(Originally posted 14th September 2016)
What is the purpose of a remake? Is it to update the story for a modern audience? Take advantage of improved technology to create a greater spectacle? Take an imperfect piece and try and improve it?
Ben-Hur (2016) does none of these things. It is a direct remake of the 1959 film of the same name and the only real advantage it has is that it's taken a couple of hours out of the run time.
The story follows Judah Ben-Hur, a well-off middle class Jew in Jerusalem who is betrayed by his adopted brother Messala, who is part of the Roman occupying force. His whole family is murdered or imprisoned and he is sent to the galley to serve as a slave until he is dead. He manages to escape (by luck more than design) and comes back to wreak revenge. When he achieves his vengeance, he comes to realise that it has given him no solace and the true path to spiritual peace is forgiveness.
There's a lot of potential in that plot and, unfortunately, it is not well examined. There are some hints of a good story near the beginning, dealing with the conflicting sides of a hostile occupation; the moral questions of pacifism and civil unrest; what is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom-fighter? But this early development never gets the chance to breathe and it just ends up feeling like lip service to a more worthy story possibility.
Also unexplored is the journey of Ben-Hur as a slave, which is summed up for us with a simple title card of “5 years later”. We see nothing of the mental trauma and angst that one must suffer in such a situation, and would obviously be fuel for his later actions and help us understand the character's journey. For a better example of this, see 12 Years a Slave, which shares a writer with Ben-Hur, but is a far superior film.
Visually, the film is also no improvement on its 57 year old predecessor, which probably speaks more to the quality of the William Wyler version than any distinct deficiency with the new incarnation. The director Timur Bekmambetov is known for a physics defying CG rich style of filmmaking and I must admit I was looking forward to how that would translate to a much more grounded swords and sandals type film. The answer is, he simply reined it in, making instead a rather standard bit of action nonsense. The chariot race scene, the tentpole piece of the 1959 version, is repeated almost shot for shot and really takes no advantage of the visual possibilities that modern filmmaking could have rendered.
A quick word on the acting. Jack Huston actually really stood out as an engaging lead. Very bright-eyed and full of spunk, as they say. Played the part about as well as one could have hoped and being new to me, was a welcome surprise. Although he did look a bit too much like Peter Serafinowicz for me to take him seriously. Toby Kebbell, who I've always really liked, gave a solid performance but felt somehow out of place with this more dramatic style of film and he always seemed a little out of place. Morgan Freeman pops in as a sage old man who guides our hero, of course, but the rest of the cast are basically anonymous, ranging from poor to average.
And now, I'd like to talk to you about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Jesus finds himself shoe-horned into the story and, just like in the 1959 film, his presence and resulting effect undermines the actions of the characters and the message of the film. To see a film in the 50s legitimately preaching christianity seems quite quaint to modern eyes; to see it in 2016 is actually quite embarrassing to watch. I'm well aware that I live in a very middle class liberal bubble that is deliberately insulated from the horrors of the real world, and when something like this sneaks in and reminds me of just how backwards-thinking some people are, I really find it very depressing. So not the heart-warming ending for me that it was meant to be. Speaking of which, one significant change was the very end, when Messala survives the chariot race and the two brothers find forgiveness in each other rather than Charlton Heston just ruing the death of a former friend/lover. This did actually feel like a better ending and a more sensible message in keeping with the theme of forgiveness. However, it was just kind of tacked on to the last five minutes with no real development and so instead felt like a Hollywood happy ending.
A pointless, valueless remake that does nothing and adds nothing.
To hear some sexier ideas for a Ben-Hur film, listen to our episode here: