Ben Hur is NOT a film I thought would get remade in my lifetime. Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) embarked on a journey to bring a ‘re-adaptation’ of the “GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD” to the big screen in 2016, bringing audiences a slightly more faithful version of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Surprising, yes, but it’s the Age of Retellings in Hollywood right now.
When we think of the epics of Hollywood, the great Biblical classics; 10 Commandments, Spartacus, and Ben Hur naturally are the three that jump out. We’ve gotten a few different 10 Commandment stories since then, tv movies, the BEST version being the animated Prince of Egypt (with a former Batman playing both Moses and God), the most recent being Ridley Scott’s poorly received Exodus: Gods and Kings (with yet ANOTHER former Batman playing Moses). Spartacus got 3 seasons of a show on Showtime and a miniseries, bringing the story back into the modern consciousness. Ben Hur….a little more difficult to translate, as it isn’t JUST the story of one man and his journey. Needless to say, there hasn’t been a retelling until now.
The story of this 2016 version is pretty much the same, a prominent Jewish family adopts a Roman orphan Messala Severus, and raises him to adulthood alongside the eldest son, Judah Ben Hur. The rise of the Roman Empire means trouble for the Jewish community, crucifixions and all that. Tensions are strained beyond easy repair when Messala leaves the Ben Hur family to pursue a military career with the Centurions, hoping to bring honor back to the Severus family name.
The Ben-Hur family gets blamed for the attempted murder of Legate Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), the women seemingly killed, and Judah sent off to be a galley slave.
Yes, we do get the ubiquitous scene of the men chained to their seats manning the oars on a large Roman warship, scary guy shouting “ROW” while another beats a drum. The naval battle is pretty great visually, even though we only get glimpses of the action from above the deck.
The casting of Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as Judah is a very solid choice, he carries the role well and should be looking forward to many more leads in his future. Toby Kebbell (Fantastic 4 2015, Prince of Persia) does marginally less well as Messala, but that may be more a product of the writing than his performance.
The only REAL problem I had with the film is the time jumps. Yes, I understand there is a large span of time that needs to be covered, but the particular cuts that lead into the “five years later”, “7 years later” moments were rough. The opening sequence SHOULD have been the brothers and their horse race, not the voice over leadin with the chariot teaser. But, I mean you have Morgan Freeman in your film, I understand the temptation to have him voice over EVERYTHING.
Sumerian fan fiction aside, the best part is Judah Ben Hur’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) sleeping near the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane during Judas’ betrayal of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro), wakes up to the sound of the Roman soldiers coming to arrest the prophet. She sits up in shock and utters “JESUS” in much more comedic fashion than I think was intended, but I laughed. Because of COURSE that’s what you’d say when you see yet another man you love being arrested, right?
But let’s talk about the ACTUAL chariot race. While visually interesting (chariot cam was a great notion!) and compelling, I really could have done with more in a film arguably about “the race”. Considering almost all the promotional materials leading up to the release of the film have been about/featured predominately the chariots, I’m just saying. But, to be fair, the overtones of theme in the film are the brothers, forgiveness, and redemption.
If you do not like heavy biblical tones in your movie going experience, this is not the film for you. If you can look past that and enjoy and mostly period piece about two brothers, then you’ll be fine.
SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10, 3D viewing (maybe not necessary for the film)
Ben Hur opens worldwide Friday, August 19th 2016.