There are bad movies that make you physically angry and offended and then there are bad movies that just make you really bored. “Ben Hur” (the fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s historical/religious novel about Romans, revenge and redemption, the most notable version being the 1959 Technicolor epic directed by William Wyler) fits into the latter category.
It’s simultaneously bland and heavy-handed--presenting its religious themes and messages with the subtlety of a Cat o’ nine tales against your bare back. For those who’ve seen the iconic Wyler film, this new version (directed by Timur Bekmambetov) is an abridged rehash with more dirt and mud, cheap looking CGI, atrocious shaky cam and quick cutting. For those who haven’t seen or heard of the Wyler film it’s like a watered-down faith based “Gladiator.”
The film revolves around Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) who’s betrayed by his adopted brother/Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell) and sentenced to a slow death in slavery. Ben-Hur manages to hang on and returns to his homeland, full of hatred and seeking revenge but ultimately learns to forgive through faith…and Jesus Christ himself. That’s the gist of both versions, although Bekmambetov and screenwriters Keith R Clarke and John Ridley choose to spend around fifteen minutes on the stuff leading up to the betrayal, namely the background on Ben-Hur and Messala’s relationship.
That’s all well and good except that the rest of the picture (the betrayal, Ben-Hur’s stint as a rower on a massive Roman army ship, his meet up with the Arab Sheik Ilderim etc.) feels so rushed. The 59’ film was a leisurely three and a half hours while this one is that same three and half hour story crammed into just over two hours. I get that a three hour film isn’t viable in modern Hollywood but then why try to be so faithful to the ’59 version?
So much of the movie is insipid and tired plotting, bouncing from one familiar beat to another. We get voice over narration at the beginning and end. About eighty percent of the dialogue is characters boringly explaining the plot or character motivations to each other. Practically every scene and critical moment in the narrative is telegraphed. Morgan Freeman stars as Ilderim-- playing the same wise and wisecracking character he’s played countless times except with dreadlocks. Freeman doesn’t do much acting but he’s the only one who looks like he’s having any fun and in the scenes between him and Ben-Her there’s a microscopic semblance of repartee and playfulness that the rest of the movie is lacking.
The film’s emotional/spiritual climax and subsequent resolution is rushed and utterly ham fisted. Ben-Hur’s transformation comes too abruptly and is sounded out for us as if we’re a bunch of ten year olds.
Speaking of sounding things out for us, the picture’s religious component is heavy-handed to say the least, making the ’59 version look subtle by comparison. A lot of this has to do with the depiction of Jesus himself. In the ’59 version we never saw his face or his body straight on and he never spoke, evoking both a sense of mystery and importance. He was also used sparingly, making his few appearances more significant. In the 2016 movie we get more scenes of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), shown full on, talking and talking…and talking. Every time he opens his mouth it’s to hammer home the film’s themes of brotherhood, love, forgiveness and belief in God. Even when he’s on the cross he has enough strength to talk out loud to his father, asking him to take mercy on the people who did this. Seriously, leave something for us to get on our own. How is it that a 1950’s studio epic had a better depiction of Jesus?
This shallow, overly preachy treatment of the Lord and Savior ultimately diminishes his presence in the film, turning him into a cardboard cutout spouting strained “Jesus-isms.” I realize the religion/faith element is what makes “Ben-Hur” “Ben-Hur” but, like everything else in this new version, it’s spoon fed to you.
“Ben Hur” is a waste of time, a one hundred million dollar historical epic that fails to be exciting or epic. A film about religion and spirituality with little nuance or finesse.