How can one review the 2016 version of Ben-Hur without bringing up its multitude of predecessors, chiefly the 1959 Best Picture winner with one of the greatest sequences in all of cinematic history? I try and judge each movie on its own merits but remakes are difficult by nature because without the fame and hopefully good will of the original, they wouldn’t ever exist, and yet they have to find their own voice and purpose in order to justify why we even need another version of the movie. I understand some of the excuses why even tackling a new Ben-Hur would be advisable, mostly coming down to a more audience-friendly running time that’s half of the 1959 classic. Of course truncating a four-hour biblical epic has its own problems too, and while this newest Ben-Hur isn’t a three-chariot pileup of a misguided mess, it certainly pales in comparison and comes across mostly as a jazzed up yet mediocre imitation of something immutably great.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy first century Jewish man who is sold into slavery as punishment from his adopted brother Mesalla (Toby Kebbel), a Roman soldier. Messala is also one of the greatest chariot racers for the Roman Empire, and so Ben-Hur, after surviving a slave ship shipwreck, rises to the top of the chariot ranks to confront Messala, seek vengeance, humiliate him, and find his family once more.
It’s obvious that this new remake wasn’t going to banish any cinephile’s memories of the 1959 version, but some of the decision-making handicaps the overall impact of the 2016 version, chiefly among them the characterization and casting of its lead. Judah Ben-Hur is definitely lacking when it comes to being a strong and engaging hero. The casting of Huston does not abate this. For fans of TV’s Boardwalk Empire, it’s clear that Huston can be a very capable and intriguing character actor, and he has an easy handsomeness that might slide him readily into mainstream big-budget projects. The problem is that Huston lacks the gravitas the role requires and this is further hampered by the limited characterization, and the two negative qualities twist together, lessening and lessening the quality of the picture. He’s certainly no Charlton Heston (unfair comparison, I grant you).
Here’s how bland it got: I was feeling more sympathy for the character presented to be the central antagonist. In the first act, I felt more for Messala and his plight than I did for Ben-Hur, and I’ll explain why. Ben-Hur comes from a wealthy Jewish family and a life of privilege, yet Messala did not want to fall back on this and wanted to make his own path, joining the Roman army. He returns several years later and connects with Ben-Hur, asking him to help root out zealots that would jeopardize a peace with Rome and incite violence against innocents. It so happens Ben-Hur is secretly harboring a zealot and, surprise, the guy stupidly tries to assassinate Pontius Pilate in full view of the Middle Eastern world. Ben-Hur allows the zealot to flee for his own safety. Messala has little choice in bringing some consequences but he’s asking for the zealot’s name, you know the guilty party, or else he knows that Ben-Hur’s family, Messala’s adopted family, will suffer in place as punishment. He’s begging his brother, pleading with him, and yet Ben-Hur refuses even though it may cost his own family members their lives. This plot point, by the way, is new. In no other version of Ben-Hur does a zealot jeopardize the Ben-Hur family. It’s always been an overreaction to the accidental coincidence of falling tiles from the family roof that doomed Judah Ben-Hur to slavery. This change makes the protagonist more culpable. It was here that I felt I was on Messala’s side. My friend Ben Bailey likens this to siding with a “kind Nazi” and says Rome was the Evil Authority that should be bucked at every opportunity and burnt to the ground. I don’t know what this says about me but I think it shows that the writing failed to make me root for our hero.
The movie gets slightly better once Morgan Freeman enters, as most movies do, and from there the plot streamlines into training to be a world-class chariot driver to take away from the glory of Messala and thus the roman overlords. The story follows familiar underdog plot beats seen in other sports genre movies from hob-knobbing with the disdainful and overconfident elites to training montages; it’s all here. It’s all marching toward that climactic brother vs. brother chariot race, and I’ll give the filmmakers credit that it’s respectable. There are some genuinely exciting moments and some great camera angles to communicate the danger and thrills of the action. The editing is a tad too choppy and the camera setups strangely favor far too many close-ups for a large-scale competition. Nothing could compare to the 1959 chariot race, which still holds up as one of cinema’s greatest sequences, more so with the renewed appreciation for practical effects. It’s not CGI horses and chariots and people in the stands cheering along. All of that is real and all of it is stunning to witness play out to tremendous realistic heights.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not exactly the first name you might think of tackling a biblical epic. His sensibilities seem, at first glance, a bit lowbrow for such a venture, but the man is a gifted visual stylist, as he’s shown to perverse degrees in the perversely watchable Wanted. If you’re trying to bring the story of Ben-Hur to a new audience for a new century, Bekmambetov will at least ensure that it looks pretty, and most certainly it does. The biggest fault is with the challenges of the adaptation and the shortcuts and alterations that hamper the development of the characters and their ultimate arcs. Bekmambetov has one virtuoso sequence, and no it’s not the chariot race. It’s when Ben-Hur is chained in the galley of a slave ship and becomes one of the rowers. We’re trapped in his limited perspective during an attack sequence and it’s a terrific sequence. The confusion, the adrenaline, the fear are all accurately portrayed, and as the battle escalates and the ship is under attack and eventually sinks, it’s a race to escape his chains that is visually striking and exhilarating to watch. I don’t blame the director for this movie not working well.
Another side effect of the overall truncating of the Ben-Hur saga is that the religious elements, namely the inclusion of Jesus Christ, feel really tacked on and obvious, reaching for a faith-based audience but doing so clumsily. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is on the outskirts of the events of the movie, just enough to clue you in to his parallel presence (“Oh look, it must be Palm Sunday”), but he’s really another means to an end. The purpose of Jesus is to (spoiler alert) help facilitate Ben-Hur to abandon his anger and vengeance and instead adopt a position of forgiveness for Messala. The problem is that at a little over two hours long, and with the Jesus stuff fully feeling flimsy and tacked on, this big turning point for our protagonist also feels flimsy. Why would he be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus when his knowledge of the guy is primarily a helpful carpenter who fetched him water when he was thirsty? It doesn’t add up the way the movie wants.
Was a Ben-Hur remake doomed to fail considering the parameters it was fighting against? Not necessarily. While no remake will ever displace the majesty of the 1959 classic, a new movie doesn’t have to, merely opening up a new angle on a familiar story (the novel was originally published in 1880) and providing something of substance. It doesn’t have to cancel out one good movie to be its own good movie. There are enjoyable aspects of this newest Ben-Hur but all they end up becoming are aspects, frayed bits that fail to become a satisfying whole. It was a mistake to cast the blandly effective Huston in the lead and leave the character underdeveloped; a protagonist can survive one of these sins, not both. It was a mistake to coast for as long as it does with its second act. It was a mistake to provide more significant supporting characters, and Jesus doesn’t count. It was a mistake to film much of a chariot race in tight close-ups. This is not a disaster despite the money that will likely be lost. It’s easy enough to watch but hard to fully connect, and those memories of the 1959 film keep creeping back, providing unflattering comparisons.
Nate’s Grade: C+