Movie Review: 2016's 'Ben-Hur' Falls Flat

Movie Review: 2016's 'Ben-Hur' Falls Flat

Miracle of miracles, this $100 million 3D remake of Ben-Hur, with amped-up Christian theology and state-of-the-art (cough) CGI effects, from the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, will likely end up being 2016’s biggest flop. But it ain’t terrible.

Not that it is very good, mind you; we all knew that going in. But there’s a great story somewhere in there, and while this version condenses it down and makes some bizarre alterations, it gets the basic gist across in record time.

And there’s one legitimately great sequence.

It’s not the chariot race, which highlighted both 1925 and 1959 versions of the movie, and (in both) remains one of the greatest pieces of stuntwork ever put to film. Because of the danger to both human and animal participants, we’re unlikely to ever see anything like it again.

No, the chariot race here is a reasonably exciting climax, but it’s lost a cloud of dust used to cover up the sometimes-shoddy digital f/x, and it’s a near-catastrophe of continuity. You never know where any of the characters are in relation to each other; in one cut, Messala jumps from being directly behind Judah to appearing right next to him.

The great sequence here in 2016’s Ben-Hur is in the galley, where Judah (played by Jack Huston, solid throughout) is forced into years of servitude in the Roman Navy, endlessly rowing a warship with dozens of other prisoners to the beat of a drum.

The scenes in the galley are all shot in close-ups and first-person POV shots, intense and manic: we only get an idea of what’s going on through brief glimpses Judah gets out the window or through slits in the floorboards. It’s an impressively intimate take on a large-scale event, almost recalling last year’s Son of Saul, and it’s the best 10 minutes that Ben-Hur has to offer.

The rest of the movie delivers the basics of the story with awkwardly contemporary dialogue, numerous injections of Christ into the narrative (while the original novel by Lew Wallace was subtitled A Tale of the Christ, Jesus was only a minor character), and stripped-down plot that drastically reduces events of the second and third acts.

You know the story: Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur is falsely accused of sedition by Messala (Toby Kebbel), Judah’s boyhood friend in previous versions of the story, but here his adopted brother. Sent into galley servitude for life, he eventually frees himself and becomes a master charioteer, returning to Jerusalem seeking revenge, but ultimately finding compassion in his heart.

Ayelet Zurer is Judah’s mother, Sofia Black-D’Elia is his sister, and Nazanin Boniadi his wife; each have little to do here besides exist in relation to lead character. Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk is a hammy Pontius Pilate, while Morgan Freeman is the (now-African) Sheik who lets Ben-Hur ride his chariot. Freeman, of course, also narrates the proceedings.

I was surprised to see how quickly the movie disposed of Quintus Arrius (James Cosmo) a major character in previous versions who frees Judah and adopts him as his son; that plotline is completely excised from this version.

And then there’s Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who only briefly intersects with Ben-Hur in previous editions but is third-billed here; Jesus helps the poor, professes love and compassion for fellow man and does the usual stuff at points throughout the movie up till he’s marched to the cross in a Passion of the Christ finale.

But the prominent Jesus screentime is completely unnecessary here, because the screenplay (by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley) treats Judah as a Christ-like figure, anyway. 2016’s Ben-Hur is kind and level-headed from beginning to end, and his ultimate act of compassion, what should be the main point of the story, is merely an afterthought. Why, of course he shows compassion.

Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is a serviceable adaptation of a classic story that can probably be recommended for audiences who have no desire to sit through the 4-hour 1959 version or silent 1925 movie. But the rest of us know where this one belongs in that echelon. 

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