• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, October 22, 2007

    The Ten Commandments (2007) - Review

    Much of the early criticism of this year's The Ten Commandments has focussed on the animation quality which many reviewers consider to be below par. Whilst it may be true that the standard of the CGI here may not be quite up to the standard of Pixar's The Incredibles, overall I think the harshness of that criticism is a little unfair. The animation of people appears to be the hardest task in the world of CGI, and there are very, very few films which can hold a light to Pixar's family of superheroes. But the CGI in The Ten Commandments is comparable with the brief moments that humans enter the fishy narrative of Finding Nemo or the scary world of Monster's Inc., yet was achieved with a small fraction of those films' budget. The danger is that in demanding only the absolutely highest standards of CGI that this particular form of artistic expression is closed to everyone but the biggest two or three studios. Smaller filmmakers haven't got a change to compete. Twelve years ago Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg struck a blow for smaller filmmakers with their Dogme 95 manifesto. It seems a shame that twelve years later, to many critics' eyes, computer animation is only for the rich.

    Given the amount of criticism levelled at the animation it surprising just how much visual creativity is on show in this film. Liberated from the technical restraints of cranes etc. the "camera" is able to swoop about indoors, produce some impressive backdrops, and get low and high angles that an actual camera would struggle to achieve. When Moses throws his staff to the ground in Pharaoh's palace its transformation into a snake is threatening shot from the floor. There are also a number of interesting dissolves.
    It's also hard to imagine a live action film would be able to give the same prominence to the pillars of cloud and fire which lead the Israelites in the wilderness. They are present in the other films, of course. Cecil B. DeMille was never one to miss such an obvious opportunity for showmanship. But in a live action film, such a spectacle is just a bit too showy. In contrast, whilst the biblical account is certainly impressed by it's presence, it also implies that it quickly became the norm. Commandments captures the way that these pillars were reassurance of God's presence and leading, rather than simply divine pyrotechnics.

    Films about Moses are, of course, so numerous, and so well known, that reference and homage are easy, but originality is difficult. Commandments has examples of both. Moses has died on screen before, but the film adopts an interesting approach. Moses's perennial thorn in the side Dathan is present once again, and here he even looks like Edward G. Robinson who played him in the 1956 film.

    In some places, however, the "borrowing" perhaps goes a little far (here, as in The Prince of Egypt such as the crocodiles who snap at baby Moses's basket), but overall the various nods to the other films are fairly deft. That said, when the credits sequence uses animated hieroglyphics to highlight the increasing enmity between Moses and his cousin Ramsees, it's a clear reference to The Prince of Egypt's most impressive sequence, but it's also very effective in it's own right.
    One of the things that is very different about this film is the wealth of material it manages to cover in such a short space of time. DeMille's gargantuan epic ran to 220 minutes, and still didn't cover as much of the story of the Exodus as this film does. At 88 minutes (including ending credits) this film is shorter even than The Prince of Egypt's 1 hour 39 minutes, and yet by avoiding silly sub-plots and distracting songs it covers far more material. In addition to the usual prologue, burning bush, plagues, exodus, and Ten Commandments, we're also treated to the stories of the water from the rock, manna and quails, and an extremely downplayed version of Aaron and Miriam's rebellion.

    One of the things that will have attracted many of the film's viewers, are the big names that are providing the voices. Moses is played by Christian Slater in his least Nicholson-esque role yet, who is adequate rather than outstanding. But Ben Kingsley (who took the lead role in 1996's Moses) and Alfred Molina do well as the narrator and Ramsees respectively. Less impressive is Elliot Gould as the voice of God who seems to lack sufficient gravitas and kindness to really carry the role.
    One unusual aspect of the film is the relationship between Moses and God. Whereas most of Moses's relationships are fairly conventional (enmity with an insecure Ramsees etc.,) Commandments breaks new ground by depicting Moses seeking out God and not just the other way around. When the Israelites complain that it's his fault they now have no straw to make their bricks with, he goes out into the desert to hunt out his Lord.

    So whilst this is not a great film, and whilst the computer generated animation is not at the same standard as many of the big-budget productions, this is a reasonably solid telling of the story of Moses, which will be particularly appealing to younger children.

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