DIRECTOR: Timur Bekmambetov
Who thought it was a good idea to remake Ben-Hur? Well, on paper, it would seem to be a possibility. Ben-Hur has been hitting our cinema screens since 1907, with three other theatrical versions before this one; a short silent effort in 1907, the 1925 silent epic and the blockbusting MGM epic from 1959.
But this follows stage plays, TV movies and even animated movies, all based on General Lee Wallace’s 1880 novel of the same name. But if a comparison is to be made, let us focus on the 1959 Charlton Heston movie. That, which ran for over three and half hours, takes its time to establish characters and situations, then takes us on a journey across the Roman Empire as we follow the turmoil of Judah Ben-Hur, betrayed by his best friend, a Roman who he considered to be a brother.
This journey takes place and parallels the life and ultimate execution of Jesus Christ and with this parallel, Judah is gradually inspired to temper his vengeance against his friend turned enemy and after the famous chariot race and the hollow victory therein, he will witness the crucifixion and through several machinations, find solace in the fledgling Christian movement.
So, how does this version hold up? To the 1959 version; not very well. This two-hour action movie is centred around the chariot race from start to finish, something which happens in the second act of the 1959 version but this is NOT the conclusion, but a catalyst for the finale.
Here, even though the events play out in a similar fashion, they are rushed and none of the character moments are earned. It is as if the film was pitched soley on the concept of showing an action packed chariot race in the 21st century.
If you want to see a modern interpretation of this race, possibly cinema’s greatest such sequence, then look at Star Wars: Episode I’s Podrace which captures the spirit perfectly. The positioning of this race and its significance to the plot was the same in the 1925 version as well, yet the fifteen minute 1907 short pretty much cherry picked the same plot elements as this 2016 version, which is quite telling really.
There was little interest in the story, just a cynical desire to bring this iconic movie back to the big screen and milk it as they would any franchise. But Ben-Hur is a poisoned chalice, so iconic that it would have to have offered something new without losing the original feel to succeed, as this classic simply did not warrant a remake.
But if you are going to remake it, give it a mega budget, which they did not, an all star cast, again, not the case and bring on board a top director to lead this project.
Instead we have a cast of relative unknowns, with Morgan Freeman being the most notable cast member, the director of such movies as Wanted (2007) and a small budget of just $100,000,000, when a blockbuster these days is usually pushing $200,000,000.
The main selling point for the previous two Ben-Hurs was the scale. These were epics and pushed the technology, filmmaking styles and never shied away from the strong religious overtones. Here it looks like it is given little more than lip service hoping to pander to the religious right.
It failed. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2013) made more of an impact and it divided audiences, but at least it was faithful to itself, pushed boundaries and left its mark on cinema.
But by the end, my jaw was literally on the floor as the maimed Massalia reconciled with Judah and the pair ride off into the sunset together, all forgiven….
And more importantly, what was the point? Jesus sacrified himself, (in the story) so that people like Judah would put down their swords and learn to forgive, yet in the end, Judah and Massalia sacrifice nothing as they both regain their friendship and live happily ever after. In the previous versions, Ben-Hur beat Massalia but he has the last laugh as his mother and sister have been left with leprosy, that is until Jesus’ death sparks a miracle which cures them. This was his reward for seeing the error of his ways, not getting his family and his friend back.
In the end, this is not a bad action romp, very watchable and is an entertaining spectacle but ultimately forgettable. It will entertain for two hours but leaves you with nothing to think about, unlike the books, plays and films which have preceded this.
A real shame…