ScreenCritics Adam checks out one of 2016’s biggest movie flops. Is it really that bad, or is Ben-Hur a disaster of epic proportions?
Now that we approaching the end of 2016, we can start to think about the impact this year has had on several different aspects of our lives including movies. And the message we as movie goers sent to Hollywood is that we are sick of lazy sequels and reboots as for the many they pumped out, we decided to stay at home and not watch. Zoolander 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Independence Day: Resurgence all struggled at the box office this year because we want more original films. And we gave Hollywood one last lesson by not going to see the remake of Ben-Hur, but should we have given that one a chance?
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, American Hustle) has the good life as a Jewish nobleman alongside his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). However Messala starts to rise up the ranks of the Roman army and after an incident at Jerusalem almost kills Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, Lucy), the two brothers start to clash and that leads to Ben-Hur becoming a slave.
The immediate response to this film even existing is anger, because the 1959 version, this needs pointing out as there are many different versions of Ben-Hur, is a classic and possibly one of the greatest films ever made. But there is actually a point to this film, namely the shortened running time. The 1959 Ben-Hur runs at 3 hours and a half long, which while short for an epic of the time is still a ridiculous running time for this era. I don’t know of many people who have the time to watch a film of that length anymore, no matter how deserving it is. So for there to be a remake that cuts it down to a more manageable two hours isn’t the worst thing in the world, as the general core of the story is good and worth seeing.
However while the idea behind a remake isn’t terrible, everything else is. Firstly, the leads. I appreciate the fact they’ve refrained from getting big name stars that would probably be distracting, but they could have least got some with charisma. As Ben-Hur, Jack Huston is terrible. Every single line is said in the same monotone delivery, it doesn’t matter whether he’s happy with his family or seconds from potential death as a galley slave. And Toby Kebbell isn’t much better, as he can’t sell his anger at all at his brother, so the crucial crux of the plot cannot be sold. These are bad performances and as I’ve seen both do better work, this isn’t down to them either.
And as the whole plot relies upon the brotherly conflict, the film fails because that doesn’t work. As much as there is the big chariot racing scene later, and we’ll get to that, this whole film works on those two brothers first loving each other and then hating each other. And apart from the performances, there is one big issue that ruins it. Huston and Kebbell only have one short scene together where they are actually enjoying each other’s company, and that can’t be properly taken in because there’s some narration going over it. Then the plot kicks in straight away and the tensions start to rise, so when the betrayal happens, we don’t feel why it’s a big thing. Basic story telling law says you have to establish equilibrium and then disrupt it for the plot to kick in, but if we don’t appreciate the equilibrium we’re not going to care when its disrupted.
And boy, does this film take some liberties with the time skips. Sometimes these are necessary because you have to get to the meat of the plot and skip over pointless scenes. But this film’s time skips actually skip over the stuff we need to care about the characters. The first time skip is when Messala is off fighting with the Romans, which is the one with the smaller problems. I would have liked to see more of the battles and this again separates the brothers which means their relationship isn’t developed, but we do need to get to the betrayal so this one makes sense. What doesn’t is the time skip almost immediately after Ben-Hur becomes a slave. Here we should see him at his lowest ebb so his anger at the betrayal of his brother can seep in, but as soon as he’s chucked into the galley, we go five years later and his escape. This means the character does not get developed and we continue not care.
But OK, we’re all here for the big chariot race at the end. The 1959 version is one of the most visceral scenes ever put to screen, it’s thrilling, it’s tense, it’s everything that good cinema is. Personally, I think that scene would go on to inspire the creation of the blockbuster many years later where people would go to the movies to watch these incredible spectacles rather than merely just story, so yes there’s huge pressure on the film to some how match that version. And you know what the answer is going to be, it doesn’t. I’ll ignore why the character stuff works because I’ve gone other that enough already, but why as a spectacle it doesn’t. While there were actually horses racing around a ring at some point, it doesn’t look like they ever spent anytime together on the track, so it doesn’t look real. When chariots are chucked around on the track, it’s all CGI and the fact they bothered to have fake dust kicking off the horses makes it look even worse. It’s got no character, and got nothing nice to look at.
Remember how everyone got really angry that Ghostbusters got a remake with all women and many claimed it was all down to the fact they didn’t want remakes? Well, why weren’t they angry at this? Why it is technically a re-adaptation of a book and there is a decent enough reason to exist, this is just another example of Hollywood having no imagination. They took this classic, this film that isn’t just another great but a part of the cinematic landscape, and turned it into another generic blockbuster with bad acting, poor action and all the clichés that make so many of these big budget films suck. This is one of the greatest insults modern Hollywood has ever done, and its to itself.