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Ben-Hur (2016)
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BEN-HUR (2016)

Starring: Jack Huston, Tony Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman

Written By: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley

Directed By: Timur Bekmambetov

The Shot

Ben-Hur is the remake that literally no one was asking for.  Far from being the epic its producers envisioned, it’s a bad swords-and-sandals flick with a heaping side order of faith that falls flat at nearly every opportunity and then finishes up by going completely off the deep end.

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At a time when Hollywood is churning out remakes, reboots, and decades-later sequels that few were asking for, Ben-Hur is the remake that literally no one was asking for.  Except, apparently, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, since they ponied up for it.

It’s clear enough that they and their associates were hoping that their estimated hundred million-ish dollars would buy an epic.  Instead, those dollars paid for a bomb.  (Personal experience on that note: I was literally the only person who bothered to show up for either of two opening night screenings at a theatre that had gone out of its way to promote the movie.  Early box office returns indicate that I was not alone in being alone.)

Simply put, Ben-Hur is a bad swords-and-sandals flick with a heaping side order of faith that falls flat at nearly every opportunity and then finishes up by going completely off the deep end.

Starting with the swords and the sandals, one can at least say that they look pretty.  In terms of sets, costuming, and general production design, the creative team behind Ben-Hur has done a great job of recreating the look of Biblical Jerusalem (assuming the anachronism of modern hygiene, of course).  The streets are narrow and bustling, and the world as a whole appears as though it’s truly lived in (even those portions that are obviously-but-not-obnoxiously-so CGI constructs).  With that said, director Timur Bekmambetov fails to provide that extra je ne sais quoi that’s supposed to come from the big chair – especially in pictures that aspire to be epics – to give the well-designed production any real gravitas.  The result is that however nice the place looks, it doesn’t feel alive or special, and that feeling is supposed to be the very essence of what makes movies magical to begin with.  I think it’s telling that Bekmambetov’s prior swords-and-sandals picture, The Arena, a low budget direct-to-video-affair starring two Playboy Playmates, felt more engaging than Ben-Hur does.

This is most apparent during the film’s two signature action sequences, beginning with the naval battle on the Ionian Sea.  Despite having no real lead-in, this scene has promise, as it is presented in a highly novel (and budget-saving) fashion: save for one or two establishing shots, the audience experiences the entire thing from the galley slaves’ point of view below decks of a Roman vessel, with the only external views being through the ship’s oar holes and cracks in the deck.  In theory, this should be an intense experience that has the audience smelling the blood-soaked sweat of the doomed slaves, but no; the CGI outside is too telling, and again, Bekmambetov fails to deliver so much as an ounce of directorial gravitas.

Granted, the absolutely flat script from Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley – which presents allegedly epic events in lifeless “one damn thing after another” fashion – doesn’t help matters.  The performances of the cast members are also severely hampered by said script: even that of Morgan Freeman, whose compelling dialogue of “Go! Go! Go!” apparently inspired him to do the closest thing to phoning it in than a master such as Freeman is capable of. 

This brings us to what should logically be the climactic sequence of Ben-Hur: the chariot race around which the entire story of the title character is built.  One would think that given modern techniques and a significantly large budget, one could not fail to make an Ancient Roman chariot race exciting.  Sadly, Timur Bekmambetov has taken up this challenge and drawn failure from the jaws of a sure thing.  Once again, the gravitas just isn’t there, the action falls flat, and Morgan Freeman’s character’s inane After School Special coaching from the sidelines makes in all rather sad.  The fact that the CGI not only thins out the action but also causes the circus to change dimensions depending on the width of the shot doesn’t help matters, either, and when the end of the race happens… it just happens in a fashion that’s slightly less climactic than the moment when it’s time to stop boiling noodles.

Of course, this is because in the eyes of those who wrote and produced this story, the chariot race isn’t the climax, nor what Ben-Hur is really about at all.

For those who are unaware, this iteration of Ben-Hur is actually the latest in a long line of films (the fourth or the sixth, depending on how one chooses to count) based on Lew Wallace’s 19th Century novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”  The film’s title and the obviously expensive marketing blitz for the picture might leave that last part out, but oh yes, it’s there.  At least at the end.

For the majority of Ben-Hur, one is aware that there is a carpenter and teacher called Jesus of Nazareth hanging around Jerusalem.  He makes a couple of brief, sidelong appearances of the non-miraculous variety, and this firmly sets time and place of the film’s narrative.  All well and good, sensible, weaves into the overall story fairly well.

But then the race ends, and the film takes its metaphorical chariot and drives it straight over a cliff by very ham-handedly tacking on the Crucifixion (which is also very flatly presented) and a couple of additional faith-oriented items that are quite frankly just plain tacky.  (Others have referred to the “fairy tale ending,” and the description fits.)  My criticism here is not of the religious message (on which point I will remain decidedly neutral; your faith is your own, as mine is mine), but rather of the simply atrocious storytelling.  With the exception of our hero’s post-race confrontation with his nemesis, nothing that happens after the race feels like it belongs to Ben-Hur.  It’s a forced alien appendix, and whatever salvageable okay-ness (for there is no way that Ben-Hur was ever going to reach the level of “goodness”) the movie may have had before its final ten or fifteen minutes is ruined by the tacky tack-on.

I understand that some people’s mileage may vary on that point, but I would then respectfully suggest that those people would be satisfied with anything that included the material the makes up this film’s epilogue, and the story that comes before could have been a documentary about a fish cannery and it wouldn’t have made a difference.  And that’s fine, but if one truly cares about the quality of a story as a whole… whatever your faith may be, Ben-Hur just doesn’t work.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2016

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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