Note: This discussion of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) contains spoilers.
My mother always taught me that if I don’t have anything nice to say, I should say nothing at all. If I were to follow her policy, this review of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) would end now.
I should say I am not a purist. I understand that Biblical material needs to be added to in order to make a motion picture. After all, very rarely does the Bible give a physical description of a character. I also understand that changes might need to be made for technical reasons or to make the story flow—though Scott’s explanation for the racial make-up of his casting falls flat. Heck, I even like Dan Brown books. Sure, I notice the inaccuracies, but the man tells good stories. So why am I annoyed that Exodus: Gods and Kings bears almost no resemblance to the Biblical narrative? Because it pretends to be something that it is not.
It is beyond me to understand why one of the most action-packed, intense Biblical narratives needed such dramatic altering by writers Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Their story was so different that if they didn’t use the Biblical names and released the same movie with a different title, I might not have even recognized it—especially with all the Arthurian mythology woven in—though the caricature and stereotypes that ran through the film shoved the viewer in that direction.
The movie is manipulative in its anti-religious polemic. All the supernatural elements of the story (which are in the Bible to make theological points about the God of the Hebrews and thus are literarily important to the characterization of God, regardless of one’s faith position) are stripped away or given a “scientific” explanation within the dialogue. It’s amazing that the movie had time for that when it rushed through the plagues. To my count, only eight or possibly nine were depicted (though the alligator plague might be an improvement on the text). The Egyptian priestess (apparently there was only one in Memphis) and the prophet are slain for incompetence. Moses is a firm atheist until he suffers a traumatic brain injury which makes him hallucinate a boy-god. Which brings us to the petulant, malicious boy-god, who plagues the Hebrews alongside the Egyptians, ignores Moses’ pleas for mercy and binds the Hebrews to him without choice in the final plague. All of these alterations were designed to make religion look senile. This is misdirection at best considering the blatant attempt to attract religious viewers with the movie’s “Biblical” subject matter.
My intention was to create a list of all the changes made to the text, the historical inaccuracies and the archaeological brutalities, but there are just too many of them. To do this would result in a review that was twice the length of the script itself. Even where I might be able to offer praise at the movie’s use of paleo-Hebrew (a single rudimentary mem), it was written on a full sheet of papyrus by a slave. Seriously?! What slave can afford to buy papyrus? Not to mention can read or write? I know I am not supposed to ask these questions, but I am also supposed to find at least something nice to say about everything. I guess I am just not very good at doing what I am supposed to.
Leaving aside the mutilations to the text, the historical record and the archaeological remains, the melodramatic nature of the characters made them phony and dislikable. Thus, even if you can put everything else aside, I would still recommend you skip this incredible waste of time and money.
For more on Hollywood movies, read “The ‘Gods of Egypt’ Movie: A Mess of Anachronisms and Exoticization,” “Rock Giants in Noah” and “Blending into One: The ‘Left Behind’ Movie, the Book of Revelation and the Rapture.”
Ellen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), is the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society. She has taught at five universities across the U.S. and Canada and spent research leaves in Germany and Romania. She has also been actively involved in digs at various sites in Israel.