Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Exodus: The Director’s Cut

This is what happens when you let an atheist tell Bible stories on the big screen:

If there’s one Old Testament image everyone knows, it’s the parting of the Red Sea. And when shooting that scene in Exodus: Gods and Kings (in theaters Dec. 12), director Ridley Scott knew that he want to treat the incident as realistically as possible. “You can’t just do a a giant parting, with walls of water trembling while people ride between them,” says Scott, who remembers scoffing at biblical epics from his boyhood like 1956’s The Ten Commandments. “I didn’t believe it then, when I was just a kid sitting in the third row. I remember that feeling, and thought that I’d better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation.”

He’s a talented filmmaker with some great movies to his credit, like Blade Runner and Gladiator, but people aren’t going to be fleeced to the tune of $10 a ticket to see Ridley Scott the atheist’s take on the Bible. They want to see the Bible.

What Scott has managed to do is strip the miraculous from the Torah’s central narrative: the enslavement of Israel in Egypt and their rescue by God.

When Moses learns his true identity, he is reluctant to play the role of savior, and he finds a comfortable home in a remote village, where he marries and has a son. But his destiny calls when he comes upon the famous burning bush and is approached by God to lead his people out of slavery. Here is the film’s most controversial choice, for God appears to Moses as a fierce child. Although this may offend some devout viewers, it’s actually far more interesting than the booming offscreen voice that DeMille used in his version of the story. This divine child seems angry and vengeful rather than a benign Buddha figure, but one could argue that this is in keeping with the Old Testament God of wrath.

“More interesting” and more confusing. As long as we’re making stuff up, why include the burning bush in the movie at all? If God speaks through a child, it renders the phenomenon of the bush irrelevant.

The film hits its peak in the sequence recounting the ten plagues. The savage crocodiles were not in the Old Testament, but as they attack humans as well as fish, they turn the Nile blood red, which is at least an ingenious explanation of how the river might have turned to blood. Frogs, boils and locusts are truer to the text and are rendered in luscious visual detail.

Sounds like a plague of crocodiles, which would be fine if the Bible said there was a lot of blood in the water because many fish and people bled out. But the text says the water turned to blood and then the fish died (Exodus 7:20-21). Even water in vessels turned to blood. There was no water for irrigation, nor water to drink for 7 days.

The Nile flows at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second, or 750,000 gallons per second. This means 600,000 people—and/or however many fish—would have had to be bled every second for the Nile to continue to flow. For 7 days. Crocodiles is a more “ingenious” explanation for the first plague than an act of God?

The climactic chase to the Red Sea is equally spectacular. Although The Ten Commandments won the Oscar for its visual effects, the parting of the Red Sea in DeMille’s film was laughably tacky. Scott comes up with a somewhat more credible portrayal of how the Israelites managed to cross the sea before a monumental storm drowned the Egyptians.

What’s tacky is relying heavily on computer-generated graphics to deliver the thrills, a tack that ruined Star Wars: Episodes 1, 2, and 3. If the parting of the sea is a purely natural coincidence, not divinely ordered, what investment does the viewer have in the fate of God’s chosen people, for whom said miracles were orchestrated to bring them out of Egypt? From a storytelling perspective, it diminishes the role of Moses, who was the mediator between God and Israel. Much of the criticism of Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role is his lack of conviction and motivation.

I’m not stepping out on a limb in saying Exodus will be forgotten in 10 years, and The Ten Commandments will still be playing on TV every year on Easter weekend. It is the more faithful adaptation in its reverence for God.

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