Ben-Hur review – a pointless remake of a classic film

by | 7 Sep 2016 | Film Reviews

‘Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince is falsely accused of treason by his brother, an officer in the Roman army.’

It seems Hollywood really has ran out of ideas as it releases what is the fifth adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’, and that’s not including the TV mini-series. In fact, it’s the third adaptation, not the original, that’s held in such high regard. Directed by William Wyler and staring Charlton Heston, 1959’s Ben-Hur won eleven academy awards including best picture, director and actor and is considered one of the greatest classic films of all time, no doubt helped by that famous chariot racing climax, which it is probably most remembered for. It’s proof that not all remakes are terrible copies of what came before.

When done properly, remakes can produce great contributions to cinema. Films like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) show that by building on the original or taking a different direction with the story, and adding a different twist, they can produce something original and fresh.

What also helped was that those films, although good, still had potential that wasn’t realised and had something to improve on. Unfortunately many of these films are the exception and most remakes are hollow, lifeless imitators of the original. Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is not one of those exceptions.

Set in Jerusalem during the height of the Roman empire, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his Roman adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) live relatively peaceful lives until the latter joins the Roman army and loyalties are tested. When Messala asks for information on Jewish rebels and Ben-Hur refuses, he sends him into slavery on the gallows where for five years he lives in utter hardship, sustained by hate and waiting for his chance at revenge, which includes Morgan Freeman’s Nubian Sheik, some horses and a chariot. Similar to its predecessor, there’s also secondary storyline running parallel, that of Jesus of Nazareth.

There are numerous problems with this film. Firstly, to keep the runtime down, a lot has been chopped out and big chunks of the story are missing, which sadly produce some obvious plot holes and creates a messy narrative with some incoherence. It also takes away that epic feel and grand scale the 1959 version had with its three and a half hour runtime, making everything feel very rushed and forced.

Also character motivations are spelt out for us with on-the-nose dialogue and heavy exposition instead of allowing the performances to do the heavy lifting and giving the audience some credit and letting them figure out what’s going on themselves. It also has a dull pace and can be boring in places with things not really picking up until the schism takes hold between the brothers and Ben-Hur is sent off to the gallows.

The central performances are okay but at best can be described as functionary, and hardly any time is given over to developing that brotherly relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. Huston and Kebbell do their best with the material but ultimately Bekmambetov seems more interested in ticking the remake boxes than actually investing in believable characters we can get behind or care about. Even Morgan Freeman’s pretty much on auto-pilot mode playing that older mentor role that he can do in his sleep by now, just with added dreadlocks.

When it comes to the action, there’s really only two major set pieces which at most, are subpar imitations and don’t really add anything new. Saying that, the gallows scene is handled well and Bekmambetov is able to muster quite a visceral experience which will quicken the pulse.

Also, it wouldn’t be a Ben-Hur remake without that famous chariot race but regrettably, all we get is a rehash of what is considered one of the great action set pieces of cinema history, as if Bekmambetov thinks by adding green screen and CGI, can make a better viewing experience.

He forgets that what the made the 1959 version of that set piece better is it’s all practically done, with a lot of care and hard work gone into making that scene happen; it’s no mistake it won those award for cinematography and special effects. Also, because the main characters weren’t developed that well in Bekmambetov’s version, it’s hard to really get pulled into what is supposed to be this grand climatic finale the film’s been building to.

‘Considering what came before is so revered and well regarded, it makes this new attempt at Ben-Hur so clearly pointless and unnecessary, and it reeks of a cash grab.’

Even if it was a good film, it would always be tarnished by what it precedes. With a messy plot, a poor script and some cheap imitated action scenes, all it does is remind us that there’s a version of this story out there. A film that’s far greater, and you would be better served setting aside a few hours and watching the more superior 1959 version.

David Axcell

Film Critic

David has quite a broad taste in film which includes big budget blockbusters and small indie films; including International and Arthouse cinema. As long as it’s good in that particular genre, he’ll watch anything.

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