There’s a reason why the most classic films rarely get revisited. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot was probably doomed from the start, given the fact that most of the original film’s fans from its 1984 release are still around, even without the ill-advised politicization that took place after the mediocre trailers hit YouTube. I saw the new Ghostbusters a few weeks ago; it was not as bad as some say or as good as its defenders claim. It was a mediocrity, and an expensive one at that.
Even more so than a film like Ghostbusters, any remake of 1959’s William Wyler classic Ben-Hur, widely considered one of the greatest films ever produced by Hollywood, was going to be a heavy lift. The 2016 edition (the sixth version of the story to be made) will not make anyone forget Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, or even Haya Harareet. But on its own it makes for an interesting and entertaining film, if not always a convincing one.
The new Ben-Hur tells much the same tale as its 57-year-old predecessor, with some telescoping to save time. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) are adoptive brothers, rather than best friends as in the 1959 film, but their differing heritages drive them apart. Messala goes off to serve in the Roman legions to overcome the stigma of a disgraced grandfather, while Judah lives to keep the peace among the Judeans in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Messala comes back to serve Pontius Pilate, and an attack on the new prefect on his arrival forces Messala to send Judah into slavery and sentence Judah’s family to death. Judah spends five years at sea as a galley slave, only to be freed in a shipwreck and make his way back to Jerusalem with traveling sportsman Idlerim (Morgan Freeman). The only form of revenge Judah has at hand is to beat the undefeated Messala in the chariot race, to strip Messala — and Rome — of its pride.
The telescoping takes its toll in some plot and character development. The 1959 version ran 212 minutes, longer than the theatrical releases of the Lord of the Rings films. The 2016 Ben-Hur only runs 124 minutes, and that makes the consistency and pace a bit tricky. Even so, the role of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is much more a part of the story, making the Christ allegory much more explicit, no doubt a deliberate choice from exec-producer Roma Downey, who has produced increasingly impressive Biblical entertainment. The ending is somewhat sunnier than the classic version too, part of director Timur Bekmambetov’s decision to focus more on forgiveness than vengeance.
One could get lost in all of the differences and contrasts to the 1959 version. Taken on its own, though, the new Ben-Hur is a watchable, entertaining film, although not without its own issues apart from the remake dynamic. The action sequences are impressive, although perhaps the movie has too few of them. Huston’s journey from privileged pacifism to oppressed hatred works pretty well, peaking at just the right moment at the start of the climactic race. Morgan Freeman’s turn as the wise and worldly Idlerim works a lot better than his narration, although he does seem at times to be channeling Oliver Reed’s Proximo from Gladiator. The narration becomes intrusive especially at the end, where it felt as though the filmmakers just ran out of patience for showing a story rather than telling it.
What didn’t work as well? That starts with Toby Kebbell as Messala. During the span of eight years, Huston’s Judah grows, matures, and changes; Messala seems emotionally frozen at the same point that the film starts, despite his years rising to command in the Roman army. That’s not a dealbreaker since Ben-Hur is really about, y’know, Ben-Hur … but rather than a cruel Roman commander in the latter half of the film, Judah’s bête noire still seems more like a moody teenager. The rest of the cast gave stronger performances, especially Nazanin Boniadi as Esther.
One other distraction is unfortunately all too common: Shaky Cam. This pretentious affectation has infected many an otherwise worthy film, and Ben-Hur wasn’t immune to it either. That technique makes sense in action sequences — although we don’t actually get much of it during the chariot race at the end — but Bekmambetov seemed particularly addicted to it. The scene where Judah and Esther are reunited after his escape from slavery will give audiences motion sickness, as Esther’s face revolves around the frame as if the scene took place on the ship rather than in a Jerusalem doorway.
The 2016 version of Ben-Hur won’t come close to eclipsing the Charlton Heston version from 1959. But moviegoers today don’t have to choose one or the other, and this Ben-Hur acquits itself well enough to justify buying a movie ticket. Even with its flaws, it’s still a better film than some earning bigger box office this summer, and one that will stay with viewers for longer than it takes to get back to the parking lot.
On the Hot Air scale, Ben-Hur gets a four:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
Ben-Hur is rated PG-13 for violence and “disturbing images.” I’d have no problem taking my 14-year-old granddaughter to see it, and she might have enjoyed it.
Addendum: I like trailers as much as the next guy, but they ran 15 minutes’ worth of trailers ahead of this film. I began checking my watch, wondering when the film would start. Can we please cut that down to five? Maybe you’d get one more showing in for the day that way, filmmakers and theater owners.
Update: Fixed an incomplete sentence in the third paragraph.
Update: Paul Bond at The Hollywood Reporter rounds up reaction to the film on the Right, specifically Glenn Beck’s enthusiastic reaction. I get a nice mention in it as well.