Released 2014. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Aaron Paul.
This piece talks almost as much about Noah as it does Exodus: Gods and Kings. So if you don’t want to know how two of the most famous stories in the world end, look away now.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a Biblical epic. It tells an epic story, it has an epic budget, an epic cast, and a director who knows his way around epics. But something told me it would be epically dull. The trailers bored me. Christian Bale, while a great actor, doesn’t grab me as a screen presence the way a star should. The glimpses of action in the trailers looked by-the-numbers, basted with tedious CGI. It looked like Kingdom of Heaven when it needed to be Gladiator.
I was epically wrong.
Exodus is visually stunning. It has not been made cheaply. Shots are not snatched, they are planned. Every image is satisfyingly deliberate. When a film uses several thousand extras, it shows. Exodus feels alive, and purely massive. Its sets are colossal, its scenes full of people and activity. CGI augments the sets and locations beautifully, depicting enormous halls and intricate, detailed cityscapes. The unassuming camerawork is crucially important – Scott grounds the film with steady shots, often static and rarely handheld when they do move. He never uses any movement more extravagant than a crane over a building or flyover shot, and that restraint allows the images to speak for themselves. We’re not being encouraged by exuberant camerawork to pretend that we’re seeing excitement that isn’t there, distracted into submission. Scott’s imagery exudes confidence that it will be imposing on its own terms. His self-control also strengthens the marriage of CGI with live action – when thousands of frogs and locusts invade Memphis, the opportunity to animate wild camera moves, the kind that would be unthinkable in live action and when used typically burst the believability of CGI for this reason, is not taken. Scott’s camera remains inconspicuous, and the film unarguably benefits.
The film is staged deliberately and in depth, the 3D working subtly to contribute to the sense of astonishing scale of Memphis’s palace, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Israelites, and several horrific plagues. It’s dependably impressive and occasionally sublime – the above shot of a giant wave chasing a horse, imposing enough on its own, is made unforgettable by the 3D, the horse so small in the frame that you could legitimately miss it for the wall of water, and the interstellar size of the wave made terrifyingly visceral in stereo. Some might complain that the 3D is not foregrounded and suggest that it is not worth the extra money to see Exodus projected this way. Don’t be convinced by this argument. Never be convinced by this argument. The 3D is a constant pleasure that provides several individually arresting moments. Put it this way: When a bush lights up in electric blue flame or a sea is turned red with blood, you notice Exodus‘s use of colour. But most of the time, you don’t. It’s simply appropriate and unassuming. Being for the most part subdued makes those moments that much more exceptional.
(It’s a problem with 3D in general that cinemas usually impose it as an additional cost on consumers, because treating the technology separately predictably leads to consumers treating it separately in aesthetic terms. We wouldn’t dream of asking ourselves whether a film “needs” colour, but if it were sold for a surcharge we might. Perhaps 3D and 2D presentations will one day be priced identically, but currently I can only implore people to be less willing to treat 3D as a removable module to their cinematic experiences.)
Exodus makes for an interesting companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, released earlier this year. Noah is undeniably the wilder film, splicing together a number of Biblical stories, imagining fallen angels as beings of light encased in rock, and using hallucinatory, dreamlike visuals in its pursuit of an ambitious reimagining of the Biblical flood myth as a fantasy adventure. Exodus, by contrast, is a largely straightforward committal of the story of Moses to film, and it is tempting to see the differences between the films, but more interesting is their shared reflection of modern sensibilities in their attitude towards the supernatural – they both mitigate against it. Despite using and alluding to stories and people that anybody with a basic knowledge of Genesis would recognise, Noah‘s characters speak of a “creator” rather than God, behave in ways we might not expect, and through the inclusion of a great deal of fantastical imagery Aronofsky makes palatable the idea of a supernatural force. If we’re going to buy into the giant hulking stone monsters, we ought to be able to buy that there’s an all-powerful creator out there, right? Neither does Exodus declare that its God is absolute, recognising the differing beliefs and gods of the Egyptians and Israelites – and with an Egyptian prophecy coming true early on, it’s not clear that either of these peoples is mistaken. Moreover, Moses (Christian Bale) spends half the film an atheist, respectfully dismissing the beliefs of his adoptive family – unlikely enough in reality, and even more unlikely is how comfortably his opinions are accepted by those around him. (The disconnect between these modern attitudes, one dismissive of the supernatural and the other tolerant of those who are, and the Biblical setting, actually makes the calm, collected Exodus less believable in this respect than the manic Noah.)
Exodus and Noah both present intriguing attempts to reconcile Biblical narrative with scientific fact without upsetting members of either camp. Noah features an utterly astonishing sequence in which Russell Crowe tells the story of creation, his dialogue describing the week-long work of the creator while Aronofsky’s images depict millions of years, alluding to a metaphorical interpretation of the myth. Evolution, the primary source of tension in this conflict, is dealt with brilliantly and originally: The entire sequence is composed of single frames containing very obvious differences that blend together to create a single, jerky-yet-smooth, animation. So when we see cells divide and turn into a fish turn into an amphibian turn into a lizard turn into a rodent, we’re seeing snapshots of individual creatures that together form an unbroken chain of change. It’s an incredible visual interpretation of the science. (Ultimately, the sequence fades out and gives us the dawn of Man separately, but you can’t have everything.)
Exodus, as you might have guessed, is a little simpler. The ten plagues can easily be explained away by saying God did it, and indeed God seems to tell Moses that they are his doing, but the Egyptians, seeking an explanation that does not require the Hebrew God, come up with one that describes how so much bad luck could plausibly befall them in such a short amount of time. According to the Pharaoh’s resident expert, the blood-filled water (not, incidentally, magic, but in this case caused by scores of crocodiles attacking everyone and each other) would have caused the frogs to escape and take over Memphis, eventually dying without water, their decomposing bodies providing homes for billions of flies. It’s reasonable (and makes for a great joke), although by the time we get to the death of the firstborn, with a blanket of darkness sweeping across the city, extinguishing candles and halting the breathing of children in a genuinely chilling sequence, the science has been quietly forgotten about. But you can’t have everything.
Both films also suggest that their respective prophets might not have been entirely of sound mind when speaking with God or embarking on their causes. Their calls to action are both presented with deliberate ambiguity, as visions, dreams or hallucinations that come to them in their sleep (Noah might be forgiven, seeing as he spends all day dodging dogs with scales and giant rock monsters, but Exodus has Moses seeing the burning bush following a traumatic head injury). Noah is presented as a kind of crazed, lonely environmentalist on a mission, dragging his family with him, putting them through torture, and driving himself increasingly mad by expecting guidance, validation, or really any communication from God but receiving none. Moses does speak with God on a regular basis, through his corporeal representation as a young boy, but Joshua (Aaron Paul) often eavesdrops on their conversations, and cutting to his POV suggests that Moses is talking to a boulder, really just ranting to himself. These scenes culminate with an elderly Moses, alone in a cave up Mount Sinai, scratching the Ten Commandments onto stone, resembling nothing more than an insane hermit.
These implications of mental instability arguably don’t add much to the stories’ messages about making sacrifices in pursuit of something bigger than oneself, giving oneself up to do the right thing; whether due to delusion or not, Moses and Noah both do pursue good aims, and aren’t their sense of duty and their strength in the face of tremendous obstacles what make their stories relevant today? I don’t know. Maybe the message that you can believe in something totally without reason but somehow bumble through is really not a very good message to put across. Maybe, even though we have good reason to doubt the existence of God – as should Noah and Moses have had, given their mental illness and head trauma – we shouldn’t dismiss that their faith gave them the drive to pull them through.
Also maybe God does exist. (Just kidding!)
(The representation of God as a child, incidentally, is one of my favourite aspects of Exodus. It’s an amusing and clever bit of casting given the petulant nature of Exodus‘s God – not content to only catalyse the Israelites’ escape from slavery, he seems rather more concerned with being terrible to the Egyptians, furious that they call themselves gods and worship themselves. What a big baby.)
Ultimately, Exodus and Noah practice strategic ambiguity. It’s briefly explained here, in terms of politics, by David Bordwell. It’s my current favourite phrase and something that once you have a term for you see all over the place. Exodus and Noah present options to their audiences, allowing people from various backgrounds, holding different opinions and having different life experiences to arrive at reasonable interpretations of their own regarding just what the films were on about. None can be said to be absolutely correct, because the films aren’t putting forward strong enough signals in any direction. (As you can tell, my background, opinion and life experience brings me to an interpretation that says Exodus and Noah are both really about being strategically ambiguous.) It’s financially sensible, as you really don’t want to alienate people when your film cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and I get the feeling that a lot of filmmakers also believe it’s ‘cool’ to be ambiguous. Usually, now that I’ve started to notice it, I dislike it. I want to be challenged by what someone thinks, not invited to make up my own meaningless explanation for things. However, in the case of films such as Exodus and Noah, it’s actually interesting to see such brazen doubt of the truth of religion. In decades past, when religion’s stranglehold on Western society was greater than it is today, or in modern societies in which religion remains powerful, it would have been necessary to artistically encode such doubt – if it had even been present at all.