Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review: Ben-Hur

In 1959, the epic Ben-Hur was released and went on to win the most Oscars in history until Titanic came along in 1997. Oscars went to Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Cinematography. Charlton Heston won the Oscar for Best Actor, the prize that escaped him just three years earlier for The Ten Commandments. The movie, produced and marketed for $300 million in today's dollars, had nearly 10,000 extras. The nine minute chariot race went on the become legendary and the musical score was the longest ever produced for film and highly influential. The 212 minute movie was huge in every way and the critical claim was accompanied by a $1.2 billion box office in today's dollars.

So what does Hollywood do? It decides to do a re-make.

The original story by Lew Wallace of Ben-Hur written 136 years ago is in the public domain so no one had to have to contend with acquiring rights. MGM, the studio for the 1959 version teamed up with Paramount and brought in Mark Burnett and Roma Downey as producers. The famous married couple fresh off their monster TV mini-series The Bible was there to ensure a Christian audience was motivated to come and be entertained. This is not an ill considered position for the studios to take. Over 100 million people watched The Bible mini-series and it finished number 1 all over the world. For some time now the Christian entertainment market has wielded influence on production. It is very likely that MGM and Paramount saw opportunity in re-making this tale given that the original story had a strong connection to the story of Christ.

Was there fresh material from the book ripe for storytelling? Possibly. Screenwriter Keith Clarke (The Way Back) had initially intrigued the studio by examining the beginnings of relationship of Judah Ben-Hur and his adoptive brother Messala. Another pass at the script by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) firmed up that story and incorporated more of the Christ encounters that influence Judah at different points in his life. Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) was hired as director for his action credentials.

Of the cast, only Morgan Freeman's name is stands apart from the rest. He is cast as Shiek Ilderim, a wealthy Nubian who backs and trains Judah for the the chariot race where he ultimately faces off against his brother. Judah is played by English actor Jack Huston and Messala is played by fellow countryman Toby Kebbell. Both actors have a varied experience to bring to this film but it is fair to say that they don't have Charlton's Heston's heft or gravitas. The international cast that follows is competent but not stand out.

The big issue in the re-make of Ben-Hur is that it doesn't know what sort of film it wants to be. If the attempt was to be a character driven piece, the script fails because we don't have enough depth to any individual. The 212 minutes of the 1959 movie was not a conceit but an admission that the people met along his journey shaped his character and influenced who he was as a man. One part cut from the 2016 version of Ben Hur is Quintis Arrius, the Roman Consul, saved from dying in the wrecked ship and who adopted Judah as his own. It is a very human moment for both men and took Judah to Rome where he learned the ways of the chariot. Too often faceless and nameless people come and go in the new Ben-Hur. You don't know enough to care about them or know their motivations.

There are two major action pieces on sea and land that were legendary from the Heston film. The attack on Macedonian pirates where Judah's ship is destroyed in combat and the chariot race. The script and direction by Bekmambetov focus on Judah's point of view from the belly of a slave galley. It is a dark place and the audience only see what our hero sees which is glimpses of the battle until his ship is destroyed. The choice is curious. Was it a style choice or a budget choice? In any event, we only see Judah's suffering endurance rather his noble determination.

The price of admission might be worthwhile to most viewers if the chariot race was a spectacular spectacle. It is. The use of the best CGI digital effects shows Judah race hard against his rival Messala. However, it is oddly soulless as competitors are killed off. Do we care? No. We don't even know them. Sadly, we really don't even know Judah or Messala at this point in the film either.

The final and last thoughts on this movie is the Christ angle. In weeks leading up to the movie release, producers sought approval and endorsement from churchgoers emphasizing the important message about Jesus in Ben-Hur.  The 1959 version handled this with a Jesus who was not clearly seen not spoke but was of huge influence on Judah. The 2016 version has a Jesus who dies very graphically on the cross and is clearly seen and speaks. If the message is forgiveness and redemption, it is lost in the violence.

It may be cynical but the studios might be calling to the faithful to watch the new Ben-Hur as a sign of their devotion. This would be a mistake. If people want to see an excellent epic movie where Jesus is seen as a force for good, they would do well to find the 1959 Ben-Hur and enjoy themselves. There seems to be no point in seeing this movie knowing that the other is so much better.

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