Ben-Hur and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
On the list of unnecessary remakes that no one was asking for ever, I can’t imagine one being worse than this except maybe Citizen Kane or ANOTHER remake of The Jazz Singer. Hell, I haven’t even SEEN the original Ben-Hur (I know. Shut up!), and even I can tell this is completely unnecessary! Oh well. Maybe this will be a faithful adaptation that understands what made the original so great in the first place and gives its own modern interpretation of those amazing qualities? Yeah… I doubt it too, but you never know! Is this a new classic that can stand alongside the original film, or is this a half assed effort that’s hoping to make big bucks on the name alone? Let’s find out!!
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is living his life of luxury as the rich prince of Jerusalem which by this point was embroiled in strife due to the Romans continuing to push into their lands and occupying them. It’s not of much concern to him though because he’s the one percent, and nothing bad ever happens to them! Well when his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) goes off to join the Roman army and comes back years later as one of the lead occupies, things get a bit strained and Judah can’t keep living under a rock. When some shit goes down that’s totally not his fault, his brother ends up enslaving him and sending him to be a rower in a warship until he keels over and dies; leaving the rest of his family to presumably die for whatever trumped up charges the Romans can think of. Judah eventually escapes after five years however and SOMEHOW washes back up onto Jerusalem (boy was THAT convenient!) and meets some dude who trains chariot racers (Morgan Freeman) who agrees to help him get revenge on his brother and Rome. Oh and Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is in the background somewhere. Will Judah be able to avenge those who were so viciously taken away from him? What will he find after his five year absence from his homeland? Wait a minute… is this the story of Biblical Batman!?
I won’t go so far as to say this is the WORST movie of the year, and it may very well get edged out of my top ten list… but DAMN is this a piece of shit! It’s one thing to remake a movie and do it poorly, and BOY did they do that here. It’s another thing entirely to drag a good name through the dirt in the process, to the point that this isn’t so much a remake of the original Ben-Hur as it is an Asylum style knock-off; trading in on the success of another film to confuse people into buying this one by mistake. This movie cost a hundred million dollars, and while I can believe that Hollywood is dumb enough to spend that kind of money on a project this doomed, it’s still fucking depressing to see that much money used in a movie that looks this bad. I don’t know where the fuck that money went as what we got on screen is a cheap looking, poorly shot, and only mildly well-acted, straight to blu-ray cluster fuck that no one asked for and no one is going to see. The only way they’ll make that budget back is through divine intervention, but I doubt even Jesus is gonna have compassion for this hack job.
The most obvious thing that will hit you when watching this is the awful cinematography, as ninety percent of the shots include unnecessary shaky cam and close ups on faces. Everything is too damn close and won’t stop moving for no discernable reason other than… I guess tripods are expensive and no one wants to go through the effort of blocking a scene. It creates such a bewildering dichotomy between what this movie SHOULD be (a hundred million dollar epic for the ages) and how they decided to make it by using techniques you’d see in cheap and unimpressive horror flicks. Action scenes in particular are woefully inept and look like they’re on a sound stage most of the time, and suffer from the classic CLOSE UPS! QUICK CUTS! SHAKY CAM! style that is a cancer on modern films, but I guess it feels absolutely appropriate here considering how amateurish this production is.
There are very brief moments where the cinematography goes wide enough for sweeping vistas to look good, and some of the costuming is appropriately ostentatious (especially from the Romans) but most of the time they went for the cheapest and laziest option which ruins whatever competent aspects there are to this. The worst has to be the boat scene which I’m guessing was an iconic part of the original movie (and from the way it’s portrayed here, either the Conan movie ripped off the original, or this movie ripped off Conan) and sure enough the movie puts a lot of really cool stuff in here. It goes on a bit long at first, but once shit hits the fan and the boat starts to get attacked by Greeks everything starts to fall apart in a glorious and harrowing manner. The boat’s falling to pieces, other slaves are getting tossed about, oil is being dropped on people’s heads and then set on fire, and it’s all shown from a very claustrophobic perspective, namely one dude stuck in the bottom of a boat with nothing more than a small window to let you know what’s going on. It’s just too bad that they can’t film this scene competently as the camera won’t focus on any one thing long enough for us to register it and it all passes in a sort of blur that undercuts the intensity of the scene.
So that’s why the movie is a failure from a visual standpoint, but what about the story? Eh… it’s fine I guess. I mean, it didn’t need to be over two hours (though the original is apparently four freaking hours), but the story in here is okay. It’s your basic revenge story. Some dude fucks one guy over (in this case their brothers) and then the one guy comes back to kill the other dude with the only thing making this particular story stand out is that Jesus will pop up every once in a while. It’s very histrionic and on the nose with its metaphors and emotional stakes, so I wasn’t all that invested in the characters (especially the way the rest of Judah’s family is handled, which is… confusing), but the beats are easy enough to follow which makes the pacing consistent (albeit glacial). Yeah, there are a few time jumps to keep the movie moving along, but frankly if a narration of what happened over a few years is what it took to whittle this story down by two hours, then I’m all for it. The over the top nature of the conflicts in the story as well as Judah’s story arc do fall in line with this supposedly being a BIBLICAL EPIC, but the way this is shot and just how damn seriously this is supposed to be taken (the Romans are pretty much all rapist and murderers), it just doesn’t gel well together as either a fantastical morality tale or a gritty reinterpretation of how everything would look if this was something that actually happened.
Acting wise, I wasn’t impressed by anyone, especially not Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur. In the beginning he’s pretty innocuous as he’s playing a privileged smarty pants who thinks he knows how the world works, but once he’s been through hell and back and is ready to take revenge, he starts putting on a really fake sounding Batman Growl which was already bad enough when Christian Bale had to do it in the Batman suit, but is even worse here because that’s the ONLY way this dude talks. Toby Kebbell as his brother Messala has a bit more going for him as his range is a bit more nuanced, but his ANGRY YOUNG MANTM routine grows thin after a while and he never comes off as particularly threatening for someone who’s supposed to be our antagonist. Sure, Rome is supposed to be the TRUE bad guy with Messala as just a confused guy being used by him, but you can still be menacing even if you’re not the true puppet master. Just look at Kylo Ren who’s both terrifying and tragic; something Messala never really comes off as. Everyone else is just collecting a paycheck here; especially Morgan Freeman who barely has to do anything but be Morgan Freeman. The guy who played Jesus was alright, but that’s probably not that hard of a role to pull off considering it’s the effect he has on people that makes him such an interesting character rather than an individual actor’s portrayal of the character, and while it is cheesy at points (Pontius Pilate’s foreshadowing him as the greatest threat to Rome is laughably on the nose), I think they managed to pull off his presence in this rather well.
So that covers most of everything in here; A ho-hum movie that’s brought done by less than stellar performances and God AWFUL cinematography that’s interminably long at over two hours and feels better suited as one of those History Channel productions. There’s still one more thing we need to talk about though as it’s probably the most iconic aspect of the original movie. How well did they pull off the chariot race? Eh… like the rest of the movie it has moments where it shines but is hampered by how poorly its shot. True enough, they manage to pull off a decent sense of speed as well as the astronomical danger of being in one of these things, and there were moments that I enjoyed (I laughed at loud at one point where a chariot pitches straight into the air), but then they’d do about forty cuts while the camera is shaking like a mo-fo (I can only assume they had strapped the damn thing to a paint shaker) and it would kill the momentum for a few minutes until they do something else awesome.
This movie is no doubt a disaster considering how amateurish everything comes across as, but I’m feeling a bit more kind towards this than say Gods of Egypt which was straight out obnoxious on top of being a terrible looking Showtime production from 1996 (that, and Alex Proyas’s pissy attitude when the movie flopped didn’t help). This one is simply boring and lame which would be bad enough on its own, but the amount of money burned on this movie brings this into disaster territory. Don’t waste your time watching this, especially in a theater. At best, you can probably skim through it on Netflix or something, but even then you’re probably better off watching the original instead. Then again, that one IS four hours long, so maybe we should all just wait for an animated version like they did with Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt.
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