Thursday, April 28, 2016

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Year 8, Day 119 - 4/28/16 - Movie #2,319

BEFORE: Well, this one was originally programmed for the first day of Passover, but then I added a few films so that I could get the right film to land on Mother's Day.  But Passover is still going on, I think there are two more days, so I can get this one in under the wire. 

It helps when I can identify certain films, like "The Martian" or "Fantastic Four" as nexus films, meaning I can link in several different directions after watching them, or plus in a small module of three or four films if I need to extend a particular section.  Now I've got a long chain set for the next three months, and I don't think I'll have another nexus film for a long time, and that will probably be "Captain America: Civil War".  I can go just about anywhere from there, and at that time I'll probably have to review what's left on the list to make the most inclusive decision.  

Tonight, Ewen Bremner carries over from "Snowpiercer", and I move from a film set in the future, starring the previous Human Torch, to a film set in the ancient past, starring the previous Batman. 

THE PLOT:  The defiant leader Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.

AFTER:  I've got a lot to say tonight, because this is a new take on the Moses story - to understand it I think you have to throw out a lot of what you might "know" from the movie "The Ten Commandments", or even from "The Prince of Egypt", and keep an open mind.  It's partially the presence of the ex-Batman, and partially the portrayal of Moses and the plagues that leads me to this conclusion: this is a superhero movie.  Moses might not have worn a cape or had x-ray vision, but the Bible suggests that God spoke to him, and that he possessed certain powers (parting of the Red Sea, changing a staff into a snake and back) so, there you go.  Maybe he wasn't the first superhero in literature, for that you have to go back to Hercules and other Greek myths, but even if God worked through Moses, his actions still saved a bunch of Israelites, so they're essentially super-heroic.

Therefore, this is a superhero reboot film, just like "Fantastic Four" or "Batman v Superman".  Now don't freak out, because even a Bible story can be seen as a reboot, despite what some Biblical scholars say.  Bear in mind, it was hundreds of years before any Bible story was written down, and they were no doubt based on oral histories, which are notoriously unreliable.  Who's to say each generation didn't pad the story a little bit, or make some changes in order to attract new followers, or take advantage of current trends?  Certain we know that Christianity absorbed a lot of originally pagan traditions, like Halloween and Christmas, to make itself more attractive to newcomers from other faiths.  The simple fact is that stories change over time, whether you want them to or not, whether you care to admit it or not, and you can't prove these events by saying, "Because the Bible says so!" because that's circular reasoning.  

Instead, I look to a 2006 documentary series that ran on the History Channel, called "The Exodus Decoded", which I watched at the time and found enormously fascinating.  The series came from filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron, and while parts of it have since been debunked or disproven, at least someone set out to try and prove whether the events mentioned in the Bible COULD have taken place, and if so, when and how.  This series ruffled a lot of feathers, but again, if you don't have an open mind, just consider that you weren't there in ancient Egypt, I wasn't there, your priest or rabbi wasn't there, so in the end, all that we have is a story, and a little science, plus what we choose to believe. 

Here are the major plot points of the traditional Moses story, as I understand it:  1) Moses was found as a baby, adopted and raised as one of the Pharaoh's sons, but was really one of the Israelites.  2) God spoke to Moses, and was told to free said Israelites from slavery.  3) There were 10 plagues that befell Egypt, in retaliation for the Pharaoh not letting the Israelites go, and 4) The Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to escape, and then drowned the pursuing Egyptian chariots.  Agreed?  Now, let's examine them one at a time.  

1) Moses was found as a baby, (supposedly during a purge of infants, after a prediction that a baby would grow up to lead the Israelites) in a basket, floating down the Nile.  This is suspect to me only because stories like this appear often in literature, about the hero who rises from humble beginnings, and sometimes these backstories get written after the fact.  Think about the sword in the stone that justifies King Arthur ruling Britain - if he truly was the heir of Uther, why did he have to prove it by pulling out the sword?  Moses in a basket also sort of reminds me of Superman in his rocket, leaving Krypton.  And I remember that John Byrne, after writing "Man of Steel", the 1986 reboot of Superman's origin, later said that he wished he hadn't started with the rocket on page one, which would have allowed the reader to find out that Superman was an alien at the same time he did, which was when he was a teen.  The reveal would have then been more powerful.  

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" similarly does not start with Moses as a baby, we first see him as the adult adopted son of Pharaoh Seti.  This is smart, because if Moses does not know his heritage, he acts a certain way, but is always aware on some level that treating the Israeli slaves poorly is not right.  Part of him wants to be a hero, but he doesn't have the power or motivation to act on their behalf.  Ah, but then when he finds out his true nature, suddenly he has the motivation.  And from a storytelling standpoint, the reveal is now a twist, and carries much more impact.

However, it also leads me to wonder - what if it weren't true?  What if the Israelites just took advantage of the fact that Seti had an adopted son?  Telling Moses that he was Israeli would immediately give them an insider in the government that would empathize with them fight for their rights.  I'm just putting that out there. 

2) God speaks to Moses.  In the Bible this is through a burning bush (conveniently, no one else is around, I bet) but in this film, God appears as a small boy with advice for Moses on what to do.  This will probably drive the Bible scholars crazy, but it's a convention that was used by Scorsese in "The Last Temptation of Christ", so there's a precedent.  But who's to say what another man sees in a vision?  "Exodus: Gods and Kings" makes note of Moses suffering a head injury, so now we also have to entertain the possibility that Moses was crazy.  

The Bible also makes reference to Aaron, however, saying that he spoke for Moses.  I guess maybe Moses wasn't a very good public speaker?  Maybe he got nervous in front of crowds?  This part of the story also seems a little suspect to me, as if rumors started swirling about the visions that Moses had, and then Aaron issued a press release, assuming that Yahweh was speaking to him, and the whole thing got out of hand.  

3) The 10 plagues of Egypt.  Now, this is where I start to quote from "The Exodus Decoded", which put forth possible scientific explanations for them, such as a volcanic eruption at Santorini, and a related earthquake in the Nile delta.  There are also real cases where water has turned red, either due to the presence of toxic fresh water algae, which turns red when it dies, or drought conditions that could cause the spread of certain bacteria that thrive in stagnant water.  From there, it's a possible chain reaction because if the water is toxic, then the frogs would all leave the water, so there's plague #2.  And then if the frogs leave the river, then the flies they normally eat would flourish, so there's plague #3.  The flies would thrive on the dead fish and frogs, and spread disease to the cattle, and boils to people, so there's plagues #5 and 6.  The volcanic eruption could possibly explain the hail and fire of plague #7, and a cloud of ash could cause the darkness of plague #9.  That leaves just the locusts, but those tend to come around every once in a while anyway, like cicadas, right?  

Now, here's where my thinking starts to differ from the Bible.  Everyone sort of assumes that Moses went to the Pharaoh and said, "Let my people go, or else the river will run red, then there will be flies, then frogs, then disease, etc."  But what if Moses hadn't been so specific?  What if he just said, "Let my people go, or a lot of bad, nasty stuff is going to happen!"  And then when bad stuff started to happen, Moses could say, "See? I told you so."  The Bible doesn't give any exact timeline for these events, so what if these plagues took place over the course of a year, or a number of years?  

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" has the balls to say, "What if Moses didn't call his shot at all?"  There's no scene in which Moses threatens Ramses with plagues, or any specific repercussions at all, but when they start to happen, it's the easiest thing to say, after the fact, "Look, God is angry!" and thus plant the suggestion of cause and effect.  Slaves are being tortured, God's upset, he sent you some plagues, and there will probably be more if we don't get what we want.  Subversive, I know, but much, much easier to believe.  

And this leads me to plague #10, the killing of the first-born.  Here's where "The Exodus Decoded" had another theory about an underground earthquake releasing carbon dioxide, which could have spread through an Egyptian city late at night, staying close to the ground.  But you'd have to believe that the first-born children slept on the ground floor, in the alleged "position of honor", while the other family members slept on the roof, and there's little evidence to support this.  Other people have theorized that after the other plagues, food was scarce, and the first-born children were the first to receive food, which might have been contaminated.  Again, who's to say?  

But what if, after witnessing 9 plagues across the land, without understanding the science behind them, and the Israelites putting forth the notion that they were occuring because God was upset, those Egyptians started to believe, and would have done ANYTHING to appease God, including slaughtering their own children?  This would explain why the Israelite children were not affected, while the cattle and other animals were.  Now, just because this is theoretically possible, that doesn't make it true, not by a longshot.  But it is easier for me to believe, and once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, could be true.   

This film goes out of its way to show us that the Egyptian method of predicting things was notoriously unreliable, since they believed in reading entrails for omens.  If they believed that, they could have fallen for just about any system that seemed more reliable, even if it suggestions made after the fact.  It's worth noting that if you wait for things to happen, and then take advantage of them by assigning some perceived meaning, you can "prove" just about anything.  Think of the way that religious nuts today claimed that damage from hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy was caused by people in New Orleand and New York living lives full of sin and gay sex.  To them, it was simple cause and effect, they just thought up the reasoning for it later on, and it couldn't exactly be disproved.

4) The parting of the Red Sea.  (Or, the "Reed Sea", if you believe "The Exodus Decoded", which would have been a smaller, more shallow marshy area, and much more likely to abate and allow passage than the much larger Red Sea...)  If you believe the film "The Ten Commandments", this is another of Moses' magic powers, that he waved his staff and the waters parted, and two giant walls of water stood motionless on either side, allowing for passage in-between.  "The Exodus Decoded" again raised the possibility of a volcanic eruption or earthquake causing a tsunami, and a giant wave like that is usually preceded by an extremely low tide.  Hmm.... but again, just because it's possible, that doesn't mean it happened that way.  

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" doesn't fall back on Moses parting the waters with his staff, but instead he leads the Israelites all the way to the Red Sea, and then doesn't know what to do next.  Again, the Bible doesn't give an exact timetable for these events - maybe they got to the sea and spent a few months there, trying to build rafts or think up another way across.  But the film seems to show a meteor falling to Earth, which is another thing that theoretically could cause a tsunami, which again, could be preceded by a very low tide.  

Still, I don't think that any of the more rational scientific theories take anything away from the story.
If you believe in volcanoes or earthquakes or meteors occuring at just the right time, or at nearly the right time, then those are incredible coincidences, one could easily see the work of a divine hand in that timing.  And even to this day, what do we call weather phenomena that we can't predict, like tornadoes and brushfires?  From a legal standpoint, they're thought of as "acts of God".  So at some point, nature is God, especially if you believe in creationism.  

So, I liked a lot of the elements of this film, and the way it didn't fall back on the assumed conventions about the Moses story, but instead tried to forge a new path and say, "but what if it happened THIS way?"  And really, it's just the latest attempt to modify a story that's probably been modified many, many, times over the centuries, growing in magnitude every time it was retold.  (Still, it's got to be tough to swim against the tide of so many devout, close-minded Christians, who are all SURE that it happened the way they heard it, "because the Bible says so".)  

Is this a perfect film?  No, not at all.  It really drags in the middle, and I had a tough time understanding what many of the characters were saying.  But it takes stones to tackle a well-known religious story like this and search for some possible explanations for the "magical" elements of it.  The director is supposedly an atheist, so that explains a lot, but also calls into question why an atheist would want to make the film in the first place.  And hey, if you think the book is better, as always, you're entitled to your opinion.

NITPICK POINT: In this film, the river runs red with actual blood, resulting from a crocodile feeding frenzy.  But crocs (especially the enormous ones seen here) have been known to eat very rapidly, which wouldn't allow for a lot of blood to be spilled.  Plus, how many people would have to be eaten to turn the whole Nile river red?  I guess that algae and bacteria just aren't as cinematic as giant reptiles.  

Also starring Christian Bale (last seen in "Laurel Canyon"), Joel Edgerton (last seen in "The Thing"), Ben Kingsley (last seen in "Gandhi"), Sigourney Weaver (last seen in "Copycat"), John Turturro (last seen in "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"), Aaron Paul (last seen in "Mission: Impossible III"), Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Fitzgerald, Andrew Tarbet, Indira Varma, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass

RATING: 5 out of 10 chariots

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