IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 122 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur and his adoptive Roman brother Messala are best friends despite their different origins. When Ben Hur’s mother Naomi asks him to stop showing his sister Tirzah affection, Messala enlists in the Roman army and returns three years later as a decorated Roman officer. His return coincides with a rising insurrection by the Zealots, who are opposed to the oppressive nature of Roman rule, and he wants Ben-Hur to serve as an informant. The new Roman governor Pontius Pilate marches into Jerusalem with Ben-Hur and his family watching from a balcony and is subjected to a failed assassination. In retaliation, the Romans storm Ben-Hur’s household and arrest him and his family….
Before I proceed to slate this pointless movie, a movie that has no right to exit and which thankfully has become one of the biggest flops of the year, it’s probably worth me mentioning that the 1959 colossus that is Ben Hur was itself a remake, of a 1925 silent version which is pretty impressive in its own right. And also that there was a 2010 TV version [which was not so good] and even an animated movie. This, though, doesn’t really make one forgive the makers of this travesty, as it’s clear that the 1959 film is what they had in mind most [God forbid they should, you know, actually go back to the novel by Lew Wallace which has never been adapted faithfully yet]. Watching is like watching a heavily condensed version of the 1959 film with all the complexities and subtleties removed for the benefit of idiots. It’s infinitely inferior in every way, and after it had finished I really was left thinking about how much better films were in 1959. Of course that’s not necessarily the case, but this movie invites such negative comparisons. And, even as I type, I can’t help but remind myself of things like the 1959 Ben Hur using 10,000 people and 2500 horses, while this remake, because of CGI, only used 400 extras and 86 horses. You can’t tell me that that’s some kind of progress.
The thing is, I actually thought that this Ben-Hur might be reasonably okay, largely because of the previous work of director [though as a producer he’s sure been involved with some crud] Timur Bekmambetov [come on Timur, where’s that Wanted sequel you mention every now and again], though within ten minutes it was obvious that he was totally the wrong choice for this film, and not just because in interviews it was also obvious that he didn’t actually understand the story, while also talking other crap about the 1959 film like it not having good roles for women. Then again, writers Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley didn’t seem to actually know what they doing when they wrote this film, though they do seem to have been trapped by the obvious desire to copy the 1959 Ben Hur as much as possible but take out what a modern viewer [supposedly] might consider extraneous material and just change a few bits here and there. They must have been also asked to increase the religious content, perhaps a brave if foolhardy decision in today’s climate. Instead of having Jesus virtually offscreen as before, instead we have a Christ who, in his first scene, actually preaches to Ben-Hur, and the audience, something which really surprised me until I found out that some of the people behind this remake had been involved in making faith pictures. And, unsurprisingly, the Son Of God looks like a male model. I seem to remember that in the Bible Jesus actually wasn’t much to look at.
Opening the film with the start of the chariot race, then flashing backwards in time, works reasonably well. Making Messala the adoptive brother of Ben-Hur rather than just his best friend does ensure that their relationship totally avoids any homosexual elements of the kind some say are in the 1959 film [I’ve never seen it myself, but then I’m not the kind of person who goes looking for this kind of stuff], but otherwise makes little difference. There’s as much time devoted to their friendship as before and the first third doesn’t really move any faster despite the rushing of some of the details. One minute Ben-Hur is in love with Esther, the next minute she’s promised to somebody else, the next minute he runs after her to stop this, then the next minute she’s married via Ben-Hur’s voiceover in an event we don’t even see. Then we get one major change in Judah and family being arrested because somebody shoots an arrow at Pontius Pilate rather than Ben-Hur’s sister Tirah accidently dislodging a tile, though it’s less interesting. Then it’s on to an extremely brief desert march and an extremely brief galley rowing section. The ensuring sea battle is pathetic. The idea was obviously to try and show the action from Ben-Hur’s point of view, but it’s drowned in horrible shaky camerawork and bad CGI. And then we come to the most severe of this version’s omissions – the lack of the kindly Roman centurion Arrius. His role in the story as a Roman who isn’t ‘bad’ is very important, getting away from the simplicity of straight forward good and evil, but obviously that’s too complicated to have in this movie.
And so it goes on, the basic story retold in dumbed down terms, alongside such stupidity as Ben-Hur being a castaway in the Battle of Ionian Sea and then washing ashore in Palestine…which is half way across the Mediterranean Sea. All drama seems to be drastically muted, with this Ben-Hur not really seeming to have much of a burning desire for vengeance, though he is very weakly played by Jack Huston, an actor whom I normally rate but who here either doesn’t seem to bother [except, for some bizarre reason, deciding to suddenly speak with a much gruffer voice around half way through] or is lost with the terribly written part of Judah Ben-Hur here. Compared with the generally poor state of action in films today, the big chariot race, which attempts to ramps up the thrills so they border on becoming ludicrious, isn’t too bad, but compared with the one in 1959 which is still one of the greatest action scenes on film, it comes off as inept, with it being very hard to see what’s going on what with all the editing [I don’t think there’s a single shot that lasts more than three seconds], the obvious CGI additions, and so forth. And what on earth possessed Bekmambetov to shoot an action set piece set in Biblical times with [honestly] Go Pro cameras? And then there’s the simply atrocious ending which completely changes the meaning of much of the story [which is partly about revenge not being fulfilling], and which is also totally unbelievable. Did they really think audiences, especially 2016 audiences, would buy it?
The camerawork is shoddy and even amateurish throughout, and becomes tiring when even simple dialogue scenes have the camera going all over the place and are edited to death. Not quite every scene is shot with a shaky camera, but you’re never far away from one even when it seems inappropriate. A love embrace between Ben Hur and Esther. Shaky camera. Really? It’s just terribly done, and this is coming from someone who tends to really dislike this style but who admits that certain filmmakers, notably Paul Greengrasss, do know what they’re doing with it. The perhaps overly pretty and ornate set design you often tend to get in old movies set in the distant past has been replaced by a simple and probably more realistic approach, but this is something that they then proceed to go too far with, with endless footage taking place in dull, greyish brown exteriors. It’s all so lacking in any kind of inspiration and I can see so many viewers getting bored because we’re not given any reasons to care about the characters either.
None of the performers really seem to make much of an effort [Morgan Freeman, of course, plays Morgan Freeman] except for Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus though he seems ludicrously miscast in the part. Marco Beltrami’s score is quite good in places with its use of ethnic instruments but at times just seems content to coast and in the end isn’t fit to lick the boots of Miklos Rozsa’s 1959 effort which is one of the greatest film scores ever written. I almost feel sorry for this Ben-Hur as it really was doomed from the start both artistically and commercially, and it’s hard to understand why they bothered. In fact it’s almost funny when it seeemd obvious even to me that it wouldn’t attract many younger folk nor many older folk, and that the only people it probably would attract would be silly folk like me who try and see everything. I certainly can’t say that I hated it like the horrid remake of Ghostbusters. Okay, there may have been some hate near the beginning but it was soon replaced by a strange kind of pity. In fact, I almost feel like forgiving the filmmakers as they clearly know not what they do. But this film does sum up the sheer laziness, paucity of ideas and arrogance of Hollywood at the moment.