One of the biggest visual spectacles of the 1950’s gets the remake treatment 57 years later. In “Ben-Hur”, The epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), is told. Messala is an officer in the Roman army with a thirst for power and authority. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves after being falsely accused of the assassination of a high-ranking official, Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea with a ship full of abused slaves, Judah returns to his homeland of Rome to seek revenge, but an encounter with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) leads him to the Crucifixion, where he discovers forgiveness and finds redemption. The story is based off of Lew Wallace’s timeless novel of the same name. It is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of brutal violence and disturbing imagery.
I’m not a big fan of the 1959 original, and one of the few problems that I have with that film, besides its enormous four hour run time, is the Frankenstein experiment of two different movies being blended to make one cohesive script. The first is obvious. It’s the brother revenge plot that is the main attraction for the “Ben-Hur” name. The second is in the shoe-horning Jesus plot, that adds very little to the on-going events within this family. When I found out the remake cut its run time in half, I was excited that quite possibly this subplot would be written out of the movie, and instead focus more on the pacing of one story alone. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen here, and the sixth remake of this classic story finds itself outdated and alienated for a release in modern day. This story just doesn’t work in 2016, and a big reason is because our audience is spoiled with 3D and CGI effects in today’s world of film, so what makes “Ben-Hur” stand out or justify it’s remake status nearly sixty years after this film swept the Oscars? Very little in my opinion.
First of all, the sets are very detailed and luxurious to pay tribute to the 100 million dollar price tag that this movie had in budget. There are two scenes in the movie that feel very elaborate with the kind of epic tone that the previous installment had going for it, but it’s in the execution where the work never stood a chance at being superior. The camera work is horrendous in this movie. If I could honestly register what was going on half the time in these fast-paced sequences, I probably would’ve enjoyed myself more. Sadly, Bekmambetov is a student of the shaky-cam handheld style that has plagued many of action films in this day and age. During the scenes of panic, this camera work offers some of the worst framing and diagraphed sequences that I have seen this decade. “Ben-Hur” will surely become the best kind of example to people who don’t understand what I hate about shaky-cam. Even more ridiculous is why this style is around for the entirety of the two hour film. One of the biggest contributors to why this movie lost me early on in the first act is because the movie just can’t sit still with its characters coming in and out of frame even during scenes of long-winded conversation, as well as quick-cut editing that hurt my eyes on more than one occasion. I didn’t even see this movie in 3D, and thank God I didn’t because I couldn’t picture this movie being any uglier to watch than it was in 2D format.
The two scenes that I mentioned earlier that I indulged in besides the camera choice, was the slave ship scene and of course the fast-paced finale of the cart race sequence. What’s a clever decision about these scenes is that they are sped up to look and feel like something out of a Justin Lin movie, giving the millennials a taste of modern tone in heart-pounding visual elaboration. This is the one time in the movie where it truly did feel like an epic movie, made even more presentable by the top notch musical score by Marco Beltrami. The orchestral beat of the big drum atmosphere crafts a tone and taste of blood in the air, complete with high stakes behind every turn of the cart. Beltrami alternates between soft and fast paced scores, bringing out the highest of sentiments that we often times didn’t get behind the sketchy performances.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Toby Kebbell or Jack Huston personally, but their performances in this movie feel very undercooked and underwhelming to the very concepts of betrayal among family. Everything here feels phoned in from the both of them, but at least Kebbell can at times bring out the hatred in the audience of a truly deceitful antagonist. Huston plays this role too quiet, and his streak of vengeance never feels personal to the kind of measures that Judah will go to save his family and reign down hell upon his traitor brother. What comes out of left field is a cameo by Morgan Freeman that actually isn’t half bad once you get past the truly laughable wig and eye-rolling Moses comparisons. Freeman actually adds that kind of chemistry and well-timed speech to a movie during a second act that was at its driest. I was so thrilled whenever Morgan popped up on screen, and a lot of that is because his performance feels like the only one who is having fun. “Ben-Hur” has always felt like the roots of high school stage plays to me, and Freeman channels a performance that is easily his most charismatic in years.
“Ben-Hur” is the newest in the line of Hollywood remakes that adds very little justification or creative spark for its existence. The film is a litmus test for A.D.D patients, and the lack of compelling storytelling or soulless delivery grouped me into the failing territory for such a test. Four hours of film becomes two, and the cramming of narrative shortcuts left me without any real intrigue for the characters or their tribulations, leaving the movie without a shred of personal impact.