Ben-Hur Review: It's Not Great, nor Worthy of Hate
Up until somewhat recently, all of the movie reviews on this site used the five-star grading system. The college newspaper I wrote for also used the star system, and I used to enjoy the economy of language at play there. If you want the tiniest snapshot of an opinion on a film, one just needs to see how many stars were given, and if you wanted to know more, or why, you could just read the review in full. Still, after a number of years, I found myself overthinking everything, second guessing my snap judgment star ratings, because, if I gave this movie this rating, it subsequently would mean I liked it more/less than X amount of movies I gave this other rating to, and on and on it'd go. If we still had the star system in play here, I honestly don't know what I'd give Ben-Hur. I do believe that it resides within the murky grey area between "Rotten" and "Fresh," because, while it's not an exceedingly great movie, this remake's ambition, scope and performances are parts that are essentially greater than its whole, and far exceed what many remakes even come close to attempting.
A few years ago, I noticed a very disturbing trend that thankfully didn't seem to catch on too much. Remakes of insanely popular movies such as Carrie and Oldboy were almost identical, carbon copies of the originals, simply with a different cast. It's happening again with the new Cabin Fever remake that is using Eli Roth's exact same original script, with a new director and cast members. There is also another trend of the remake/sequel hybrid like Jurassic World, Vacation and last month's Jason Bourne, which both follow the continuity of the movies that came before, while still "rebooting" other story aspects, in a manner of speaking. What makes Paramount's Ben-Hur different is it's less a traditional remake, and more a true, faithful adaptation of the original book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, written in 1880 by Lew Wallace.
Of course, fans of the 1959 classic who haven't read the book may be surprised to see that full title of the book, since Jesus Christ's tale was removed in its entirety from the movie. That all changes in this version, with Rodrigo Santoro portraying Christ, who isn't exactly a main character, but he is quite an important one. Personally, I have never read the original book, and it's been probably close to 20 years since I saw the 1959 movie (which, coincidentally, came after a 1925 silent movie and a long-running play that spanned for 12 years), but I could still appreciate what was being added (or brought back, I should say) to this iconic story that had been missing for decades.
Sure, the story is largely the same, following Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who seem as close as two adoptive brothers can possibly be at the beginning of this epic tale. Judah is the prince from a wealthy and important family, while Messala feels an obligation of duty to his Roman countrymen, and leaves the family that took him in. This whole setup is handled quite differently from the 1959 movie as is the "inciting incident," so to speak, that leads Messalla, who returns to Jerusalem years later as a Roman commander, to send his former brother into a life of slavery. Both Huston and Kebbell have great chemistry together, and both of their respective arcs are quite interesting to follow.
On the other end of the spectrum, Morgan Freeman turns in one of his most uninspiring performances in years as Sheik Ilderim. This character expanded quite a bit from the previous adaptations, who rescues Judah and trains him in the art of chariot racing, but he just seemed to be phoning the whole thing in. Rodrigo Santoro and Pilou Asbaek turn in fine performances as Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, but, oddly enough, as important as their characters are, it still didn't seem like they had enough to do, from an acting standpoint. Still, Jesus Christ's tale running in parallel to Ben-Hur's adds a very intriguing element that helps set this apart from your garden-variety remake. This may seem a bizarre to make, but Ben-Hur most closely resembles Tim Burton's 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which served as a much more faithful re-telling of the original Roald Dahl novel than the original 1970s iteration with Gene Wilder.
The original Ben-Hur is famously long at a whopping 212 minutes (3 hours and 32 minutes), but, even with these new story elements, this remake is pared down to 124 minutes...and, somehow, it still feels too long. I didn't have too many issues with the story itself, written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, aside from some rough patches of dialogue, but the biggest issue was the pacing seems to shift gears too much, focusing too long on certain aspects while breezing through other parts of the story. Naturally, the centerpiece of this story, and its predecessors, is the chariot race, which, no matter what you may think of the rest of the film, is utterly impressive, and easily worth the price of admission on its own, entirely shot in-camera, at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the same place the 1959 chariot races were filmed. The race is truly epic, and demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen in 3D.
Whether you love or hate Timur Bekmambetov's films like the Russian cult classic Night Watch, 2008's Wanted or 2012's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it's hard to deny that he is a visual innovator. His work on the chariot scenes are truly epic, but he also presents a number of striking visuals on a much grander scale, with gorgeous aerial shots of Jerusalem and other atmospheric moments that give viewers a sense of how grand these locations really were. Still, given the growing hatred for Hollywood's insistence on remaking or reimagining everything, many people may not judge this on its own merits.
Ben-Hur is not an incredibly great movie, but it certainly isn't a bad movie...Although when compared to the beloved memories one will certainly have for the 1959 movie, many might see this new version as a travesty. If you're a fan of the original, it's certainly difficult not to walk into the theater this weekend, without those beloved memories of the Charlton Heston classic, but, honestly, I think you should at least try. I'm rarely one to defend remakes, but I can't help but admire Timur Bekmambetov's ambition to not only remake a movie many think is one of the best ever, while committing to shooting one of the most iconic scenes in ever in-camera, with minimal CGI, at the exact same location as the original scene, but also to include a story line that was completely cut, which brings a new layer to the story. Ben-Hur may not be a hit, but, at the very least, it went down swinging for the fences in truly admirable ways.