Early reviews are rushing in for Ridley Scott’s upcoming biblical epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings, which releases Dec. 12. It sounds like the film will showcase epic battles and story. Yet the film’s final trailer made my creative defenses go up. There was a wall there.
Or rather, there weren’t enough walls—walls of water at the parting of the Red Sea scene.
The first film trailer showed a rather spectacular wall-of-water image. The second trailer showed a river-sized torrent rushing in upon the fleeing/fighting Egyptian army. But why no finished visual-effects shot of the actual parting? Apparently it’s because this film won’t show an actual parting of the Red Sea. And suddenly I find myself less interested in Exodus.Even if a skeptical filmmaker assumes the Exodus account is fictitious, why be embarrassed by the most fantastical parts of the story?
Here lies squishy territory. When Christians grumble about films before they release—especially if they spread rumors about the director’s intentions or the film adaptation—they risk committing the sin of slander. At Christ and Pop Culture, I even wrote “Exodus: Gods, Kings, and Evangelical Headcanon” on why Christians shouldn’t pull the same nonsense about Exodus: Gods and Kings that we pulled about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.
Aronofsky said he was agnostic. But his Noah film had no fear of the fantastical. Apparently its makers loved the account’s miracles so much that the story not only kept a global flood, but made up even more fantastical things such as rock-encrusted angels. But Scott stated that the most fantastical element of the Exodus account has always bothered him:
“You can’t just do a a [sic] 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.”
Biblical Christians will blanch. Scripture’s true story presumes belief that God is the infinite Creator who overrides the natural laws that he established to show that he is Lord. Biblical Christianity leaves no place for permanent doubt that God can do miracles—especially when parting an ocean is nothing compared to creating a universe or saving his enemies.
But here I will raise a different challenge: even if a skeptical filmmaker assumes the Exodus account is fictitious, why be embarrassed by the most fantastical parts of the story?
Imagine the producers of the Harry Potter film series saying they love the tale of a boy gone to wizarding school, but all that wand-waving charm-casting is too unrealistic. And a sports game played on flying broomsticks? Irrational. Add a scientific explanation: The Bludgers are pulled by an array of magnets hidden in the stands and the Golden Snitch is a tiny robotic drone. Players make their brooms “fly” like Fred Flintstone makes his car roll.
Imagine Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, suggesting in an interview that the orcs are just grotesquely unbelievable, elves are too absurdly ethereal, hobbits are sentimental and silly, and wizards should actually be seen as highly skilled Middle-earth scientists. In fact, most of Jackson’s flaws come from overdoing the fantastical.
So what will happen in Exodus’s not-really-parting-of-the-Red-Sea adaptation?
Well, it’s not the stereotypical liberal theologians’ “sea of reeds” scenario in which a band of runaway slaves slops through a marsh-like area. Instead Scott offers what sounds like a scaled-down revision of the miraculous biblical account based on speculative history. To me this adaptation sounds more unbelievable than the iconic “walls of water” account:
Scott’s solution came from a deep dive into the history of Egypt circa 3000 B.C. After reading that a massive underwater earthquake off the coast of Italy caused a tsunami, he thought about how water recedes as a prelude to such disasters. “I thought that logically, [the parting] should be a drainage. And that when [the water] returns, it comes back withe a vengeance.”
If that’s indeed what the final film shows, then that’s why the trailers do show a single wall of water. The water is not being supernaturally pulled up into a wall, but merely rises like a tsunami wave. It’s cool, but far less spectacular and awesome than Exodus 14 describes.
And now I feel like that horse in the first trailer, unsure what to do as the wave bears down.
Do I want the film to fail? Not at all. But if a filmmaker has planned to spend millions on a Bible-epic film to release during peak season and plans to keep the role of God, the theme of God subverting false “gods” including Pharaoh, and even the special-miraculous and/or providentially timed plagues as described in Exodus, why not go the whole way? Why not embrace the power of the fantastical? Why do what most audience members do not want—show any hint of embarrassment for the original story’s fantastical source material?
Audiences have made Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy the biggest film of 2014 so far. Early November brought the releases of Big Hero Six about a teen and his superhero robot, and Interstellar about a generations-and-galaxies spanning space voyage that features both a wormhole and a black hole. Every top-30-earning film (even Titanic) is a fantastical story.
That’s my logical argument. Now a personal one. As a child I saw The Ten Commandments (1956) and most of it bored me, save for the Red Sea parting scene. It was groundbreaking for its time. But now films can do better. I was more enthralled by the wondrous Red Sea scene in The Prince of Egypt (1998). I even believe God used that film to help reawaken me to the true biblical account and to the beauty, power, and wonder found solely in himself.
Now I have been waiting for years to see a big-budget film epically part the Red Sea. No, I don’t need to see this visual-effected. Scripture tells me it happened. But it would be sweet. And yet it seems—again, it seems—that Exodus: Gods and Kings shall disappoint me here.
Notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that I will not see the film. (In fact at this point, I’ll likely see it, if only to confirm my uncertainty.) I didn’t say that it’s a horrible blasphemous mess and we should all boycott it. I’m not even saying that it’s obvious the director made his decisions in order to hate God. Filmmakers do have a lot to gain by making their films “controversial.”
But here is what I am saying: If the film rolls back the Red Sea “parting,” its story won’t be nearly as enjoyable. The adaptation’s own skepticism of the fantasy—an overly self-aware yet unnecessary “lampshading” of itself—will surely infect the rest of the story. Filmmakers can budget millions for onscreen special effects. But if a director doesn’t even theoretically “believe” in the story’s fantastical parts or spread that “belief” to others making the film, then all those scriptwriters and artists and editors and animators may also struggle with disbelief. They don’t believe this ship can soar. And, alas, such fears of fantasy-flight have brought down otherwise promising stories. Audiences will also struggle to believe the story and will likely discern the difference between a self-skeptical story and the delighted filmmaker who, despite his own skepticism, can boldly present an onscreen age of miracles.
Bible epic films can please audiences even if they revise details or risk going in different thematic directions (as Noah did). But their storytellers must embrace the fantastical. Other directors have done this, and if Scott’s Exodus comes off as half-hearted, then I would be tempted to suggest others give it a try. Imagine a Christopher Nolan-directed Bible epic. Or imagine a Marvel-style approach that is unashamed of fantastical themes and explores a shared cinematic universe, all building up to the epic death and resurrection of Jesus.
Well, regardless of whether we get such fantastical Bible films now, we’ll surely make them in the New Heavens and New Earth—perhaps with special effects from actual miracles.