The story of God's deliverance of the Jews from Egypt 3,500 years ago or so, told in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, is one of the greatest, most exciting and most inspiring historical stories ever told, in part, because it follows the basic rules of good storytelling.
Director Ridley Scott's new epic, "Exodus: Gods and Kings," tries to follow the Bible, but it does so in a manner that avoids the richness of the biblical story, and it could be summarized as the "CliffsNotes" version or a comic-book version of the story of Exodus. The best that can be said is that it's gloriously junky, with magnificent battle scenes and spectacular special effects, but diminished by mediocre character development and an annoying lack of set-up of biblical events.
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The movie opens with the title that it's 1300 BCE, Before the Common Era, which means, of course, Before Christ. The title credit continues that the Jews have been in Egypt for 400 years and have reduced to slaves building the Pharaoh's empire, but, the title says: God has not forgotten them.
Soon, a young man, Moses, and his adoptive brother, Ramses, are being told that the Hittites are invading Egypt. An Egyptian priestess looks at entrails out of goose and says that one will rescue the ruler and the other one will become a ruler. Moses thinks this is hogwash and says as much. He doesn't believe in prophecies, superstition or the priestess's mumbo jumbo.
The Pharaoh trusts Moses more than his own son, Ramses. Moses travels from Memphis to the slave city of Pithom, where the Egyptian viceroy Hegep is living in luxury at the expense of the slaves. Moses tells the viceroy he should talk to the slaves to find out why they are so upset. Hegep won't do that, however, so Moses talks to the elders of the slaves, and one of them, named Nun, tells Moses in secret the true story of his birth, which means that Moses is really Hebrew.
The viceroy sends two officers to kill Moses, but Moses kills one of them and wounds the other. The viceroy also sent spies who come back and tell him the story of Moses' birth.
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When Moses gets back to Memphis, the Pharaoh is dying. At his death, Ramses takes charge. Ramses builds gigantic monument statues of himself. The viceroy Hegep comes and tells Ramses about Moses' birth and Moses killing the guard. Ramses banishes Moses.
After almost dying in the desert, Moses finds Jethro and Jethro's daughter, Zipporah. Moses marries Zipporah, and they have a son. Nine years later, Moses is confronted by the angel or messenger of God at the burning bush (in Hebrew the word for angel "malakh" primarily means messenger). The messenger tells him to rescue God's people. Moses asks why He waited 400 years, but the messenger, who could be a theophany or visible manifestation of God, doesn't answer. The messenger, by the way, is a young boy.
Moses tells his wife and son he has to go back to Egypt to set God's people free. When he gets there, Ramses will have no part of it. God brings the plagues on Egypt, but Ramses still refuses to set the Hebrews free. After the supernatural killing of the firstborn Egyptians, Ramses finally sets the Hebrews free. Moses leads them to the Red Sea. Tremendous special effects occur. The rest is history, including God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on the mountain.
For all of those readers concerned about the theology of Exodus, God is the real hero of "Exodus" the movie. Thus, in the movie, God does use Moses to set the people free. However, the messenger of God is a young boy, who may or may not be God Himself.
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Before jumping to inaccurate theological confusion, it must first be noted that in Colossians 1:9 and elsewhere in the Bible, it says that the only physical manifestation of God is Jesus, who is fully God and fully man. Thus, for those who want an old God played by some famous thespian, Jesus came as a baby, who was of course fully God and fully man. So, without resorting to the aberrant developmental, progressive theology of the some 20th century theologians, there has been orthodox theological discussion about the appearances of Jesus and the incarnation, and in the Bible, God incarnated as Jesus grows from an infant through boyhood to manhood.
Also, note that at the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36), Peter, James and John see Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah. If Jesus is in charge of time and space, what Peter, James and John saw in the Transfiguration could have been happening outside of time and space. However, this is theological speculation.
In other words, the movie can be interpreted in a positive way, and Christians should not retreat into a posture of being negative nabobs by attacking the movie "Exodus" unfairly. That said, the story has been much better done in "The Ten Commandments" and "The Prince of Egypt," where Movieguide brought in prominent theologians to keep the movie's theology on track.
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Thus, although some people will complain about how Ridley Scott visualized and dramatized the story's supernatural aspects, the real puzzle and most annoying part of the movie is the clunky, clumsy dramatization throughout the movie. Since Movieguide knows some of the filmmakers, who are Christian and have done some great movies, it's perplexing why the story of Exodus is so badly told in this movie.
In good storytelling, you set up events just like you set up a good joke. The filmmaker has to promise and then deliver what he promises. The Bible does just that in the story of Exodus. God tells Moses what's going to happen, and then the reader waits with great expectation until it happens the way God said it would.
In the movie "Exodus," Moses does not tell Pharaoh that he has to let the people of Israel go free or the plagues will incur: The water will turn to blood, and the frogs and then the locusts will plague Egypt. The plagues just pop out of nowhere, unless you know the biblical story. Perhaps Ridley thought that everyone knows the story so well that they will know what is about to happen and experience jeopardy through precognition. Even so, however, when Moses does warn Ramses about the impending death of the firstborn unless Ramses sets the Hebrew people free, there is some sense of jeopardy in the movie.
Another puzzling dramatic deficiency about "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is the lack of depth and character arcs for each of the major characters. One can excuse Christian Bale for being wooden, but Ben Kingsley is a great actor and quite often he looks lost in the movie as the Jewish elder, Nun. So, the movie gets quite tedious instead of being emotionally satisfying.
Some people even fell asleep during the screening, though they weren't particularly tired. This is not a good sign.
The good news about "Exodus" is that the filmmakers keep away from gory, bloody violence, although there is plenty of action adventure and scares. The best part of the movie is the battle scenes.
Ridley Scott and Fox said they wanted to make the story of Moses like "Gladiator." In some ways, they've done that, but "Gladiator" was a much better scripted movie. Unlike "Gladiator," "Exodus" has some goofy parts that are just plain weird, such as when Ben Kingsley is wandering around looking for direction or when biblical events are compressed into meaninglessness, such as the giving of the Ted Commandments and the golden calf, or when Ramses survives the Red Sea deluge, but his men do not.
In the final analysis, therefore, what the Christian community and others of faith and values, including Jews, should do is help people understand the true story of how God set His people free. Reading the Bible after seeing "Exodus" was thrilling. So, be prepared to hand out copies of the Bible or just the Exodus story.
Time and again Movidguide receives correspondence from people who want to know the rest of the story. "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is a great opportunity for those who love the story of Exodus to tell their friends and loved ones the rest of the story.
By the way, many people (including Christians and Jews) will try to psychoanalyze the filmmakers and the actors, but speculating on their decisions and comments is a futile exercise. The movie is what it is, and what it is, is a great opportunity to tell the story about how God wants to set each and every person free.
Since 1978, I have been helping entertainment industry leaders and content producers, writers and directors reach the majority of the population who want movies with drama, values and faith. For many years, we have been analyzing movie scripts to "tune them up" using the 122 criteria of the Report to the Entertainment Industry, which includes everything from dramatic structure to philosophy to history to theology. Also, since the 1970s, I've been telling my students in the filmmaking workshops and classes I teach how to make a successful, entertaining, satisfying movie. I tell them that a great movie is a great story well told, with an inspiring, uplifting, edifying message and a positive worldview.
If you want to make a movie that won't bore the average viewer or that attracts a large, enthusiastic audience, there are certain rules of good filmmaking you must follow.
Among the most obvious ones are: 1) The movie's script must build toward an exciting or entertaining climax; and, 2) The story must involve a strong amount of jeopardy for the protagonist(s).
According to the Report to the Entertainment Industry 10-year study of all the major movies released by Hollywood and the major independent studios, movies with very strong Christian worldviews averaged $73.27 million at the box office, but movies with very strong non-Christian worldviews averaged only $21.01 million. The differences were even wider in a five-year study conducted by Movieguide. According to the five-year study, movies with very strong Christian worldviews averaged $82.97 million per movie, but movies with very strong non-Christian worldviews averaged only $21.84 million.
The overseas box office tells a similar story. For example, 80 percent of the Top 10 movies overseas between 2009 and 2013 had strong or very strong Christian, redemptive content, including positive references to Christianity, Jesus, God or faith.
We are here to help, and we have helped the leaders in the Hollywood entertainment industry to make movies that succeed at the box office.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, filmmakers sought the advice of experts including theologians. In fact, on the "Ten Commandments," C.B. DeMille enlisted the help of hundreds of experts.
The bottom line is that the entertainment industry is a business, and it makes good business sense to understand your audience. We are here to help them do just that.
See the trailer for the film below:
Dr. Ted Baehr is the publisher of Movieguide. For a complete review of "Exodus: Gods and Kings," please go to www.movieguide.org.
Editor's note: To receive information on script analysis, the Report to the Entertainment Industry and/or to sign up for one of Dr. Baehr's four-day filmmaking workshops in Los Angeles, Calif., "How To Succeed in Hollywood: Without Losing Your Soul," please call (805) 383-2000 or email [email protected].