BEN-HUR (2016) review
written by: Keith Clarke and John Ridley
produced by: Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson & Joni Levin
directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and disturbing images)
runtime: 123 min.
U.S. release date: August 19, 2016
I think it’s funny and absurd that there were “fans” protesting and gnashed their teeth on the internet about a “Ghostbusters” reboot/remake that was released last month, yet it’s been all quiet about this “Ben-Hur” remake. What a finicky and peculiar time we live in. I haven’t seen any petitions or boycotts relating to this remake of the 1959 MGM motion picture epic that won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and three Golden Globes. No uproar at all. When trailers came out earlier this year for this Paramount/MGM remake, critics and moviegoers groaned and scoffed. That’s about it. No one aware of the original classic asked for it to be remade and yet here we are, because Hollywood is insistent in continuously remaking this movie.
That’s right – this isn’t the first time “Ben-Hur” was remade. In fact, the Oscar-winning “Ben-Hur”, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, was a remake as well. For the record, this is the sixth filmed version – there’s been a mini-series, two silent films, an animated version and the Wyler’s remake.
MGM had previously released a silent film in 1922 directed by Fred Niblo, which adapted Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. That story followed the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur, a fictional Jewish prince from 26 AD Jerusalem who is enslaved by the Romans and becomes both a charioteer and a Christian. A subplot running concurrent with Judah’s narrative is the story of the Jesus Christ (which is why the movie has popped up on network television during Christmas time for decades), who comes from the same region and is similar in age to Judah Ben-Hur. It’s a tale of betrayal, conviction, and redemption, with a side order of revenge that leads to a story of love and compassion. (If that’s not what Hollywood always gravitates to, then I haven’t been paying attention!)
Wyler’s remake was to be bigger and better than the silent film, inspired by the success of Paramount’s “The Ten Commandments”, with the studio determined to find another swords-and-sandals Biblical epic they can throw money at – $10 million to be specific, making it the costliest movie a Hollywood studio had produced at the time. With the studio’s robust $14.7 million marketing campaign, “Ben-Hur” became the fastest-grossing as well as the highest-grossing film of 1959, in the process becoming the second-highest-grossing film in history at the time after “Gone with the Wind”. Certainly, it was on the wave of a particular cultural zeitgeist. Indeed, Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. The movie repeatedly appears on AFI’s 10 Top 10, which honors the ten greatest U.S. films in ten classic film genres, which finds “Ben-Hur” in the #2 spot, just below “Lawrence of Arabia” in the “Epic” genre category. Wyler’s movie was also chosen for preservation by the National Film Preservation Board for being a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” motion picture.
I’m including all this information about the most widely-known adaptation of “Ben-Hur” just to reiterate the many reasons why it’s always best to leave well enough alone and my puzzlement as to why another remake is necessary. The answer: it’s not, obviously. I didn’t even plan on seeing it actually (at least it wasn’t on my “must-see summer movie list”, if I had one), except my curiosity got the best of me and in a situation like this, to fully understand what’s going on (and possibly the filmmaker’s/studio’s intention), one kind of has to see said needless remake.
Written by Keith Clarke (MIA since Peter Weir’s “The Way Back”) and John Ridley (screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave”, so he knows a thing or two about Roman slavery), this remake differentiates itself in many ways. Messala (Toby Kebbell, “Fantastic Four”, also known for his mo-cap work on the recent “Planet of the Apes” movies) is no longer Ben-Hur’s childhood friend here, but rather his adopted brother in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, who never received the love or acceptance needed from Judah’s mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer, who recently played Mother in “Last Days in the Desert”) and ran off to join the Roman Army. He rises in stature and finds favor in Pontius Pilot (Pilou Asbæk, “A War”) after a tour of service in many Roman battles.
Upon returning to Jerusalem as a centurion, Messala (the grandson of a Roman who betrayed Caesar) falsely accuses prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, “American Hustle” and nephew of Angelica and Danny) of treason and has him banished into slavery (primarily because he wouldn’t rat on Roman troublemakers) while discarding his own mother and sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia) to die. Separated from his love, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into the life of a galley-slave for five years, eventually winding up in the company and tutelage of Nubian Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), where he trains as a charioteer. As his hate builds for Messala, leading to a showdown at a chariot race (Ilderim calls it a “circus”), Judah’s path intersects with that of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro “300”), who offers an alternate path, one of hope and salvation.
If that sounds familiar, it is. Again, this is a remake of a remake. The difference is in its approach by the screenwriters and director Timur Bakmambetov (“Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer”), who rely heavily on epic action and grand settings (both of which are laden with CGI), instead of convincing drama or compelling characters. There’s never really a time where we’re given a chance to figure out who these characters are and what they’re about. They just pose, brood and stare off into space as they recite unconvincing and (frankly) odd lines. Even if the screenplay had great characterization or dialogue, the overall story still feels abbreviated and predictable, making viewers feel like they’re being punished to sit through it.
But the most egregious, obvious and problematic aspect of this “Ben-Hur” is the shakey-cam cinematography by Oliver Wood. I suppose that’s not surprising considering this is the same guy that lensed the first three “Bourne” movies, which had a handheld kinetic feel, but what’s going on here feels like amateur hour on YouTube. There’s absolutely no justifiable reason to employ such an approach here in a story where the audience should be guided through an environment that’s being introduced to them, not jerked around in hopes that they catch on. Even when two characters are having a conversation, a lot of times the camera quickly cuts to the person that talks, which visually breaks up the flow between the two characters. Granted this doesn’t happen throughout the entire film, but it’s enough to frustrate. There’s also a bizarre humid camera lens effect used when Judah is in the galley of the Roman ship in the Ionian Sea as the Macedonian ships attack. For the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend what purpose this had. It’s not like it was coming from a certain character’s point of view or was a depiction of a natural setting. It all adds up to shoddy work that confounds the viewer’s understanding of the movie, which is the exact opposite of what cinematography should do.
The acting here doesn’t help either. Yes, I know Morgan Freeman is in this – and of course, they’ve got him narrating (translation: explaining) the movie as well (which has me wondering if the award-winning, voice-of-God actor knows how to say, “no thanks”) – but Freeman showing up in a movie doesn’t really account for much anymore. Real quick – what was his last great role? Exactly. Most of his lines are unintentionally amusing. The women in this movie feel interchangeable, all of them cast with similar attractive features, yet with no distinction save for Boniadi’s Esther, whose sole purpose is to persuade Judah to “see the light”, except that her lines feel very unnatural, almost like she’s quoting scripture or reciting a proverb. As the two leads, Kebbell has the more conflicted character as Messala, but he navigates between emoting a furrowed brow and outbursts of rage. There’s not nearly enough of the understandable internal struggle the character has. Huston is really bland in the titular role and is far removed from the charismatic masculinity of Charlton Heston. At no point do we really feel for the character, since he just goes from spoiled rich kid to a man obsessed with revenge, not caring who dies because of his rash actions. Ultimately, he’s a hard character to get behind, since he’s generically written and portrayed in a paint-by-numbers manner.
Then there’s Jesus, which is always a tough role to play. If he’s too pretty or kind, he often comes across as hippy-dippy and if he’s too forceful, then he’s overwhelming. At least they didn’t cast a white dude in the role. Brazilian Santoro is fine, but from his introduction to his crucifixion, his behavior and dialogue feels like the Gospels Greatest Hits, instead of allowing us to see the world through Jesus’s eyes. Since this iteration of “Ben-Hur” gives Jesus a more prominent role in the movie, it would’ve been good to give us more than what we already know of the character, but then again a movie like this isn’t going to convert any heathens and it’ll be more concerned with a crowded and confusing chariot race.
It definitely feels like there’s a blatant evangelistic agenda hidden within a movie that builds to that immersive and violent 10-minute chariot sequence (which made me appreciate George Lucas’ pod-racing more). There’s a story arc of forgiveness and reconciliation that feels very forced, instead of something that is gradually and naturally arrived at. This comes as no surprise since producers, Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, were previously behind the 10-hour History Channel hit series “The Bible” in 2013, followed by an abbreviated theatrical version of that series called “Son of God” in 2014, both of which felt like live-action Biblical Cliff Notes.
Their target audience for those features and this film are obviously the converted and already faithful and even if this “Ben-Hur” is critically panned, there will be Christian communities who will eat this up, showing clips from it in their worship service and small groups. Good for them. Many will simply be happy that there’s a movie out in theaters that has a message they can get behind, without considering or understanding how such a message is being communicated. It’s just too bad what they’ll be showing isn’t coming from a better film, instead of yet another unnecessary and needless remake.
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Bakmambetov, who originally said “no” to the project but changed his mind after reading Ridley’s screenplay, described the difference in theme between his movie and Wyler’s, “It’s not about revenge, as it was in the 1959 movie, but forgiveness. Today, in our world, where we’re all fighting, people and countries, I think that learning how to forgive each other is really important. It’s the only way we can survive.” I agree. Such a message is important, but arriving at it on our own would be nice too, instead of having it fed to us in such a familiar, heavy-handed and at times laughable way.