Review: “Ben-Hur” (2016)

1 out of 5 stars.

Don’t hate the new “Ben-Hur” movie because it’s a remake. Actually, it’s the fifth adaptation of the 1880 Lew Wallace novel (the 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston that is widely regarded as an iconic piece of cinema was the third version to hit the big screen). Rather, hate it because it is a terrible — and terribly unnecessary — movie.

Morgan Freeman with Jack Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, “Ben-Hur” is set in ancient Rome and centers around the relationship between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish nobleman, and his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). They are best friends but Messala always feels out of place because of his different background, and eventually leaves Judah and his mother and sister to join the Roman army.

Years go by. Judah marries one of the family’s servants, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), while Messala rises in the ranks of the Roman army. He finally returns home a decorated officer, and while Judah and the family rejoice at seeing him again, at the same time their different views on the Zealot uprising against the oppressive Roman rule divide them. When a Zealot attempts to kill Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) from the roof of the Ben-Hur home, the army storms the household, capturing Judah’s mother and sister and enslaving Judah when he takes responsibility. Naturally, the event divides Judah and Messala, who each believes they have been betrayed by the other.

This new “Ben-Hur” is essentially a condensed and poorly-made replica of the 1959 film. At a runtime of only two hours compared to the nearly four hours of the latter movie, “Ben-Hur” isn’t given time to fully flesh out any ideas it could have had, and ends up sacrificing story to make up for time. It pushes the religious aspects of the story more, but the way it does so — for instance, in its graphic depiction of the Crucifixion of Jesus — are not as effective and lack the meaning they could have had.

The actors are wooden. Even the appearance of Biblical epic staple Morgan Freeman as the sheik who teaches Judah the art of chariot racing doesn’t add much. As a result, none of the relationships that are so crucial to the story feel genuine. The action scenes aren’t edited together well, and the CGI is bad. The famous chariot race is still the best part of the movie, but it lacks the heart-racing excitement of the previous film versions (with technology being where it’s at today they really had a chance at making this race look good. They did not do so.)

Most people who are familiar with the 1959 film will notice the little changes in story throughout this film, mostly done to save time. But the ending is, in fact, the biggest change and the absolute worst part of what was already a bad movie. Sorry, but we need to talk about this. Spoilers to follow.

In the 1959 film, Messala dies in the chariot race, telling Judah just because he does so where he can find his mother and sister, who aren’t dead but are lepers living in seclusion. In this version, Messala is injured, but does not die. Judah has already found his mother and sister, so there’s no reason for them to reconcile over that tidbit here. But…they do reconcile. Rather quickly, it would seem, as the final shot in the movie is Messala leaving Jerusalem with Judah and his family. After all of the horrible things they did to each other, we’re supposed to believe that could ever overcome them? The attempt at a happy ending is appreciated, but it feels false. Cheesy, even.

There was no need for this movie to exist. It doesn’t change anything about the story, or at least, not for the better. It doesn’t feel modern. It isn’t that entertaining. It doesn’t even look or feel like any of the cast and crew put much effort into it. I know I said at the beginning to not hate this movie because it is a remake, but now seems like a good time to bring up the fact that the 1959 “Ben-Hur” is tied with “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” for the most Academy Awards won by a movie. So yes, it is possible for good material to go bad. And yes, you should just watch the 1959 film instead and forget this movie even exists.

Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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