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Ben-Hur Review: A Fresh But Flimsy Take On the Tale of the Christ

By  · Published on August 18th, 2016

Ben-Hur Offers a Fresh But Flimsy Take on the Tale of the Christ

The latest version isn’t bad but also isn’t very good.

There is one noteworthy sequence in the latest version of Ben-Hur, and it’s not the chariot race. It’s during the sea battle, when Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a galley slave, and we experience the whole thing from his obscured perspective as ships are smashing into each other, flaming arrows are flying into the lower decks and hitting rowers around him, hot tar is pouring through the ceiling onto Roman leaders, and ultimately Judah is thrown into the Ionian, still chained to the other men. It’s a sequence that seems envisioned and planned out intricately, and it does play out with some thrills, but it also mostly looks like an ugly, sloppy mess as filmed.

A lot of the movie, which is more loosely adapted from Lew Wallace’s classic Christian novel than past versions, shows signs of great intentions but never achieves any exceptional moments. The sea battle is good, the chariot race is decent, there’s not even really anything that’s bad, but its best qualities are its solid source material and what screenwriters John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke try to do with it for contemporary relevance, even with much of the original plot excised or rushed through. The story of childhood friends or brothers who become enemies will always be compelling, in Ben-Hur and elsewhere, and the political and religious themes of this specific tale continue to matter alongside that core premise.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it follows the relationship between Judah, a Jewish prince, and Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman who here is also the title character’s adoptive brother (also apparently this time his father was a collaborator in the assassination of Julius Caesar, which maybe is believable, though the film’s chronology can be shaky). The latter goes off to fight for the Empire and years later returns in service to the occupation of Judea and against its rebels, some of whom Judah is protecting. An incident leads to Messala’s forced betrayal, Judah is sent to the galleys and eventually comes back to challenge his brother in the arena of a new Roman circus.

This Ben-Hur actually opens briefly on that climactic chariot race, which we’re presumed to be already familiar with and anticipating, because there’s no trust in the narrative to take us there. Director Timur Bekmambetov (whose last foray into a mix of history and fiction was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) often lets the movie jump ahead of itself, some of it clearly meant to be for the purpose of foreshadowing but occasionally as overcompensation for the otherwise confusing camerawork. It also features gratuitous, unfaithful narration by Morgan Freeman, likely just because he’s Morgan Freeman and already involved in the movie anyway, playing the Sheik Ilderim, who trains and sponsors Judah as a chariot driver.

While not everything heard in the movie has reason, it is the sort of movie where everything seen on screen has a purpose. That isn’t just a storytelling choice but is kind of a given when the predominant directorial strategy is to stay tight on characters and objects with little allowance for extraneous material in the frame. The use of close ups and shaky cam may have you wishing for just one shot where you can appreciate details in the production design in the background or see some stationary views on the labored CG re-creation of Ancient Jerusalem or take in more than a quick montage of action scenes during Messala’s global military conquests.

But this Ben-Hur is not an epic. It’s not here to help save theatrical cinema with widescreen spectacle, like the famous 1959 version starring Charlton Heston was. And to a point, this new take is more fitting in its scope to the story’s focus on character drama over history and geography. It would be an admirable choice if the movie also respected that idea with more extensive character-driven moments, but the aesthetic decision itself isn’t at fault just because it’s different from what audiences are probably expecting. Not that anyone should ever want a remake to be similar to any prior incarnation anyway. This one also doesn’t have actors in blackface, so there’s that.

Ben-Hur and the Craft of the Remake

Disappointment can still be had with Ben-Hur not taking better advantage of the 3D format, considering stereoscopic cinema is today’s equivalent of the Ultra Panavision of 57 years ago, or should be, in terms of moviegoing incentive. The movie wasn’t shot in 3D but has been retrofitted for some reason, in case you want depth to your close-up faces set against a blurry background or like CG snow and dirt seemingly thrown towards you. However, as is the trend this summer, Ben-Hur’s end credits do utilize 3D in a clever way. With its lively titles appearing to race around the chariot track, though, it’s also a cartoonishly goofy way to close out such a serious movie.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.