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Front Page - Friday, September 9, 2016

‘Ben-Hur’ deserved a better fate

The Critic's Corner movie review

David Laprad

Perhaps filming the story of Ben-Hur for the sixth time wasn’t the best idea. The 1959 version starring Charlton Heston is a classic, so why remake it when you’re not going to be able to improve on it? Movie studios still seem to think the answer to that question is money, but audiences have been proving them wrong for a while.

In the case of “Ben-Hur,” I believe filmgoers have become immune to the draw of spectacle in an age when moviemakers can easily create epic scenes on a computer.

Whatever the reason, “Ben-Hur” has bombed, grossing only $11 million its opening weekend. With a budget said to be near $100 million, that’s gotta hurt. Even worse, people are missing a good film.

A good film, not a great one. Director Timur Bekmambetov, who’s known for making stylized action movies (see “Wanted” starring Angelina Jolie), delivered a strangely uncinematic experience. Much of it was shot using close-ups, which initially made me wonder if Bekmambetov had had enough money to dress the sets. But I could see on the edges of the screen that he and his team had done a decent job of creating the look and feel of a period piece, so the tight shots frustrated me. I wanted Bekmambetov to pull back and give the images breathing room. Instead, I felt like I was watching an expensive TV production.

There are also issues with the script. Technically, “Ben-Hur” isn’t a remake of the Heston pic but a new adaptation of the 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace. Like the book, the movie tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a fictional Jewish prince from Jerusalem who’s enslaved by the Romans and becomes a charioteer. Running alongside Judah’s narrative is the story of Jesus, who comes from the same region and is about the same age.

Oddly, writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley used multiple narrators to tell the story. The film opens with Morgan Freeman, a wealthy sheik who trains Ben-Hur to become a charioteer, recounting the details of the story. Later, Jack Huston as Ben-Hur pitches in, then Freeman takes over again. There’s nothing wrong with using multiple viewpoints, but the storyline – a straightforward tale of betrayal and redemption – doesn’t call for it.

Worse is how Clarke and Ridley handled the story of Christ. I’m not sure how it’s presented in the novel, but in the 2016 movie, it feels shoehorned in. While the subplot about Jesus enhances the themes of forgiveness and redemption, he’s not in the movie long enough to make a narrative impact. Unless you’re familiar with the Biblical account of Christ, you’re not going to understand why he’s in the movie or the scenes portraying his ministry and crucifixion. For example, the sequence in which Ben-Hur becomes a Christian as he watches Jesus hang on the cross makes little sense in the context of the film; you have to be familiar with Christianity to understand what’s taking place.

Also, one aspect of the ending will probably seem corny to modern audiences, which will likely balk at the notion of supernatural healing in a historical piece.

These issues aside, I enjoyed “Ben-Hur,” primarily because the cast does strong work, especially Huston and Toby Kebbell as Ben-Hur’s adopted brother, Messala. I was also drawn to the story, which has all the elements of good drama and ends in a mostly satisfying way. And the climactic chariot race is visually exciting. Bekmambetov pulled a few stunts of his own in the editing room, but overall, he lived up to the legacy of the race in the 1959 film. He also delivered a terrific battle at sea shot from Ben-Hur’s point of view. That scene, which takes places during Ben-Hur’s enslavement as a rower aboard a Roman galley, is easily the best sea battle put to film since the skirmishes in Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003).

I realize I’ve spent most of this review logging “Ben-Hur” faults. I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from seeing it. While it isn’t perfect, it is a solid drama, and nowhere near the artistic disaster all of the bad reviews would suggest. Perhaps for those critics, the shadow of the 1959 version loomed too largely over this new take on the novel. But the fact that artists are still revisiting the novel 120 years after it first appeared says something about its power as a work of fiction and its message about the human experience. Spending $100 million to make a new film of the story might not have been the best idea financially, but the 2016 version of “Ben-Hur” is still a high compliment to Wallace and a decent time at the movies. 

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.