In the beginning, God said, “Let there be lights. And cameras! And action!” And it was so.
And it will be so this weekend, when Exodus: Gods and Kings, Hollywood’s latest re-telling of the biblical story of the ancient Israelites and their exodus from Egyptian slavery, hits the screen at your local theater.
This version, however, will be different from those that have come before. This time, when Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, he’ll do so under the direction of Ridley Scott, who helmed the sand-and-sandals epic Gladiator, which took home the 2001 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Heading up the cast is Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale, perhaps best known for his work as Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Bale trades Gotham for Goshen and plays Moses, one of the cinema’s most iconic roles. Bale is joined by Joel Edgerton (who plays Ramses), Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (Joshua), and Sigourney Weaver (Tuya). Familiar faces Ben Kingsley and John Tuturro are also in the cast.
A new telling of the story of Moses and the Hebrew slaves would not be complete without a dose of 21st century controversy. During production, the movie was criticized for the casting of white actors as Hebrew and Egyptian characters. At the film’s Brooklyn, New York premiere, Bale hinted that the problem is a systemic one: financiers of a film with such a massive budget demand big-name stars who will draw audiences and generate a more predictable return on investment. Bale pointed out that if more support were given to Northern African and Middle Eastern filmmakers and actors—many of whom, he said, were doing “wonderful” work—the financial backing in North American films would follow.
Controversy has also surrounded the question of exactly how—for the sake of a better word—“religiously” Exodus: Gods and Kings will follow its hallowed source material. Scott, an avowed agnostic, has openly discussed how, to him, the movie is at heart a story of a rivalry between two brothers, Moses and Ramses. Rumors have swirled around what some see as a possible “unconventional” portrayal of God in the film, and natural causes for the miracles that occur in it (for example, could the parting of the Red Sea have been the result of a tsunami?). Bale also raised some eyebrows when he described Moses as a “freedom fighter,” and someone who would have been considered to be a “terrorist” by the Egyptian empire.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is the second Bible-based film to be released this year, following last spring’s release of Noah. The reaction to these movies from audiences and critics might well determine whether the biblical epic, once a staple of Old Hollywood, is ready to join the superhero saga and the animated family film in the realm of today’s cinematic Promised Land.