“Ben-Hur” (2016) Review

It has been quite a year for Christian movies hasn’t it?  Miracles from Heaven and God’s Not Dead 2 sucked, Risen was decent, and no one saw The Young Messiah.  Alright totally unnecessary Ben-Hur remake, it looks like it’s up to you to remind people that all Bible movies DON’T have to make religion look like the worst film genre of all time.  Let’s decide if you’ve succeeded.

Ben-Hur (2016) is directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke.  Stars-Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Pilou Asbæk, and Morgan Freeman.  Premise-A Jewish prince (Judah Ben-Hur) is falsely accused by his once-friend Messala (a roman captain) and sentenced to be a slave.

William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) is one of the greatest classics of all time.  It was the first film to win 11 Oscars (followed by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), it almost single-handedly made Charlton Heston a star, and it is one of the few “religion” movies that critics actually like!  The chariot race is one of the best sequences in the history of film, and if you call yourself a film buff, then you need to see it. There have been other adaptations of the book the movie was based on, but this 2016 version feels more like a remake than anything else.  Scratch that, this movie feels like The Prince of Egypt (one of my favorite films) and Wyler’s Ben-Hur smashed together.  Seriously, the first half of this movie feels like the writers (one of whom wrote 12 Years a Slave) copy-pasted the script of The Price of Egypt to the script of Ben-Hur.  The film begins with a Jew and a Roman racing each other on chariots.  Then it shows what happened once each brother had to take on responsibilities until their beliefs (and loyalty to their people) ruin their friendship and they become enemies.  The rest of the film is essentially a worse version of Ben-Hur.

There are a plethora of issues with this movie, but the absolute biggest problem is the direction.  My gosh, this movie is so poorly directed.  The acting is stale, the camerawork is always shaky and close-up, the lighting is grim and muggy; everything is so amateurly done.  Wyler knew how to shoot an epic, wide shots accompanied by bright, full color.  Not cinematography that belongs in a Bourne Identity movie.  Yes, I know the cinematographer shot the Bourne Trilogy, but he also shot Face/Off, which was directed by a man who knows what a tripod is.  Wyler also knew how to direct his actors.  Heston is not the most emotionally convincing actor, but you can feel his passion in Ben-Hur.  It was his acting that brought the character to life.  Not to mention Oscar-winning Hugh Griffith giving the most entertaining performance in the film.  Yes, he was a white British man in blackface playing an Arab, but his charisma was enjoyable nonetheless.  The acting in the remake is mostly bland.  Even Morgan Freeman (who takes the place of Griffith), comes across as halfhearted.  It doesn’t help that he is sporting a Battlefield Earth style haircut.

All that said, the writing could still save the movie if it is clever, well-paced, and filled with great characters.  Oh, wait, I’m thinking about the original Ben-Hur.  Yeah, the writing in this here remake is some of the choppiest writing of 2016.  To start, Judah is an unengaging protagonist.  Here is a man who is falsely accused of treason by his once best friend, has his mother and sister taken away, and is kept a slave for 5 years.  Heston did such a great job acting like his actual family was locked away, like he has been planning for years how to get his vengeance.  This “updated” Judah is not one quarter of what he should be.  The rest of the characters aren’t much better, each of the supportive characters are just bland, or there to move the plot along.

This movie is not subtle.  One of the most powerful scenes in Ben-Hur (1959) was when Judah collapses of heat exhaustion near the famous carpenter.  When Jesus gives Judah water, a roman guard tries to stop Him.  The guard looks into His face (with no dialogue), thinks about something, and walks away.  The film was very wise never to show Jesus’ face, and never to jam His message down your throat.  The remake does the opposite.  I wouldn’t mind the addition of more Jesus scenes if: the actor playing Him was convincing, the scenes weren’t so preachy (and this is coming from a Christian), and if they had a point.  You could cut so much of this movie and the plot would be unchanged.  Take a lesson from Risen; every scene with Jesus in it was iconic, emotionally powerful, and had a point.

The last thing I want to rip apart are the action scenes.  Every dang fight scene in this movie is done with atrocious shaky cam!  This is especially annoying when we get to the chariot race.  The race is more brutal than the original, but that’s only because they have CGI.  The race is also much shorter than the original (which had great pacing), which is not what you want during what is supposed to be the climax of a 2 hour epic.  In addition, you don’t want the bloody camera to be in close-up mode the whole time.  Just watch the original race, and notice how well it set up tension, used real effects and stunts, convinced you that the actors were in danger, and how good it felt at the end of the race.

Is this one of the worst remakes ever?  No, but it is definitely one of the most pointless of all time, more so than Ghostbusters.  Whatever, I have other movies to see this week, but until then, Ben-Hur (2016) gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a D+.

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