Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? (DVD)

A murder investigation of biblical proportions.

This is the story of Rameses, one of the most powerful men the Earth has ever seen. His kingdom in Egypt grew so vast that temples the sizes of cities were built in his honor. As he grew older, he declared himself to be a god, leaving the day-to-day leadership of the kingdom to his eldest son. But along came Moses, demanding freedom for his people. Moses brought with him plagues, debilitating Rameses’ land with frogs, locusts, blight and darkness. But it was the final plague that did Rameses in, killing all the first born children in Egypt, including Rameses’ own beloved son.

This is also the story of Dr. Kent Weeks, famous Egyptologist who has made the study of Rameses his life’s work. Described as a real-life Indiana Jones, Weeks lives in a houseboat on the Nile River and spends his days digging through ancient tombs. A recent discovery of a mammoth burial site has turned up an artifact so significant, it has the potential to change how the world looks both at history and religion. Weeks has unearthed a human skull which may or may not be Rameses’ son. What follows is an autopsy thousands of years in the making. Will the cause of death be revealed as God’s plague or something else entirely?

A mega-hyped event for the Discovery Channel in 2004, this documentary is a solid piece of entertainment, narrated by the always-reliable Morgan Freeman. It moves along at a quick pace, weaving several narratives together, and taking the viewer from archaeological sites to high tech crime labs, with fantastic recreations of Bible miracles on the side. Each segment begins with actors retelling the Moses story as most people are familiar with it. These sequences are peppered with some fairly impressive computer-generated effects, giving them a colorful, larger-than-life feel. We’re then taken to the modern day, where Weeks and his fellow experts roam through the tomb and pour over details of the mysterious skull.

A third strand follows a journalist on a tour of Egypt to visit the actual locations of the Bible epic, such as the Pharaoh’s temple, the Red Sea, and even the possible site of the burning bush. These travelogues seem to poke holes in the Biblical account, which many people assume is a verbatim account of history. The parting of the Red Sea actually happened on a swampy marshland? The blood in the Nile River was nothing more than churned-up mud? Moses was possibly a member of an illegal cult, and was considered a heretic? And what’s that fracture on the back of the skull? That’s not the kind of wound that happens in nature. A lot of questions are raised, and more than a few traditions are challenged.

As interesting as the material is, the presentation here is not the groundbreaking wonder the Discovery Channel marketing department would have you believe. Just as the film starts to draw you in, you get a “coming up next” montage, immediately followed by a “for those just turning in” montage. This happens several times, repeating the same footage and special effects shots over and over. Even more glaring, few conclusions are reached, leaving you wanting more. The filmmakers seem to delight in turning convention on its ear, then backing off at the last minute, as if to avoid offending any deeply religious viewers.

Picture quality is excellent, with sharp details and bright, vivid colors. The 2.0 sound is also good, especially during the reenactments of battles and miracles. At first, the short behind-the-scenes featurette appears to do nothing but repeat the entire documentary. Stick with it, though, and there’s a look at how the reenactments were made, with good attention to detail with respect to the costumes and CGI effects.

The court recommends a rental. It’s a well-made documentary with some interesting food for thought, but repetition and a lack of a conclusion keep it from reaching true greatness.

The Verdict

Back to the tomb with you.

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