way or if it was simply Bale’s personal opinion.]