Some classics need to stay classics.
Synopsis (via IMDB.com)
Judah Ben-Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, an officer in the Roman army, returns to his homeland after years at sea to seek revenge, but finds redemption.
Scope makes a huge difference when you’re trying to remake a classic like Ben-Hur. If you don’t have scope, then you can’t possibly tell the story the correct way. Honestly, that is my biggest issue with the remake of Ben-Hur. They got the story right, the characters are solid, but the scope of the entire film is just not there. Director Timur Bekmambetov, known for such films as Nightwatch and Wanted, seemed to live on the scope that was provided for the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, which couldn’t come close to the original film.
Essentially, the problem with scope is that sometimes it limits the vision of the film. If you’re going to remake an epic, such as 1959 Ben-Hur, then you better be prepared to make a comparative film on both size and scale. Original Ben-Hur director William Wyler took his vision and put it on a ginormous pedestal with overshadowing practical set pieces, wide shots that seem to go on forever (ones that would even make The Fall director Tarsem Singh drool over) and the movie featured big name stars like Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins to lead it all. If you can’t get close to these things, then maybe remaking a film of that magnitude just shouldn’t be in the cards. Just because a film is 57 years old, doesn’t mean that the techniques behind it that made it great are dated too, or even translate well to the technology these days.
Having said this, Ben-Hur 2016 doesn’t have any scope to it. It’s shot like a network television drama, where every shot is too tight and the world that we should get to know isn’t prominent in the visuals at all. Not knowing the scale of what’s at stake in the story through visual presence is what makes this movie a hard sell in the story department. I know that a huge Roman army is taking over Jerusalem in the story. I want to see the huge army and I want to see the masses it intends to take over. You establish those things through your visuals, then you bring presence, prominence and scale to everything. You bring urgency to what’s happening on screen. You raise the stakes of our protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), simply by showing and establishing the girth of the world he resides in. If you take all of that away and decide to focus on the smaller characters and particularly Ben-Hur’s family, then you lower what’s at stake in the overall film. You decrease the drama and you decrease the size of the world. You simply take away half of the reason the original movie is great.
That said, as for the story, it’s actually okay.
The first act introduces you to the main characters, who are two brothers with two difference viewpoints on life. One brother is adopted and comes from the school of hard knocks, Messala (Toby Kebbell). Born into a life of servitude, the only way he sees his way out of a lower class life is to join the Roman ranks to make a name for himself. On the other side of the equation, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a prince that has everything and is passive against wartime (why does a prince need to fight?), even when it comes to a Roman army pretty much invading his lands. Refusing to side with the zealots that are trying to save his country and refusing to completely give into the Roman way of life, he is squarely in the middle, which isn’t a good place to be during wartime. The act continues with Messala coming back from Roman wars as a highly decorated soldier and being forced to take down Judah because Judah was hiding/helping zealots that killed Romans. The act concludes with Judah dragged off into slavery and his family supposedly killed by Messala’s orders. After briefly becoming a slave, he escapes death (you’ll have to see it) and frees himself…sorta.
The first act feels like forever. It takes its time to develop, firmly establishes the stance of each main character and sets the wheels in motion to start the hard/long climb up through the second act plot points. It does everything right, but it works so darn slow. It’s tough to not be a little bit bored during the first act because it’s difficult to see where everything is headed, especially if you don’t know the original story.
The second act is Ben-Hur’s rebuilding phase.
Ben-Hur is rescued by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a gambler and profiter off the Roman empire, and in exchange for his freedom, Ben-Hur agrees to help out with Ilderim’s horses to prepare them for chariot races. Soon after the agreement an incident occurs with Ilderim’s main rider and Ben-Hur finds himself as the main rider for the races, which sets up his revenge against Messala. While pining over his revenge, he runs into some old acquaintances, including his family, and all of which adds fuel to his revenge fire. It’s a simple transition with tiny bits of help along the way, but ultimately the meat to these potatoes is in act three.
The second act drags just a bit, but not nearly as much as the first. The rebuilding process is visually flat. You see him gather himself, bring himself back up to his feet and then begin to execute a plan to get Messala back for messing up his family. It’s not a terribly exciting climb back to normality and the rebuild of his image into a blood thirsty revenge seeker isn’t sold as strongly as it could have been, but it works. You believe he has a goal to get back at Messala, but the sell and the drive to push him beyond his limits simply never reaches its zenith.
The third act begins with the chariot race, which is what the original film is known for, and this review stops with that race (not going to ruin it for anyone). While you can guess how it all ends up, especially if you saw the original, I still will contend that the film looks and acts no better than a network television drama. It just isn’t nearly as epic and powerful enough as its original. It’s shot too tightly, the characters, while the same, aren’t nearly as powerful or compelling, and it just really is a more shallow, limited version of the original movie. That’s not a knock, but at the same time it’s not a compliment.
Overall, Ben-Hur 2016 can’t hold the reins of Ben-Hur 1959 when it comes to scope, scale and epic-ness. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it’s merely a shadow of its 1957 papa.
On the Blu-ray side of things, the features aren’t that bad at all. Here’s what you’re looking at:
– Ben-Hur: The Legacy
– The Epic Cast
– A Tale for Our Times
– The Chariot Race
– Deleted and Extended Scenes
– Music Video
Again, for a movie that did so poorly in the box office, the amount of features and effort in the special features section is impressive. Their quality is good as well.