Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ridley Scott's Exodus Gods and Kings, and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar: Past-present, Future-present

I have seen the 6.30 pm show of Exodus Gods and Kings, Screen1 Big Odeon (Connaught Place), and the 9.45 pm of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, Screen 2 Big Odeon. If one has the patience and the stamina, these two movies should be seen one after another and in the order I have seen. Exodus deals with a past event and deals with the issue of being human and the question of freedom from tyrants and subservience to God. Interstellar again deals with the question of being human, and issues of existence and survival, love and the emotion of family bonds. The two films together span time as we know it -- past, present, future. In Exodus the past has a resonance in the present, and in Interstellar, the present and the future have a mutual bearing on each other. Scott and Nolan are two of the brilliant Hollywood directors, and if the two films turn out to be problematic it is because the subjects they are dealing with are complex and difficult.
The story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and back to Canaan is a problematic one because it is shamelessly used as a metaphor for the Jews going back to Israel. It is true the story of Moses as told in Exodus is indeed that of God burdening a reluctant Moses to lead his people out of bondage, and also revealing to him the Ten Commandments which was meant for the Jews and which they always flout. The Jews defy and mock Moses at several points like spoilt brats. But that is the story in the Old Testament, and filmmakers if they want to tell the Moses story, they have no option but to tell it as God freeing an oppressed people. When I saw the 1956 version of the story which Cecil B Demille produced as The Ten Commandments, Demille introduced the movie and it was nothing but Jewish propaganda for the present times. Scott avoids the propaganda bit, but he is unable to resolve the contradictions in the story. That is why, Scott's Moses played by Christian Bale is slightly more ambiguous about his God than Demille's Moses played by Charleton Heston. Scott's Moses confronts God about his vengefulness, and Moses'God says that his people have been enslaved for 400 years. Sigmund Freud must have been really irritated by the propaganda implied in the Exodus, and it must have led him to make the provocative thesis that Moses was in reality an Egyptian, making use of the embedded ambiguity in the story where the Hebrew Moses is brought up as an Egyptian Moses.
The Jewish-Egyptian story is a long and friendly one before it enters the Moses'chapter. Jacob's 11 sons sell of their 12th brother to merchants who take him to Egypt and sell him again. But Joseph wins the favour of the Pharaoh by interpreting the Egyptian king's dreams as seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. During the years of famine, Joseph's brothers and the Jews migrate to Egypt during the famine, and because of Joseph's preeminent position, the Pharaoh allows them to settle and the place of their settlement is called Goshen. Without this background, the Moses story shows the Pharaohs as tyrants and the Jews as fighting for their national freedom. Secondly, the Exodus does not mention it but both Demille and Scott show the Jews as the slave labour who had built the pyramids and other monuments of pharaonic Egypt. There were Egyptians and other conquered people who also worked as slaves and workers for the pharaohs.
Scott introduces his own interpretation compared to that of Demille. He shows that Ramses and Moses had a healthy respect for each other, that Moses was unhappy that Egyptians had to suffer. And when he is exiled by Ramses after his Hebrew identity is revealed, he travels on the coast of Red Sea and lives among a tribe. The Old Testament speaks of the Medes, but here he shows a semi-Arab tribe where Moses ends and marries a girl there. The burning bush episode is pruned, and there is a nice presentation of the God of Hebrews which might offend the orthodox Jews. Nolan dutifully follows the ten pestilences that the Jewish God sends against the Egyptians. However this is preceded by Moses attempting to lead an armed revolt of the Hebrews which does not succeed. Scott also innovates when he shows that the Red Sea was not parted as much as it was crossed by the Hebrews at low tide, and it is a tidal wave that drowns the Egyptian army that follows the Hebrews.
Bale, like Heston earlier, succeeds in conveying the humble man chosen by God confronting the worldly prince. Exodus is a thoughtful movie to watch, but it is necessary to be aware of the underlying propaganda element in the story.
Interstellar is problematic in other ways. Nolan makes vulgar use of concepts of modern physics like relativity, quantum mechanics, singularity, black hole horizon. The characters bandy these words about in the manner of ostentatious high school kids. The real significance of the film is the near-apocalypse on earth, where the burning problem is that of food and there are too many engineers, physicists and astronauts. There is a telling scene when the school teachers tell Cooper, the protagonist played by Matthew McConnaughey, that his son can make the engineer's grade but the country does not need engineers but needs farmers. His daughter's teacher tell him that his daughter, Murph, is reading all wrong history and that the Apollo missions were there result of Russian propaganda to divert American resources from agriculture to space flights. Cooper counters whether the landing on the moon was a lie. He is an ace test pilot and astronaut himself who feels struck with farming when Nasa is closed down in the America of the time being shown in the film.
The film takes off into the future where Nasa and a few scientists survive in an underground bunker as it were. Cooper and Murph stumble on it, and Cooper is sent off on a flight, because he is the only spaceship flight left. The scientists led by Michael Cain now hunt for the exo planets to relocate humanity. Scientists as pioneers, the American spirit, are set to do their job.
The science bit in Interstellar is Hollywood hogwash with words like relativity, quantum mechanics, singularity, black hole, event horizon thrown and it looks like precocious adolescents. The women in the movie are warm human beings -- Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway.
Though the movie makes the point that gravity is the primordial force in the universe, the emphasis is on love and emotion, family bonding, parental bombing. People who are interested n science should see this movie because there is no science in the film as there was no philosophy in the Matrix movies of the Wachowski brothers.

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