The Beige Sea

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“Putting a secular burqa on it” is what I thought as I left the movie theatre after watching Exodus: Gods and Kings. This is the new Ridley Scott take on the story of Moses, and it is a terrible lost opportunity. You would think that the director of Alien and Prometheus would be the right person to take on this sort of project, but it turns out not to have been the case. The Moses story is wonderful, creepy, uplifting, shocking, romantic, and horrifying all at once — the ultimate in Old Testament narrative grandeur. Exodus: Gods and Kings fastidiously filters most of the fun out of the Red Sea.

Why did I dislike it? It’s sumptuously filmed and decently acted, and it hits the major plot points of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt. But Ridley Scott chose, for some reason, to try to put a scrupulously secular take on it. Not to spoil too much (although I trust most of my readers are aware of the plot), Scott only chooses to allow the burning bush scene to take place when Batman-Moses is hit on the head by a big rock. Thereafter, every encounter with Angry Creepy Child Avatar, the representation of the Almighty that stands in front of the burning bush in this version, is scrupulously presented so as to remind us that Moses is a madman talking to rocks. Even Angry Creepy Child Avatar himself is hinted to stem from Batman-Moses’ fear of the judgement of his own child. The plagues of Egypt? Terrible but explainable coincidences. Don’t get me started on the Red Sea bit. There’s even a heavy-handed terrorism allegory, plus Moses-Batcave. (As a lefty I must make the obligatory mention that almost all of the characters should be people of considerable swarth, not Batman.)

The story of Exodus is not one that makes any narrative sense if you are not willing to take the miracles seriously. It is the motivation for the Israelites to follow Moses and for Pharaoh to hate and fear him. The makers of Exodus: Gods and Kings are simply unwilling to give the story its due: their lack of belief in the content of the story became a lack of belief in the story as a story. This movie will never replace the good old Ten Commandments or even the animated Prince of Egypt.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a movie review here. So why did I do it this time? It’s because this movie is strangely topical. We somehow seem to be in the middle of an extended international “discussion”, modulo Kalashnikovs and funerals, of the role of the sacred in public culture. I might once have called it a dialogue of the deaf, except that the Deaf are usually quite good at making themselves understood to one another and to non-Deaf. This movie seems to me to be emblematic of one side of the discussion, a side that considers itself to be the carrier of all that is good and noble about civilisation: an unrestricted right to deride the sacred — a right I also support. But this movie seems emblematic of a further expectation: that it must be broadly agreed that the sacred be brought to the same level as the banal. Contrary to their voice in media, the honest truth is that the banalisers of the sacred are only a comparatively small minority of humanity who assume that their perspective is universal or, rightly or wrongly, the future of humanity. Muslims and Islam may be the current flashpoint, but it’s hardly widely agreed that religion deserves mockery for being religion. To me, Exodus: Gods and Kings actually puts the best, most sumptuous face possible on this worldview, but it leaves me wondering, actually, whether the sacred shouldn’t just be left sacred.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on January 19, 2015 1:07 PM.

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