WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
It is a dangerous thing when you remake a film that is not only beloved, but considered among the greatest films ever made. It is no good pointing out that the 1959 version of Ben-Hur is a remake. I know that it is, but let's point out also that the original is a silent movie (a great silent movie). Therefore, sadly it isn't as well-known as the Charlton Heston version. As such, when people complain about others remaking 'the original', they do not know about the silent version. I'm not going to be all picky about the lack of knowledge of the 1925 version (or for that matter, about the 2003 animated version or 2010 television miniseries). None of these versions have so dominated the popular imagination as the Charlton Heston version, so trying to sound clever by drawing attention to the fact that this "tale of the Christ" has been done many times is foolish. For many, the 1959 version is THE Ben-Hur, and I'm not about to be legalistic on that subject.
Yet, I digress.
Ben-Hur makes some simply disastrous choices in terms of structure, plot, action, and characters that consistently bring the film down, down, down.
It is 33 A.D. in Judea. A chariot race is about to begin between two men who know each other and hate each other...then we go back eight years to when these two knew, even loved each other. They are Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted brother, a Roman named Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala feels out of place among the wealthy and influential Hur family: while he has his eyes on his adopted sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia), mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) does not approve. In fact, she doesn't apparently approve anything Messala does (like pray to idols for Judah's recovery...begging the question as to why the Hurs never took Messala to Hebrew school).
Messala feels out of place within the wealth and joy of the Jewish family that took him in, so he goes off to claim his birthright and join the Roman army, where he goes to fight in Germania and Persia, all for Caesar and to reclaim his family name, one tainted by his grandfather's involvement in Julius Caesar's assassination. Judah, meanwhile, despite himself goes and marries the woman he loves: one of his slaves, the beautiful Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). He also has to deal with the rise of the Zealots who want a free Jewish state and some verse-spouting carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro).
No weak falling tiles for the Millennials' Ben-Hur!
Messala and his men storm the palace, and Judah decides to 'confess' to the assassination rather than turn Gestas in. Esther manages to escape, and the Hur women are sent to prison...and Judah to the galleys.
We go to 5 years later (I really don't want to do the math here in these flashbacks/forwards). Judah is a slave galley when a battle frees him and he washes upon the shore where he encounters Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). Ilderim is wary of this Jewish slave, but after Judah cures his horses he agrees to keep him from the Romans. Ilderim does one better: take Judah to Jerusalem to race against the master Roman charioteer, one Messala. Sensing his chance for revenge and to avenge his family (whom everyone believes dead), Judah takes a couple of lessons from Ilderim and is capable of taking his brother on in a race to the death.
He's also found Esther, who is a follower of the Nazarene, and who urges Judah to not seek his revenge. Nothing doing, for he tries to kill Messala and fails. It's now in the race where Judah must find his own justice against Messala, and while he wins the race, Messala is still stubbornly alive. It is only when Judah goes to the Crucifixion that he sees the need for forgiveness, and goes to a legless Messala to give and offer forgiveness. Good thing too, for Naomi and Tirzah, imprisoned all these years, are cured of their leprosy and are out of prison just in time for everyone to be reunited, feel good about it, and go off...perhaps for more adventures.
Who here is up for Ben-Hur 2: Damascus Road?
I wish I were a good enough critic to say I can completely avoid knowing what Ben-Hur 2016 cut out or altered from all other versions of the story. I can't: Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley's screenplay changed so much within Ben-Hur that one sometimes wonders whether in their efforts to stand out, they ended up dumbing down the story.
They for example decided to cut out two important characters found in the novel and subsequent adaptations. They are Balthazar, one of the Magi who connected Judah with both Ilderim and Christ, and Quintus Arrius, the Roman commander who survives the sea battle thanks to Judah and ends up adopting him. Perhaps they thought it would simplify the story. Perhaps they couldn't do to legal reasons (I understand that while the General Lew Wallace novel is in public domain, certain aspects of the 1959 adaptation are still fiercely under copyright protection). In any case doing this ends up making things more silly than simple.
Quintus Arrius was the entryway for Judah Ben-Hur to be the master charioteer that could challenge his former friend (friend, I repeat) in the race. It gave him the wealth and power and protection that otherwise would not be afforded a galley slave. Now, thanks to Clarke and Ridley, the task of preparing Judah for his epic chariot battle is left up to Ilderim. This results in the highly implausible, if not downright ridiculous idea that in a few quick lessons, a man who had been hunched over an oar for five years and was apparently still adjusting to life in the free air could match someone who had been racing chariots for years if not decades....and best him at it.
Talk about beginner's luck!
By removing Balthazar, the subplot of how Christ interacts with Judah is also excised, and we get a couple of other problems. First, why and how did Naomi and Tirzah (who had been locked up all these years and gotten leprosy for their troubles) end up being cured? They did not know Christ at all. Judah had at most two encounters with Him, so where did Judah's faith in Christ come from? He wasn't at the Sermon on the Mount, or seen any of His miracles, so it all seems to come out of nowhere.
Judah Ben-Hur has neither asked for or sought Christ's atonement for his sins (let alone had his family or the pagan Messala), so how did God in human form grant it (along with healing of a disease that didn't have anything to do with the story)?
I consistently thought while watching Ben-Hur that it was a terrible decision on the part of Clarke, Ridley, and director Timur Bekmambetov to try and make Messala a sympathetic character. Again and again the film seemed to think the title should have been Messala instead of Ben-Hur thanks to how he was given legitimate grievances for being so hostile towards his adoptive family. As my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. observed to me after we left, Naomi Ben-Hur was 'kind of a bitch' to Messala: constantly belittling and berating him for everything from racing with Judah to looking at Tirzah to worshipping Roman idols. It's as if he wasn't actually adopted or even part of the Hur household for years, but was more a pesky guest who couldn't take the hint that he was starting to grate on the mistress of the house.
There was never a believable moment when I thought Messala was in any way part of the Hur family. One would have thought that despite being born a Roman the Hurs would have made him aware of Jewish customs, traditions, and beliefs. Why would they simultaneously keep Messala a Roman and complain whenever he does what a Roman would do?
Another part of the plot I couldn't figure was why Judah opted to shield Gestas at the cost of his and his family's fortune and safety. If I had been in Judah's position, I would have said, "THERE'S the man...get him!"
If we go into the performances, Ben-Hur is a failure. I don't remember Jack Huston from American Hustle or Hail, Caesar!, and the only film I do remember him from is Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. As such, he is a fresh face to me, and for the life of me I don't understand what Huston or his director were going for. Huston growls every line, as if he had been asked to do a Russell Crowe impersonation, delivering every bit of dialogue in the same tone, whether he was happy or sad or angry or what have you.
I don't know whether it's a good thing or not that Kebbell's best performance was as the villainous ape in Dawn of Planet of the Apes (though given he was in the Ian Curtis biopic Control, I'd have to see that again). With this and Fantastic Four, Kebbell is sinking in my opinion of him as an actor. He was absolutely dreadful whenever he had some sort of romantic scene with Tirzah, falling into the Huston trap of being weak and emotionless throughout.
Perhaps I can cut both of them some slack given how poorly directed they were and the poor script they had to perform, but a good actor can almost always lift his/her script. Huston and Kebbell couldn't.
When someone after the attack on Pilate shouted, "Who shot the arrow?", it took all within me to not shout at the screen, "I, said the Sparrow!"
Freeman has the 'wise elder' part down pat, but his Ilderim was more an instrument to move plot forward than a real figure. I also add that having Christ speak and be seen is another mistake, especially given that Santoro might as well have come from The Passion of the Christ: English-Language Version. This Christ comes across as just some nice guy who talks about love, not the Lord & Savior so many believe Jesus to be.
As a side note, while Ben-Hur has been apparently marketed towards the 'faith' market (aka evangelical Christians), I can say that AS an evangelical Christian myself, I found little in Ben-Hur to affirm my faith or in the power of such things as forgiveness.
Let us now move on to the main action pieces: the sea battle and the chariot race (which the film shamelessly teases twice if not more, as if begging us to stay just so that we could get to it in the end). In regards to the former, the decision to keep it all within Judah's perspective (in the galley) was yet another lost opportunity. If I am going to get a sea battle, I want to see a sea battle (even if we have to cut away from the slaves' perspective). By keeping things at Judah's eye-level, we end up being removed from the chaos and excitement of what is going on. It's akin to hearing a boxing match from across a room while others get to watch it live.
In regards to the latter, there are a couple of moments of good tension, but for the most part the reliance on CGI and chaotic editing (not to mention the perpetually grungy look the film has, so dominated by dark tones) makes it less exciting than it could have been. It was disjointed, confused, CGI-heavy, and worst, boring. Belting out Marco Beltrami's score during the race was bad enough (I don't need music to telegraph to me whether something is exciting or not). Ending the film with some sort of love song (The Only Way Out by Andra Day) puts a coda on the jumble the film is.
Sure, the song's nice, and Day is a fantastic singer, but The Only Way Out seems so at odds with both the setting and anything connected with Ben-Hur. I think maybe The Only Way Out could be Ben-Hur's only real shot at an Oscar nomination (versus the twelve the 1959 version earned, winning a record-setting eleven Academy Awards).
2016 seems to be The Year of the Remake: Ghostbusters, The Jungle Book, Pete's Dragon, the upcoming Beauty & The Beast, The Magnificent Seven, and with remakes of Witness For the Prosecution, Splash, A Star is Born, Murder on the Orient Express, and Clue in the works. Ben-Hur joins that list, and it's a shame that something good could have come, something original that added to the oft-told tale while not taking away from the best-known version.
Cluttered with a bad script, poor direction, weak performances and no sense of purpose, this Ben-Hur keeps going in circles and circles and circles.