BEN-HUR is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption. Based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
"Don't they teach subtlety in Caesar's army?"
To remake or not to remake, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously negative critical and fan reaction or to take CGI and slipshod script against a sea of superhero movies, and remake a classic. A parody of the nunnery scene from Hamlet actually doesn't have anything to do with this review, but I think it does help frame one's thinking when taking a look at Timur Bekmambetov's 2016 adaptation of 'Ben-Hur' starring Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell. An epic story of love, betrayal, revenge, and forgiveness is handled so poorly that one must question the motives behind the making of this 'Ben-Hur.'
By now, we're all well aware of the grand story of 'Ben-Hur' so I am actually going to forgo my traditional story recap because it would simply be redundant. Instead, I'm going to get right to the guts of the matter, this 'Ben-Hur' isn't a good movie. Plain and simple as that. The Lew Wallace novel 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ' has been directly and indirectly made dozens of times. It's themes of betrayal, revenge, and forgiveness are well known and effective little parables when properly handled. In this particular outing, they're simply a means to an end. They're not tools to plunge the depths of human character, nor are they used smartly that one could pull some sort of allegorical equivalency from them. They're simply set pieces designed to move the film from one distracting spectacle to the next. As the film stumbles along, a great cast of Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell as his Roman brother Messala, and Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim among many other fine actors reveal they are either completely wasted or miscast entirely.
For starters, let's talk about the betrayal element of the story. Where this film does things well is setting up the brotherly bond between Judah and Messala. They're competitive with each other, but that competitiveness comes from a place of love and respect. When Messala decides he must leave his home to reclaim his Roman birthright in the legions, it's a painful separation but an understood one. When Messala returns a respected soldier in the command of thousands, he expects Judah to help him root out the Zealots and allow Pontius Pilate an easy and clear entry into Jerusalem. So far, everything's clicking along fine with this adaptation. It may be an abbreviated version of the book and events in the 1959 Charlton Heston film, but it's working. Where everything goes wrong is with the following major change: instead of a loose tile falling and striking the passing governor, a zealot that Judah had cared for and stupidly left alone in a room full of weapons decides to grab Messala's own bow and arrow and take a shot at Pilot. Instead of a true act of god designed to test the character of Messala forcing his hand into betraying his brother and family, he now has just cause to imprison them. Judah is no longer an innocent man. He broke the law and conspired with murderers. He harbored and aided a fugitive making any and all punishment that comes his way just. Messala is now the sympathetic character and in turn more honorable than Judah who lied and put his own family in danger. But whatever, as the opening of the film pointed out, there is a climactic chariot race to run so let's move onto revenge.
In the original Wallace novel, and the 1925 and 1959 films, Judah's time as a slave is extensive and painful. Chained to an oar, he spends the next five years being beaten and worked nearly to death. The only thing keeping him alive is the hate in his heart. That burning desire for revenge that one feels when another spites us. But this sequence goes by so quickly it's difficult to appreciate. If he didn't have a title card stating that five years had passed, we'd just assume Jack Huston stopped grooming himself. Beyond a long mane of hair and a crazy hobo beard, the man's looking pretty good! Where I will give Bekmambetov some credit is the man knows how to stage an action scene. The entirety of this section of the story is told from the dark depths of the ship Judah is chained to. When the big battle breaks out that ultimately frees him, the camera never leaves that tight cramped space until the moment Judah reaches the surface. It's a solid little moment, but again, it's brief and ultimately ineffective. We're never given any idea of the suffering he's endured so his time rowing seems more like an inconvenient workout than torture. As mentioned before, we've got to get to that chariot race so let's move on.
Once on shore, Judah befriends Sheik Ilderim played by a phoned in Morgan Freeman and proves his worth by healing one of the man's prized racing horses. After getting some aloe on his sunburned skin and a snazzy new set of leather Shabby-chic duds, Judah is trained in the arts of chariot racing… because there's a race? Why Ilderim does what he does for Judah is incredibly vague here and makes little sense when you consider he's nothing to gain by it other than being nice. When the duo travel to Jerusalem, Judah learns his mother and sister are alive but lepers and his wife Esther is a follower of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). With a heart already filled with revenge, Judah becomes more vengeful and enters the chariot race in order to embarrass Messala and the Romans. After some embarrassingly cheap CGI trickery, Judah wins the race, Messala loses a leg, but the pair later reunite and become best buddies again because ultimately that's what Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) would want and they live happily ever after.
So, there is a lot going wrong here as an adaptation of the 1959 film and the original source novel. Primarily, this film keeps making Messala a sympathetic character. The point of the novel is Messala gave up his soul and refused redemption. He was incapable of forgiveness or love. But in this film, he's repeatedly made the sympathetic character as Judah proves over and over again he's just a gigantic egotistical ass. Stemming from the moment Judah helped an assassin, the moral of the film is completely lost. It's supposed to be Judah's journey of salvation, not Messala's. Judah was a man falsely accused by his own brother. He was betrayed, sought vengeance, but then learned the folly of that life and took a path of redemption by helping others. That character arc is completely tossed aside here and the point of the entire story becomes lost in a wake of CGI-laden action spectacle.
If you've made it this far, you'd be right to assume that I wasn't a fan of this latest cinematic iteration of Lew Wallace's classic story. Not that the 1959 Heston film was a perfect adaptation either, but it at least had respect and understood the source novel. Beyond staging some action sequences, Timur Bekmambetov seems to have had little to no interest in understanding the characters. He just wants to shoot the action scenes and those seem to have been given the most attention here. While the practical effects and production design of the film is damn impressive at times and somewhat thrilling, it's ultimately undone by some incredibly shabby CGI work. I keep mentioning the effects because they are of a mid-to-late 1990s quality that they stick out like a sore thumb. That line where a practical location starts and the effect begins is tragically obvious. Then we come to the big spectacle chariot race. Apparently, a full-scale circus track was built for the film, but you wouldn't know it to look at the scene. With green screen backgrounds, CGI dust, and poorly layered effects, the race somehow makes the pod-race from 'The Phantom Menace' actually look real by comparison.
As a rule, I don't hate remakes and reboots, in fact, I welcome them. I welcome them because we wouldn't otherwise have 'John Carpenter's The Thing.' We wouldn't have the 1978 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.' We wouldn't have a new James Bond or Batman every ten to fifteen years if we weren't in some way accepting of remakes or reinterpretations of characters. We wouldn't even have the 1959 Charlton Heston 'Ben-Hur' movie because the original 1925 silent film was damn good in its own way. A good remake offers up a reason for being. It uses the material in a new way to make it relevant for its time and place. This 'Ben-Hur' doesn't do anything important or relevant with the source material except to remind everyone that 2016 was a terrible year for pointless remakes, sequels, and franchise reboots. The 1959 film may be four hours long, but you get more substance in five minutes of that film than you get in the entire two-hour runtime of this version.
Blu-ray Disc Details
'Ben-Hur' arrives on Blu-ray from Paramount in a two-disc Blu-ray, DVD, with Digital HD set. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy two-disc case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other upcoming Paramount releases before arriving at a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Featuring an often dazzling 2.35:1 1080p transfer, 'Ben-Hur' is a showcase of how great practical effects can look in comparison to cheap weightless CGI effects. When the film is at its best, this transfer shines. Digitally sourced, facial features, clothing details, and the rich production design work and set design show that at certain points a lot of effort went into this film. Costumes look amazing. Practical makeup from Judah's peeling sunburn to Messala's facial scar, these details really come to life and make the film look big and expensive in all the best ways. Colors during these moments tend to look rich and vibrant with golden hues and a nice natural primary presence. Black levels also appear even throughout and provide a rich sense of depth. Where this transfer loses a point is due to the CGI effects work that clearly were designed with 3D presentations in mind. Without that 3D element to compare against, these effects don't blend into the 2D surroundings very well and tend to have a weightless appearance. I mention these effects here because they also tend to have a blurring and flattening effect. Where one shot during the chariot race clearly features live horses, chariots, and real horses, the next shot could be a CGI version or a poorly layered combination with live action elements that just makes everything look floaty and fake. Thankfully most of the film looks fantastic and is able to move past these shortcomings.
'Ben-Hur' wins big in the audio department with a thundering and effective English DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio mix. The film's dialogue is clean and clear throughout and is never at odds with sound effects or the impressive score by Marco Beltrami. Quiet and conversational moments have a nice subtlety to them that allows the actors to take the front/center load while the sides and rear channels provide subtle little nuances to give the mix a truly immersive feel. During the rowing sea battle and the big chariot race, the action kicks up considerably but without spoiling the great groundwork already laid out. When the boat Judah is in splits in two and he's pulled underwater the mix is terrifyingly effective. The chariot race is a visceral audio experience as you have the roar of the crowds, the shouts of the racers, and the thundering horses galloping all around you. If you've got a properly optimized sound system, you're going to want to crank this one up to 11.
Ben-Hur The Legacy: (HD 10:38) This is a brief but still interesting look back at the source novel and the various cinematic adaptations that have come before.
The Epic Cast: (HD 12:10) This is a decent look at the casting of the film, what traits inspired their choosing, but still, it also manages to highlight why certain people probably shouldn't have been brought aboard. I dig this cast individually, but no one really fills their respective role well.
A Tale For Our Times: (HD 15:25) This is an odd highlight reel of a lot that was wrong with this film from the get-go. It's a showcase of themes and set pieces Bekmambetov wanted to bring to the film that just showed his instincts towards the story and its execution were flat wrong.
The Chariot Race: (HD 10:37) This is a pretty nifty look at what went into shooting the big climax of the film. The practical work is very effective and interesting, I just wish more of it appeared in the final product.
Deleted and Extended Scenes: (HD 10:23) There really isn't much to these moments in the sense of major events or character beats. Pretty routine cuts that would be normal for about any other movie that needed to keep its runtime down.
Music Videos: I'm used to a signature song being written for a film, it's part of the marketing, but three? Here you get:
Andra Day's "The Only Way Out" with a Behind the Scenes feature (HD 00:50)
For King and Country's "Ceasefire" with a Behind the Scenes feature (HD 1:00)
Mary Mary's "Back to You"
I don't normally like to hate on a film, especially a pointless remake like 'Ben-Hur.' That said, I see 'Ben-Hur' as a glaring example of why the summer 2016 season was so bad and why the box office suffered. Original content was tossed aside for numerous overly-expensive remakes, reboots, and needless sequels that it drove audiences away. No one was asking for a remake of 'Ben-Hur.' Not a single person cued up the 1959 Charlton Heston movie and thought that it was a bad film and needed to be brought back to life to do justice by the source material. It was made simply to cash in on a familiar name and to make a quick buck. It's a shameless remake that didn't even try to do it right. Paramount brings this misguided film to Blu-ray in respectful order with a solid video transfer but fails to include the 3D version. The audio mix is incredible so kudos to the sound designers and editors who worked on this film. Extras are a bit slim but informative. All around, I'm having a difficult time recommending this to anyone. I understand there are fans of this version out there, but if you have any love of the 1959 film or the source novel, skip this 'Ben-Hur.' It's just not worth it.