‘Ben-Hur‘ Review: A Tale of Forgiveness That Belongs on The CW.
Before I begin my review, I want to point out that the producers of this re-imagining of Ben-Hur want you to know that their film is not a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston. Instead, the inspiration for this movie came from the novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The film tells the tale of two brothers, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), who become enemies after Judah is accused of an act of treason against the Romans. Judah Ben-Hur is sentenced to a life of slavery while Messala becomes a leader in the Roman empire. After being stuck working on a slave ship for five years, Judah escapes the ship after the ship is destroyed while out to sea. The now free Judah heads back to Rome where he hopes to reconnect with his family and seek revenge on the man who turned him into a slave.
A few weeks ago, I made a joke about Ben-Hur on Facebook where I wrote, “I want a Ben-Hur remake” said, no one ever. After seeing this new rendition and learning that the movie wasn’t intended to be a remake, I still ask myself, “who the heck thought it was a good idea to tell this story again on the big screen?” This new adaptation of Ben-Hur isn’t the train-wreck that trailers lead you to believe, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great film either. Ben-Hur is an average film with some great moments sprinkled throughout. It is a movie that feels as though it was made for the CW network. It seems like the Roman film version of the CW series Reign only with more religious undertones and less sex.
The opening to the movie is rather dull but after about 20 minutes, the film gets a lot better. The storyline showing Judah’s becoming a slave is great. The transition from him being this happy go lucky guy with a woman by his side to becoming a slave was handled extremely well. The scene featuring the slave ship being destroyed is this film’s most memorable moment. It is shot entirely from the perspective of the slaves inside the ship. There is a lot of whipping and violence happening within this scene, but it feels surprisingly authentic. This particular sequence was briefly featured in the 1959 film but is entirely fleshed out in this version. The producers mentioned that it was taken directly from the novel. This scene is without a doubt the moment that anyone who sees the film will be talking about when exiting the theater.
The chariot race which is the most memorable scene from the 1959 film works fairly well in this version. Based on what I learned from the actors, it took almost 90 days for them to shoot this scene in its entirety. The entire scene is made up of a series of cameras that were attached to the chariots that the actors rode. There is very little CGI in this sequence, therefore, making it extremely impressive to watch on the big screen. As someone who grew up with the 1959 film, I thought Timur Bekmambetov did a solid job of making this scene his own, even though it did lack the initial build up that the Heston flick had.
The one thing that I didn’t like about this film was that Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) played such an active role in Judah’s actions. The 1959 film is about revenge, but this story is all about forgiveness. Multiple scenes featuring Jesus are strategically placed throughout the movie which was ok but felt out of place. I completely understand the angle that the screenwriters (John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke) were going for, but because the movie focuses so heavily on Judah and his family being tortured, I found the idea of forgiveness forced and unbelievable. The script seems to have this religious agenda and goes as far as including the infamous Jesus getting nailed to the cross scene as a way to close out the film. It was such a strange transition going from an intense chariot race to an extremely religious moment that everyone, even those who aren’t religious know all so well. All these moments felt out of place, but the crucifixion scene was so jarring that it took me out of the film altogether.
A lot of what happens throughout the rest of the film isn’t all that memorable. I saw the movie last Friday and about five days later, and I don’t recall much of anything other than the scenes I referenced above. Even though Ben-Hur only runs about 120 minutes; the film could have easily been 90 minutes. I didn’t find that the pacing was off but rather that there just wasn’t enough interesting things going on in-between the action sequences.
The performances are all fairly decent. As I mentioned earlier, everyone who is part of this cast looks like they should be starring in a series on the CW. They are all beautiful people playing their parts, but no one, in particular, stands out from the other. I don’t even think Morgan Freeman stood out minus odd decision to give his character dreadlocks. Apparently, Freeman’s character has a name (Ilderim), but neither Judah nor any of the other characters ever muttered it once in the film. I will say that Huston is very likable as Judah and had great chemistry with everyone he shared a scene with from Messala to Esther (Boniadi) to Ilderim.
All in all, Ben-Hur is a forgettable yet entertaining retelling of a classic tale. The cast all does what they need to do, but the story itself does very little to wow the audience. There are a few great moments throughout the story but nothing that will make Ben-Hur stand the test of time. I thought the film was a solid watch and would slightly recommend it. I don’t believe that it’s a must-see, but you can certainly do a lot worse when it comes to big budget films this year. I would, however, if seeing the film in theaters to not to see it in 3D. I thought the effects didn’t do anything whatsoever but instead took away from the suspense of the chariot scene.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for Ben-Hur is a 6 out of 10.