There’s nothing inherently blasphemous (pardon the pun) about doing a new film version of Ben-Hur: after all, the original 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, has already been adapted four previous times, along with stage and TV iterations. But the last time Ben-Hur appeared on a movie screen was in 1959 in the form of William Wyler’s epic starring Charlton Heston, a movie that won an unprecedented 11 Oscars and held onto that record until Titanic tied it in 1998. That is the version that most people alive today remember best, and the one against which this new production will be fairly or unfairly compared.
So it’s odd to say that despite decades of advances in filmmaking technology and special effects wizardry, which has brought tentpoles to the screen that can dazzle the eye and make the theater itself quake, the 2016 Ben-Hur feels much smaller than its predecessor. A lot of that has to fall at the feet of director Timur Bekmambetov, who apparently never met a shot that he didn’t want to cut down to two seconds or less. While the 1959 Ben-Hur had a stately grandeur befitting its sweeping narrative (and one could argue that, at three and a half hours, it was a bit too stately), the new version is all quick editing and tight shots, as one might expect from a director who gave us empty action time-wasters like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Bekmambetov seems to be at a real loss about how to stage a story like this, a quandary best exemplified by the famous chariot race that serves as the centerpiece. Wyler’s version was shot in a massive recreation of a Roman coliseum (or circus, as it’s called here), with real throngs of spectators, real horses and real drivers. There are shots of the sequence that take one’s breath away with their sheer hugeness. According to the filmmakers and actors, the chariot race in the new Ben-Hur also used real drivers, animals and vehicles (how much, I couldn’t say) but clearly no one was building an arena in this day and age. So, Bekmambetov keeps everything tight, creating incoherent collages instead of thrilling vistas, and even though the race does have its moments of visceral excitement it feels constricted by the CG around it.
The technique works better in one of the story’s other showstopping moments, a battle at sea involving the ship on which Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) has been imprisoned as a galley slave. Here, we see the battle through Judah’s eyes as he struggles to survive in the claustrophobic hold of the boat, instead of through overhead shots of the ships at war, and the effect manages to be terrifying as the vessel breaks apart and his fellow slaves are crushed, impaled or set ablaze around him.
Huston gives Judah a vulnerability that Heston’s brawny performance may have lacked, although the former can’t quite match the latter’s powerful screen presence. His Judah is strangely passive as well, letting events happen around and to him for most of this film’s more economical two-hour running time. His childhood friend Messala – here re-imagined as an adopted brother before he joins the Roman army – is arguably the more complex and pro-active character of the two; Toby Kebbell (Warcraft) manages to evoke a real sense of pain underneath his raging anger as he throws Judah under the bus to advance his own agenda.
Less effective is Morgan Freeman, a bit too modern and recognizable under his wig as Ilderim, the African horsemaster who rescues Judah after he washes up on shore and instructs him in the ways of chariot-driving. And Rodrigo Santoro seems a little too pretty as Jesus Christ, a figure glimpsed only fleetingly in the 1959 film (and whose face is never seen), but who here drops in and out of Judah’s life with a helping hand or a drink of water (if only the filmmakers could have gotten Cliff Curtis, who played Christ earlier this year in Risen, then we might have the makings of a Jesus Shared Universe). The bigger emphasis on Christ is apparently lifted from the novel but may also reflect the leanings of faith-based producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who are executive producers on this project.
Most of Downey and Burnett’s output has been on TV, so it’s not surprising that this Ben-Hur has a TV movie feel to it. While the movie is not unwatchable in any real sense, Ben-Hur also never truly comes to life. Here is a period piece that has a chintzy, cut-rate look to it. And so Ben-Hur joins the growing list of reboots and remakes that seem completely unnecessary and unwanted, and will need a box office miracle to keep it from fading into obscurity less than a month from now.
Ben-Hur is in theaters this Friday, Aug. 19.