We’re nearly ten years on from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Steven Spielberg’s fusion with Stanley Kubrick’s sensibilities is still a challenging and worthwhile film to revisit. We’re also now fifty-five years on from Cecil B. DeMille’s gorgeous take on The Ten Commandants, a film that has survived the test of time – partly by being shown on network television repeatedly. Both are now available on Blu-ray, and both are worth looking into. My review of both films on Blu-ray follow after the jump.
I’m more interested in Spielberg’s vision as – at the time – the film didn’t come together for me as a narrative. I remember purchasing the DVD and finding no way in. But fellow critics like Jeremy Smith and Devin Faraci have long championed the film, and I tried to give it another go. Stanley Kubrick supposedly foisted the material on Spielberg, who felt the need to complete it after Kubrick’s passing. From the title on down, the film seems like the antithesis of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. And the film also feels like Spielberg critiquing himself.
From the start, the film is impressive on a technical scale. It opens with William Hurt giving a speech about Mechas (the robots that function in the-then futuristic modern society) and the ability to teach them how to love. He creates children mechas, for parents with sick or dead children, and makes David (Haley Joel Osment). He’s given to the Swintons (Frances O’Connor, Jason Robards), who have a sick child they don’t think will recover. They’re warned not to program David to love unless they’re really sure, but there’s no movie if they don’t. But then their sick child gets better, and David is no longer wanted. The film then introduces Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who is forced on the run by a jealous husband (he is a gigolo). David saves Joe’s life, and David quests for the Blue Fairy, the person in Pinocchio who can turn David into a real boy.
I’ve re-read some of my thoughts at the time, and then I had mixed feelings, but what I mistook as absence is instead what Spielberg had started doing with films like Saving Private Ryan. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is not a Kubrick film in that it’s a commentary on humanity, instead it’s Spielberg deconstructing himself. Kubrick and Spielberg had a relationship that the two talked about and I don’t know what it was really like, but I wonder if Kubrick was kind of an asshole about Spielberg’s more sappy moments. The film seems to dispute so much of what Spielberg did in E.T. – again right down to the title. Where ET was a jesus figure, that’s pretty much the opposite here, and all the tricks Spielberg uses to make ET cute are used here to make David creepy. The moon that signifies Amblin and Elliot’s flight in that film becomes the enemy, and the mother is the person who casts David out. The film builds to an ending that Spielberg has seen as happy, but most audiences have viewed as anything but. At the time the distracting cameos (Chris Rock, Robin Williams) and the Flesh Fair sequence grated, now they’re just distractions from the whole of Spielberg turning his sensibilities upside down. I have no idea why he’d do that, but the film is a fascinating piece to watch because of his ability to use the same language of cinema that’s taught at least one generation of filmmakers where to put a camera, and then upended that.
At the time I noted that Spielberg seemed to be transitioning. That’s definitely the case, and everything after has been covered in the flavor that Spielberg could no longer make those films. No film stands as more definitive proof of that than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The A.I. Blu-ray offers the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The film comes with sixteen mini-featurettes (96 min.) on the making of the film replicated from the DVD release and that are all 4×3. They include comments from everyone involved in the production, including Spielberg and his stars, and offers a good look at the making of. There’s also two trailers, and a still gallery.
As for The Ten Commandments, it’s fair to say they really don’t make them like they used to. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 magnum opus has long held a place in cinema history, first and foremost for its unparalleled success. Once adjusted for inflation, it’s one of the five most successful films of all time and is annually shown at Easter on the broadcast networks (an impressive feat these days, joining Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life in the perennial “holiday favorite” way).
That said – and it really must be said – The Ten Commandments works because it can be enjoyed as a history lesson, a Biblical study, and a camp classic. It’s true, the movie’s kind of silly. Attempting to portray the life and times of Moses, it follows his story as the Pharaoh decrees that Hebrew babies are to be slaughtered in fear of a prophesy that one of these kids might overthrow the country. To save him from the slaughter, Moses’s mom sends him down the river Nile, where he’s adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch). Growing up into a strapping young lad (Charlton Heston), Moses competes with Rhamses (Yul Brynner) to be made the next Pharaoh, and both want it since whomever is made leader gets the hand of the beautiful Nefritiri (Anne Baxter, whose character’s name was changed from Nefrititi in fear of boob jokes). But just as Moses is about to be named the next Pharaoh, Bithiah’s handmaiden Memnet (Dame Judith Anderson) reveals Moses’s dirty secret of his lineage, which allows Rhamses to banish him.
Shunned, Moses is forced to wander the desert and finally meets his destiny when God appears to him as a burning bush. Going back to Egypt, Moses tries to show Rhamses that his Hebrew people must be freed or God’s wrath will be put upon him. From here the film plays like Moses’s Greatest Hits, with the parting of the Red Sea, the forging of the Ten Commandments, and the episode of God’s punishment for those worshipping at the altar of a golden calf, all done with 1956′s most state-of-the-art special effects.
Though the Biblical epic became a popular Hollywood genre in this era — with this title begetting such others as Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told — none of these movies could figure out how Biblical characters talked, which leads to some doozy dialogue that plays up the camp (at one point Yul Brynner purrs “Oh Moses Moses Moses.”) And though it heightens one’s amusement, this camp is magnified by the presence of numerous genre actors playing Biblical characters (Edward G. Robinson – best known for his years as a Warner Brothers gangster – plays Rhamses’ henchman Dathan, while Vincent Price plays effete villain Baka). That noted, Heston and Brynner excel in their roles. Though he may be best known as the King of Siam, Brynner is a commanding leader, and his Rhamses may be his best on-screen appearance, while Heston manages to have the proper gravitas to anchor the story, and he also manages to keep himself from appearing ludicrous even when he’s being lusted over.
The Ten Commandments is a lush spectacle for which no expense was spared in its making; there are literally thousands of extras, and when they’re building cities, one gets the sense that they actually could have done so, while Loyal Griggs’ cinematography makes it all feel like an animated feature with its vivid use of color.
The Ten Commandments on Blu-ray is spread across two discs in widescreen (1.78:1) in DTS-HD 5.1 surround and a 2.0 surround. The picture has never looked better at home, and the Blu-ray transfer improves greatly on the previous DVD incarnations. This is a definitive home video presentation, and the colors (which make the film) have never looked more psectacular. Supplements include an audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic,” newsreel footage from the premiere (3 min.), and three trailers. There appears to be a more deluxe edition (which we did not receive), which also includes the 1923 silent film and the previously made documentary about the movie.