Ridley Scott’s 3-D “Exodus: Gods and Kings” has computer-generated plagues, waves and tornadoes. It has boat-chomping crocodiles, 400,000 digitally rendered Hebrew slaves and a sword-wielding Christian Bale as a “Gladiator”-like Moses.
But God may still steal the show.
“Exodus,” to be released Friday, preserves the awful severity of the Old Testament God — one who commands and demands — and does it all within the persona of a willful child.
Scott uses an 11-year-old British actor, Isaac Andrews, to give voice and visage to his Almighty, rather than concealing the deity behind a pillar of fire, too terrible for the eye of man, as Cecil B. DeMille chose in his “Ten Commandments.”
And it is Andrews — stern-eyed, impatient, at times vaguely angelic and at times “Children of the Corn” terrifying — who is challenging those who take their Bible seriously.
“It would be difficult for anyone who has any relationship with God and the Scripture to say this is OK,” said Chris Stone, a marketing consultant. His company, Faith Driven Consumer, helps to connect products, including movies, with observant Christians. The company was rebuffed, Stone said by way of disclosure, when it sought to become an adviser to the film, which he has not seen.
Early evidence of a backlash against the movie came in October, when Bale, speaking at a screening of “Exodus” footage for reporters, used the word “mercurial” to describe the Old Testament God. This created a smoldering problem for 20th Century Fox, which is releasing the film, on Christian and tabloid websites.
Gary A. Rendsburg, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, said he could immediately think of only one Old Testament reference that might support the notion of God as a young innocent. That is a very brief reference in the first Book of Kings, in which God speaks to Elijah in what is described as a “still small voice.”
In the Book of Exodus, Rendsburg said, God is rather “a character” who still has manlike traits by which much older generations understood him. “He’s very conversational, and you can still have a one-on-one with him,” said Rendsburg — though he noted, per Exodus 33, that to look upon God would kill a human.
Speaking this week from Budapest, where he is filming another movie, “The Martian,” Scott said he trusted his “gut” in deciding to have God speak through what he imagines might be a shepherd boy.
“I want to avoid the cliches,” said Scott, who added that a voice from the clouds was never an option.
Scott compared the search for Andrews to casting a young Dalai Lama. Of his eerie ability to mix innocence with command, Scott said: “One gets the sense that he comes from a very clean place. He only speaks logic and truth.”
Fox noted that at least one early viewer among the faithful, the Rev. Floyd Flake of New York’s Greater Allen AME Cathedral, had a positive reaction to “Exodus” after a private screening.
“I believe it will get a good response,” Flake said. Many Christians, he added, will probably find the notion of a child God consistent with accounts of Christ’s birth in the New Testament.
For Andrews, “Exodus” has clearly delivered the role of a lifetime. Best known for his role as Arius, a young admirer of the titular hero in Brett Ratner’s recent “Hercules,” he now gets to summon plagues and shape the destiny of Moses and of thousands of Hebrew slaves in their flight from Egyptian bondage.
“I need a general,” Andrews snaps at Moses at one point, setting off a war of liberation in Egypt. The resulting action film elements, which pit Bale against Joel Edgerton, as the pharaoh Ramses, turn Scott’s 3-D movie into an experience considerably more kinetic than DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” from 1956.
DeMille, hewing close to Scripture, portrayed God as a voice behind a burning bush and elsewhere. Charlton Heston, who played Moses, voiced God in the burning bush sequence. But another person, not publicly identified, spoke for God in other parts of the film.
Elsewhere, God has been played by a dignified Morgan Freeman in “Bruce Almighty,” a motorcycle-riding George Burns in “Oh, God! Book II,” and a roaring Alanis Morissette in “Dogma.” But none of those films were as ambitious or rooted in overall biblical narrative as “Exodus.”
A number of religious-themed productions recently have emerged from Hollywood, including lower-budget films like “Son of God” and “Heaven Is for Real,” and the recent “Bible” miniseries on television.
But most controversial, perhaps, was Paramount’s big-scale “Noah.” In that film, directed by Darren Aronofsky, the prophet Noah, played by Russell Crowe, was helped by giant rock monsters shaped vaguely like Transformers.
“Noah” ultimately took in about $362 million around the world, a relatively modest return, given its production budget of about $125 million and a commensurately large marketing expense.
Fox and Chernin Entertainment, which together made “Exodus” on a production budget of about $200 million (with the net cost closer to $140 million, after accounting for a thicket of tax incentives), reportedly decided early on to sell their film not as a religious story, but as an action extravaganza, in the mold of Scott’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator.”
Given Paramount’s experience with “Noah,” those people said, the new film’s backers assumed it would be difficult to engage faithful Christians, some of whom would inevitably quarrel with the movie’s Hollywood bent.
Bill T. Arnold, a professor at the Asbury Theological Seminary and an Old Testament scholar, at first laughed when told of Andrews’ portrayal. But then he said he was intrigued.
“There’s some sense of God as a boy that I like,” Arnold said.
“I don’t know what my impression will be when I see it,” he added. “But I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.”