Film Review – Ben-Hur (2016)
The story of Ben-Hur (2016) has been told many times, including two silent films and an animated direct-to-dvd release. But it was the 1959 iteration that stands as a classic in popular culture. That was a massive production: a three and a half hour epic with big sets, a large cast, elaborate costumes and thrilling set pieces. It went on to become one of the most decorated achievements in cinema history, earning a record eleven Academy Awards including Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Director (William Wyler), and Best Picture.
We took this little trip down memory lane to provide the appropriate context for this modern update. It’s easy to fall into the trap of whether or not a beloved picture should be remade. Heck, the 1959 version is a remake itself. But what director Timur Bekmambetov and screenwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley fail to do is give their version any kind of meaningful identity. It’s difficult to see this and not compare it to 1959 Ben-Hur because it transfers imagery and story beats almost completely. How are we supposed to view this on its own terms when it continues to remind of us of the Wyler film?
Bekmambetov translates the tale of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) during the ancient Roman Empire in truncated form. The narrative whittles everything down so as to adhere to the basic summer blockbuster formula. Advertisements tell us exactly what the focus is on: the climatic chariot race in which Judah participates as an act of revenge for being wrongfully imprisoned. The chariot race in the 1959 version is one of the great action set pieces in movie history. Bekmambetov and his crew understand this, and throw everything they have (creatively and monetarily) behind it. It’s as though throughout the plot they’re telling us, “Just hold on, we’re getting there.” The film actually starts at the beginning of the chariot race, and then jumps into a flashback recalling the events leading up to it.
Does the race live up to expectations? Not really. It certainly has a level of excitement, but it’s bogged down by a hyperactive camera, relentless editing, and computer generated imagery. When one of the horses runs loose and ends up in the stands, the CGI is laughably unconvincing. Maybe the sequence doesn’t have the impact it should because the relationship between Judah and Messala (Toby Kebbell) isn’t developed well enough to raise the stakes. Messala, if you recall, was Judah’s close companion but was also Roman. This leads to Messala betraying Judah (who is Jewish) and sending him into a life of slavery, the main motivation behind Judah’s urge for revenge. In 1959 Ben-Hur Judah and Messala were lifelong friends. Here, Messala is introduced as Judah’s adopted brother. Why the change? Was it to remove the possible gay subtext found in the ’59 version? Whatever the case, the connection between the two never felt believable. First they’ll act like brothers, then try to kill each other without remorse, and then go right back to acting like brothers again. They switch their emotions whenever the plot needed them to.
The inclusion of Jesus Christ has always sat a little awkwardly in this story, including the 1959 version. But at the very least, Wyler knew to show him in bits and pieces. Although he is a presence, he doesn’t have any dialogue and we never see his face. It’s a nice little touch because we instead have to focus on Charlton Heston’s face and his reactions to Jesus as a symbol of peace in a violent world. Bekmambetov does away with all that subtlety, putting Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) smack dab in the middle of everything, showing his face and giving him plenty of dialogue. It amplifies the awkwardness: everything comes to a narrative stop whenever Jesus shows up. Audible chuckles were heard whenever Jesus preached love and forgiveness. It’s hard to buy into that idea in a movie where the promotion features a bloody death race as a selling point.
Jack Huston should be commended for taking the near impossible title role. He does a good job of showing the range of Judah’s emotions, from love to burning hate and everything in between. He acts as a good anchor while everything whirls around him. Toby Kebbell does an ok job as Messala, although the writing and direction keeps him relegated as an entitled and spoiled brat. Most of the other performances unfortunately leave little to be remembered. Rodrigo Santoro plays Jesus as a nothing character, with a face so expressionless you’d think he was playing poker. And let’s not get started with Morgan Freeman, who strolls in as one of Judah’s allies, collecting his check and carrying on his merry way.
Ben-Hur 2016 isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it does very little to justify its existence. It glosses over familiar scenes and motifs, going through the same old routine without bringing anything new to the table.