I like to think that my perspective on this brand new interpretation of Ben-Hur is an interesting one. I say this because most people who review this film have seen the original 3.5 hour Charlton Heston classic from 1959, an experience I don’t yet share hence why my review of Timur Bekmambetov‘s remake will be through fresh eyes. The version I have seen is the one from 1925 (a viewing I owe to my brief time in film school), which was first to give us the celebrated chariot ride sequence that so many movies since have imitated – not just Ben-Hur reimaginings.
Even then, I’m reasonably confident than the Heston movie was a lot better than this. I do know how ground-breaking it was in the areas of special effects and action, so it figures that a remake released in the age of giant CGI apes and nigh flawless 3D renderings of jungles or space battles would be little more than another soulless Gladiator wannabe – which, if you remember my review of Brett Ratner’s Hercules, is what I would consider most modern-day “swords and sandals” movies to be.
The story, as many know, is of Judah Ben-Hur of Jerusalem (Jack Huston), who is betrayed by his dearly loved step-brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) when the latter becomes a commander for the Roman Empire and is condemned to a life of slavery for his treason against Jerusalem’s new rulers. After Ben-Hur escapes his duties aboard a Roman ship, he meets Sheik Ilderim (played by Morgan Freeman – an actual black person and not just Hugh Griffith with insensitive makeup), who agrees to keep Ben-Hur safe from the Romans after he proves to be good at treating Ilderim’s racing horses. From this point, Ilderim trains the young slave to be an expert chariot racer and you can most likely guess what the climax is.
In the supporting parts, Nazanin Boniadi plays Ben-Hur’s love interest Esther, Sofia Black D’Elia plays his biological sister Tirzah, Ayelet Zurer portrays their mother, and Pilou Asbæk of Game of Thrones fame appears as the Roman governor. There is also Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus of Nazareth in a supposedly much bigger role than our lord and savior normally gets in the story of Ben-Hur. At least God’s Not Dead 2 fans will be delighted.
I did enjoy certain performances in Ben-Hur and in spite of feeling like I knew how it was done (with computers and editing), I liked the climactic chariots sequence but that is the extent of my admiration. As I feared, the film is very much indeed similar to Gladiator, Troy, Clash of the Titans and whatever else. The color schemes are similar; the quasi-British accents with which the characters speak (even though they live in the vicinity of the Mediterranean Sea) are similar; even the plots are sort of similar.
And before someone of superior knowledge corrects me: I realize that big chunks of the chariots sequence were likely achieved with real wagons, horses and stunts (you can also tell with ease which bits were shot with a GoPro). Sadly, it was all done at the wrong time. We’ve seen actors and doubles endanger themselves by performing far crazier stunts in the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and maybe that’s why nobody responded too strongly to Ben-Hur?
Another reason might be the run-time. Here is a tale that was pretty much always meant to be an epic that cracks 180 minutes, but the finished movie is only 2 hours in length. It’s evident that parts have been removed for the sake of dumbing it down sufficiently, especially during the first half, where sudden time skips are prevalent and the pacing is uneven.
If you plan to see this movie, do so for the action. There isn’t much to cheer for in terms of originality or emotional conflict between the principal characters, but you might be able to get over it if you’re into fast action scenes, racing sequences that are noticeably more competent than anything we see in Star Wars: Episode I, and shots of Morgan Freeman in silly dreadlocks. I am giving it a 2.5/5 and a consolation price in the form of a CD copy of Marco Beltrami’s score.
This will most likely be the final summer blockbuster I cover. I don’t feel bad about having skipped out on a few dumb-looking comedies and horror movies released two months too early. Stay tuned as I cover that and more during autumn (or at least attempt to as I’m going back to uni).