The James Clayton Column: The Biblical blockbuster comeback?

As Noah arrives in cinemas, and with Ridley Scott's Exodus around the corner, James ponders the return of the biblical epic...

“Then God said, ‘Let there be Industrial Light & Magic’; and there was Industrial Light & Magic.” (Genesis: A New Hope. 1:3)

It is the Year of our Lord 2014 (other Lords and religiously-orientated calendar systems are available) and things are getting old-school. To be precise, things are getting Old Testament. They’re bringing the Bible back into movie theatres, for this year sees the release of two major movie adaptations of Judeo-Christian scripture.

Those two film events are a Noah – currently sailing into cinemas worldwide – and an Exodus, which is set to occur in December. Though it feels a bit disrespectful to compare holy writ with public transport, the well-known idiom about waiting for buses feels apt here. Perhaps singing “the Old Testament films came two-by-two, hoorah! Hoorah!” while anticipating a future deluge might be more suitable. Regardless, after eons without any Pentateuch-inspired motion pictures from major studios, suddenly we find ourselves facing up to a brace of special effect-heavy Biblical blockbusters born of ambitious directorial vision.

Before I get deep into the Word of God and attempt to part seas and rise above apocalyptic eco-disasters, some background information on the two focal features for the laity. Noah is directed by Darren Aronofksy and is fronted by Russell Crowe as the eponymous Ark-crafting patriarch. A supporting cast of big names including Jennifer Connelly (Noah’s wife, Naameh), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah) and Ray Winstone (the antagonist Tubal-cain) among many others supply additional star power to the most famous flood story.

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We’re also promised impressively-rendered animals and immense meteorological action – Aronofsky employing the most advanced visual effects to make the menagerie come to life and achieve an incomparably awesome primordial eco-event. (ILM allegedly described their contributions as some of the most complicated digital-rendering work performed so far.)

Turning to the other Biblical blockbuster on the slate, Sir Ridley Scott’s Exodus (or Exodus: Gods And Kings, to give it its latest official title) is a bit more of a mystery as it’s still in production. What we do know is that the Christian Bale is playing Moses opposite Joel Edgerton’s Pharaoh Ramesses II. Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul and John Turturro are also in the cast for the chronicle of the Israelites’ great migration from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land – a journey made after such spectacle moments as a burning bush revelation and ten terrible plagues. 

These movies are a big deal – big deals with swarms of locusts, rivers of blood, seas split asunder and the wet, stormy wrath of Heaven drowning all humanity, all made viscerally realistic thanks to cutting-edge moviemaking technology. In the case of Exodus, audiences have seen the story of Moses and the Israelites on screen before thanks to a number of film and TV productions, the most prominent being Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments of 1956.

The Noah’s Ark legend has even less of a cinematic legacy and, aside from a range of dubious-sounding daytime TV movies, all we’ve got is Evan Almighty – comedy sequel to Bruce Almighty – which isn’t really a direct adaptation of the Genesis legend. These two new films therefore have novelty, and novelty is always something to be prized on a movie scene that sometimes feels like it’s running on the same-old-same-old. In a nicely ironic way, the Old Testament is bringing something new.

The auteur names involved may also raise a few eyebrows, but both Scott and Aronofsky have had prior dabblings in religion and their personal moviemaking styles suit Biblical material. Scott wrestled with holy wars and the fundamentals of Abrahamic faiths in Kingdom Of Heaven and his trademark visual approach is ideal for the expansive scope of the Moses story.

Aronofsky, on the other hand, presented Kabbalah concepts on film in the dizzying combination of complex mathematics and Jewish mysticism of Pi (or π). The sprawling multi-stranded odyssey to overcome death that is The Fountain, likewise, explores the concepts and abstract ideas of an eclectic array of traditions. Noah appears to be the perfect plot for a director renowned for psychologically-driven works that revolve around desperate protagonists caught up in overwhelming obsession.

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The moviemakers are ideally matched to the material, but the material is still questionable. Ominous voices – voices that sound like James Mason as the Voice of God – declaim and declare that the Biblical blockbuster or religious epic is a “dead genre”. Such bold claims usually don’t ring true – Westerns and sword-and-sandal flicks are all occasionally dismissed as being extinct cinematic traditions and then successful movies like, say, True Grit, Django Unchained, Gladiator and 300 rip up the premature obituary notices.

Denying that ‘dead genre’ label is less easy to do when it comes to religious epics, however, as there is a very real dearth of Bible movies that aren’t adapting the Gospel tales of Jesus Christ (two being Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ).

As far as direct, ‘faithful’ adaptations go, things dried up after the decline of the Hollywood studio systems in the early 1960s. Monolithic spectacles such as The Ten Commandments and John Huston’s The Bible: In The Beginning used to dominate the box office alongside epic Gospel-bothering blockbusters like The Robe and Ben-Hur. Suddenly, though, these pictures of great piety and even greater running time ceased to exert a presence, the commercial failure of The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965 possibly a critical turning point. 

Altogether, a changing industry, culture shifts and perhaps even a collective crisis of faith all combined to push the Biblical blockbuster out of fashion. No longer found in movie theatres, modern adaptations of scripture have been confined to miniseries and TV movie formats and are exhibited without much in the way of grand ceremony. Meanwhile the hammy, dated relics of the golden era still have some small screen life left in them, aired ritually at Easter or occasionally raised from the dead and celebrated when they receive the remastering treatment for contemporary home release formats.

In an allegedly more secular age, studios have been reluctant to stump up the big budgets necessary for Biblical epics. You can’t really destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on a shoestring budget and if you’re going to try and re-enact Genesis it’s got to be a work of considerable scale and enormous imaginative vision. Movie moguls have figured religion to be a risky business and, subsequently, haven’t been producing pictures along The Ten Commandments lines for some time, Judeo-Christian narratives thriving instead in the world of musical theatre (see Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Children Of Eden as song-and-dance case studies).

Still, in spite of the apparent separation of church and cinema, holy scripture has continued to exert its influence over a wide array of movies even if straight-up adaptations of Torah or Bible passages haven’t been passing along the production line. God Almighty still has a strong hold on Hollywood, and Southern Preacher Matthew McConaughey’s recent Oscar victory speech is testimony to that (“I say alright, alright, alright”). Returning to the evidence on screen, we’re never too far away from Biblical motifs and religious imagery, even when we’re sitting through the most irreligious movies.

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Christ allegories and Messiah figures are commonplace, and that’s understandable in view of Jesus’ position as the figurehead of Earth’s largest religion. For some particularly remarkable examples, see Neo of The Matrix series, Leelo of The Fifth Element and the Second Coming represented in the form of Superman in Superman Returns and Man Of Steel.

Harking back to the epochs before the life of Christ (or Brian), Old Testament elements are plentiful and sometimes even more explicit and profound than all the cliché Jesus Christ poses. Note, for instance, Star Trek’s Genesis planet in The Wrath Of Khan and The Search For Spock. See also the allusions to the creation of Adam in each Frankenstein-style fable and in the iconic finger of E.T.

Furthermore, you don’t have to think too hard to recall an underdog movie that draws upon the David versus Goliath trope – Rocky and Real Steel being two that instantly come to my mind. Less cheerily, the Book of Job has acted as a ripe source of suffering for the Coen Brothers’ bleakest pictures, the most potent being A Serious Man which loosely translates the Biblical tale of abject human anguish into the litany of ordeals experienced by a Jewish man in 1960s Minnesota.

Even if they aren’t overt or consciously intended, all of these Bible references highlight just how ingrained into culture and storytelling tradition the Good Book is. Moviemakers – and other artists, for that matter – may not have been raised in an especially religious environment but the archetypal moral fables are still widely known and resonate in the popular consciousness.

Ultimately, the Bible has a lot to answer for. Aside from its importance as a scriptural bedrock on which certain civilisations and societies are built, you can easily comprehend how the perpetual best-selling story collection has influenced popular culture. That impact on art has been and can be a very beautiful thing and that is a resounding truth whether the artist or observer is a believer or non-believer. The sacred texts of Judeo-Christian faith have inspired so many astounding creative works across the centuries and cinema is no exception.

Knowing the talents involved and the resources at their disposal, I’m inclined to believe that Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus will be exhilarating, awe-inspiring experiences. Focusing on their synopses, regardless of religious beliefs and questions about the veracity or literal point of the material, these are great stories.

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These yarns are brimming with rich characters, offer timeless themes, exhilarating action set-pieces and touch upon real, ever-relevant human concerns and philosophical questions. The same goes for the rest of the Old Testament. It’s packed with compelling drama and there’s so much potential for innovative filmmakers looking for ideas and interesting stories of colossal scale and creative possibility.

Whether faithful or irreverent, radical or rooted in solid tradition, I for one would be eager to see more adaptations o f the Holy Book hitting cinemas in the future. I have faith in the biblical blockbusters – even if they are yet to manifest as live revelations on cinema screens. If Noah and Exodus spark a trend and convince the masses and the powers-that-be that there’s more scope for epic event movies adapting Judeo-Christian scripture, we could be in for some awe-inspiring experiences – the Bible brought to vivid life by Industrial Light & Magic for 21st century standards by the prophets of a glorious new epoch.

“And God saw that it was good.”

James Clayton is set to star as Jonah in Park Chan-wook’s ‘Whaleboy’ – a radical and harrowing re-imaging of the Old Testament book. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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