In 2016, the ‘Year When The Ideas Ran Out’, we got the fifth adaptation of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Darren braved the chariot so we don’t have to in his review.
Hollywood and internet culture are very good at giving the audience an opinion of its products before release. Whether it be the over-blown hype that followed Suicide Squad like the world’s smuggest parade or the outcry and general wailing and gnashing of teeth that Ghostbusters had left behind in its wake, we, as the audience, usually don’t go into movies dry anymore; which is why Ben-Hur is so interesting.
Ben-Hur, the latest in this year’s allotted remakes, and the splash it made upon its release were almost non-existent. Perhaps I just missed everything that everybody said about the idea of a remake of the 1959 11-Oscar winner, but it seems that this has flown so far under the radar to be almost invisible. Am I the only one who finds this odd?
Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish prince in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. A peaceful but privileged man he wishes nothing more than to protect his family and enjoy his life, having a laissez-faire attitude to the Roman’s occupation. When his beloved adopted Roman brother betrays him and his family is murdered, Ben-Hur wants nothing more than to get revenge for all the wrongs he has received.
The basic premise is so classic that it is appropriately biblical, Cain and Abel. It’s a dynamic that fans of the Godfather might recognise: the brothers at crossed purposes who each hate the other but underneath that, a blinding love that they just cannot admit to. This is the strongest part of the movie, the good-natured but often pointed ribbing the brothers give each other is, for the most part, decently written and believable. Subtlety is not something that the movie believes in, however, making each character interaction very blunt in terms of dialogue or just straight up exposition with no attempts to cover it up.
The rest of the characters fade into the background, becoming stereotypical cookie-cutter roles to fill in and pad out the story, such as the wise mentor/weary cynic that Morgan Freeman plays or the just cartoonishly villainous Roman soldiers. One Roman captain, in particular, I kept expecting to twirl his moustache every time he came on screen, telling the brothers that he had tied a girl to the railroad tracks.
Speaking of characters, as fans of the original will know, Jesus plays a major role in this movie as well. As I am not a member of the Christian faith I will keep my remarks and criticisms to the point: Jesus is this movie’s Deus Ex Machina, popping up at the right time to steer or lead in the correct way and at one point to literally fix the rest of Ben-Hur’s problems. I imagine that this feels oddly appropriate in terms of the character but it makes the rest of the journey for Ben-Hur seem almost worthless and just plain mean to him.
Ben-Hur is full of flashy moments, such as a pitched sea battle that accomplishes little, and what the original is famous for, a chariot battle. Most of the action in this movie is competent but just lacks something to give it weight. Each flick of the camera over a bloody corpse or mediocrely designed CGI boat, feels gratuitous and I found myself sucked out of the action, wondering why on earth any of this would realistically happen. Would the Romans truly chain people to the front of their boats and just charge straight into other boats to crack them open? Was chariot racing really that dangerous and nonsensical? Probably. But if I find myself asking these questions instead of watching the film then it has failed on the most basic rule of storytelling: engaging your audience. I felt no investment to what was going on and had no real reason to keep watching at all. There was no hook to this one.
The whole piece is clearly competent, the cast doing an OK job with their characters having some interesting identity without being able to explore it, the direction is decent but isn’t trying to say anything at all and the writing, oh, the writing. I have no idea if this was the first screenplay the writers have ever written but it sure seems like was. There are a lot of solid ideas here, clearly, as it follows basic writing tenets and understands how to basically tell a story, but for each good idea, there is a bad one that follows. For example; Ben-Hur’s character arc. On the surface, the change from pampered elite to revenge-fuelled slave to compassionate man is a solid arc, but there is no progression here. They merely jump from each point with no real characterisation in between. He jumps to each role instead of growing as a person, and in one case Jesus just changes his mind. And the movie suffers from this.
It spends so long hammering home the message that Ben-Hur is wrong for not taking actions against the Romans then flips on a dime and says that he would be wrong to do anything against them before finally settling on forgiving and moving on with his life. It is schizophrenic in its identity not knowing if it wants to be a story against occupation or if it wants to spread compassion and love. With two warring ideas you could have a great discussion but instead, each kills the other leaving each hollow and anaemic in their arguments.
This isn’t inherently a bad movie, but it is a mediocre one. Every decision it makes sounds good but it lacks the subtlety to pull it off well. This is one movie that I hope doesn’t come back from the dead anytime soon.