BEN-HUR PLOT SUMMARY:
The Romans sentence a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) to a life of slavery after they wrongly accuse him of treason. The only thing keeping him alive is his hatred for his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), who betrayed him and his family. Meanwhile, a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) preaches throughout Palestine and gains a significant following.
The 1959 film, Ben-Hur, is a classic. Even if you haven’t seen it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it. Not only was the film, starring Charleton Heston, a huge hit in its time, it was also the first motion picture to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Since then, only Titanic and The Lord of Rings: The Return of King have matched that number. This isn’t to say that the 1959 version is the best movie of all time, though you could certainly argue that, but it is rather strange that someone would attempt to remake it. There’s really nowhere else to go but down. Furthermore, the film was a product of its time.
One of the reasons there are so many notable religious epics from the ‘50s and ‘60s is that Hollywood was trying to counter accusations of it harboring godless communists. Religious films were also quite marketable back in the day, compared to now. The last major religious blockbuster was 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, likely in part due to the controversy surrounding it. 2012’s VFX extravaganza Life of Pi and 2014’s Noah, an action film starring Russell Crowe (and “the least biblical biblical movie ever,” according to Darren Aronofsky), don’t count. Remaking Ben-Hur in the climate of today’s industry was a fool’s errand.
To be fair to the makers of this new Ben-Hur, being a remake doesn’t automatically it bad. The Ben-Hur we know is technically a remake of the 1925 silent film, which itself is an adaptation of the widely popular 1880 novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (the bestselling book in America besides the Bible until 1936’s Gone with the Wind was published). The advantage that the Charleton Heston film has over its predecessor is that it’s in full color, in widescreen, and has sound. The only real excuse I can think of to remake Ben-Hur again is to utilize CGI.
If there is something I have to give this new Ben-Hur credit for, it’s just over two hours, which is as long as it needs to be. As great as the 1959 one is, at over three and half-hours, it’s too long. Sometimes an epic movie needs to be three and half-hours long (like the aforementioned Return of the King), but large in scale doesn’t need to equal long in length. The new film accomplishes this by excising scenes like the Nativity and greatly truncating Judah’s search for his mother and sister, the latter taking roughly an hour in the ‘59 film. This streamlines the movie, though the exclusion of Quintus Arrius creates some plot holes.
Despite being shorter, the film does find time to add new things. The most notable change is that Messala is now Judah’s adoptive brother instead of a childhood friend. This is done to make Messala a more sympathetic character than the straight heel of previous films. While it does work, it in some way undermines the “love your enemies” message by making Messala not as bad a guy. Speaking of loving enemies, the movie features Jesus in a speaking role with his face shown. While it’s nice to see him as hands-on, such as when he shields a man from being stoned to death, it takes away the uniqueness that the other films had by never having him talk or show his face. The new movie radically changes other characters, such as Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) from a more morally ambiguous figure to a virtual mustache-twirler and Shiek Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) from a charming Arab to a stone-faced Nubian. It’s clear Freeman’s phoning it in, especially compared to the rest of the cast. At least he’s not a white actor with his face crudely painted brown like in the 1959 film.
While Ben-Hur is obviously a religious story, the Charleton Heston film won so many Oscars because of its spectacle. That film’s chariot race is so legendary that it was integral to the marketing of this new movie. Unfortunately, while the sets and costuming are as impressive, there’s nothing that the 2016 version does better than both its predecessors in regards to action. While the sea battle is undoubtedly better than the ’59 version, in which the use of miniatures and a studio pool is obvious, it can’t compete with the swarm of extras fighting in the 1925 film. The sequence in the new movie comes across as a discount Pirates of the Caribbean. The CGI wreckage takes you out of the movie, a problem that the chariot race also suffers from. Obviously safety is paramount, but it can’t match the visceral thrills of its ancestors. Too often the chariot race becomes too miraculous and fantastical, which is ironic, given the religious nature of the film. Even moments where our hero is danger don’t carry the same weight because its shot in a way that never fools you into believing it wasn’t carefully choreographed. It doesn’t evoke the same response when you see a racer dragged under a chariot.
I could go into all the little details about what I didn’t like about this movie, but most of them are minor. This movie is well made by today’s standards. It’s got good acting, good set design, and good costuming. But it just doesn’t have the same sense of wonder. All you need to do is listen to the overture and finale of 1959 film’s score (available on Spotify) and then listen to the Andra Day song the filmmakers chose to close the 2016 film. Instead of stirring melodies we get a generic Rihanna-esque anthem.
Final verdict, if you’re one of the few people on planet Earth interested in this movie, wait for it to come to Redbox or On Demand.
RATING: 6 OUT OF 10 (AVERAGE)
Aaron Sarnecky is Pop-Break’s television editor and covers Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., among other things. He is a graduate of Rowan University with a degree in television and film. He probably remembers that show you forgot existed. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronSarnecky