The 1959 Ben-Hur is one of the pantheon of untouchable films – an epic film from the Golden Age of Hollywood that’s culturally too big to fail. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion of it, Ben-Hur reeks of importance and dignity. And this remake is just about as bad in execution as it is in theory. 2016’s Ben-Hur is what would happen if you were to ask someone what a contemporary remake would look like as a joke.
This is still largely the same story as it’s been since the original novel’s publication in 1880. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince in the Roman Empire whom is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala (Toby Kebbell), and is rendered a galley-slave. Ben-Hur strives to make his way back to his family and seeks revenge on Messala.
It’s not that this remake is over-the-top – because it’s pretty much impossible to out-over-the-top Ben-Hur, and two most spectacular parts of this remake are the parts that work the best – but this remake lacks any subtlety. It’s strange to call the epic that is 1959’s Ben-Hur “restrained,” but compared to this version, it might as well be dressed in a habit.
The first, and most obvious change due to lack of restraint is changing the innocuous falling tiles that light the powder-keg of the plot in the 1959 movie into an assassination attempt, but that’s just the least of it.
There is a frankly distracting amount of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) in this Ben-Hur. Yes, the original novel’s full title is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; but this movie goes as far as to make Jesus almost a deuteragonist; and because he’s Jesus, his presence is inherently distracting. He’s always the most important person on screen, even when he’s sharing it with our eponymous lead. And for all the Christ, he still has no reason to be there until the end of the story. There’s really no need for the film to spend as much time as it does foreshadowing that Jesus dies at the end – because that’s not a forgone conclusion or anything.
This confusion of focus is also present throughout the film’s first act where it seems to set up Messala as the protagonist. His is the story of a slave and an outsider who rises to become a military hero and pride of Rome, so it would make sense (and would probably have been a better idea than remaking Ben-Hur); so if you don’t know that the story is actually about his foppish master, then the beginning of the second act will throw you for a loop.
The movie feels just as confused about Judah Ben-Hur, himself. This movie’s Judah is so good hearted, innocent, and gentle that his entire revenge plot seems out of character. And it’s not that Judah shouldn’t be kind, or that kind people aren’t able to want revenge on a person that wronged them. But what this Ben-Hur does that that the others have not, is leapt at the opportunity to take his revenge. In previous tellings, Judah keeps on declining opportunities to get in a position to exact vengeance on Messala, prompted only to do so by the supposed death of his parents. It’s the story of a gentle soul pushed to the edge. But this version of the character, while still gentle, also takes every chance he gets to throw pot-shots at Messala in order to satiate his bloodlust. Other characters have to advise Messala – the antagonist! – to avoid Ben-Hur because he’s out for blood!
This, of course, also means that the epic scale of Ben-Hur gets cut down; the movie assuming that the audience is just about as patient as Ben-Hur is to just get it all over with. But despite being almost an hour shorter than the 1959 version, this version still feels entirely too long.
And the entire confused mess of a movie has the nerve to end on a somehow lighter, more upbeat, and quite frankly – ridiculous tone than any other Ben-Hur; including a bad pop-song over the end credits that doesn’t mesh with literally any other part of the movie!
The only things this movie really has going for it are the advantages that over fifty years of special-effects can lend to the production. The climax of the galley-ship sequence almost feels shot in the first person, bringing the viewer into belly of a Roman war-ship as it’s sieged and sunk under the Mediterranean. This version also brings us closer inside the iconic chariot race than ever before possible, turning the sequence into a something out of Fast and Furious: Four Horsepower.
Outside of these action beats though, calling the cinematography “uninspired” would be pushing it. There are moments during quiet dialogue scenes where the camera bobs up-and-down and side-to-side, and the only explanation I could see for that would be the camera-person’s arms getting tired.
Remaking Ben-Hur isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but you could be forgiven for thinking so after seeing this movie’s go at it. The best compliment I can really pay 2016’s Ben-Hur is that it’s a forgettable type of bad, so at least nobody can blame this for somehow tarnishing what came before.