Steven Escareno is an amateur film critic that writes about movies in his spare time.
3 / 10
- Great visual effects.
- Cinematography work was nice; especially during the chariot race and boat sinking scene.
- Sound effects were spot on.
- Choreography during the racing scene was great.
- Morgan Freeman and Ewan McGregor were probably the only two actors trying in this film.
- The story felt extremely rushed; especially during key story arcs.
- Subplots that never go anywhere (i.e. Esther's brother being a part of the Jewish rebellion.)
- Acting felt phoned in by most of the cast, as there was hardly any real emotion behind most of their performances.
- Messala's actions in the second act seem out of character given what was established earlier in the movie.
- The portrayal of Jesus Christ being more humanized is a nice idea in theory, but it undermines a lot of the story's deeply religious scenes later on.
- The redemption arc for one of the characters feels a bit rushed and underwhelming.
- Direction was inconsistent.
Warning: This entire review will contain spoilers. Do not read this if you haven't seen the movie yet. If you already have seen the film, or you don't mind spoilers, then please read on at your own discretion.
First to finish. Last to die.
In an era where remakes are starting to over saturate the movie industry, is it really any surprise that the current remake of "Ben-Hur" turned out to be a piece of s**t? Don't get me wrong, the film does offer a few interesting ideas and concepts that the previous adaptations never bothered to explore. But like the 1926 version, it executes on it's ideas horribly.
The story essentially follows a young Palestinian Jewish Prince named Judah Ben-Hur, who's lived the life of luxury; in spite of his family living under Roman rule. Unlike the previous versions of the story, this one delves deeper into Judah's backstory. Showing how Judah and Messala were not only best friends growing up, but also how Messala was adopted into his family, at a very early age. In spite being a Roman, Messala was treated like a member of the family, and they even show how Judah's sister developed her crush on him, which was briefly mentioned in the previous incarnations, but never expanded upon.
Of course, he starts to feel isolated feeling like he'll never be good enough to repay his foster family's kindness, so he goes off to make a name for himself in the Roman army. Like the original movies, Messala comes home as a high ranking general within the Roman ranks. But unlike the previous versions, Messala is portrayed as something more of a sympathetic figure. Often being ridiculed by his peers because of the actions of his birth father, as they constantly call him weak. There's even one scene before he meets Judah again, after joining the military, where he's ordered to execute a bunch of innocent civilians in the name of Caesar, but he refuses on the grounds that he believes it's morally wrong. Needless to say, this does't bode well for his standings within the Roman Empire.
Not a bad concept to make him seem more sympathetic, and deeper as a character. After all, why even bother doing a remake if you're not going to try to put a new spin on the story, or at the very least improve on some of the aspects the previous incarnation didn't get right? However, I'll delve into why it doesn't work in this movie shortly.
Unlike the previous versions, Judah married the daughter of his servant fairly early before being falsely accused. Interesting twist considering that in the previous adaptations, he's always getting married her in the third act instead of the first one, but i digress.
Anyways, the story does touch on how even among the Jews there's a social economic divide among them, to where it's even pointed out how Judah's family benefits from the Roman's empire rule, and how it's only the lower class of Jews that suffer under their tyranny. Of course, Judah's wife has a brother that's part of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire, which accidentally lands Judah in trouble with the law after he refused to help Messala. And since Messala felt betrayed by all of this, he somehow finds it necessary to imprison Judah and his family for treason; hence Judah is sentenced to three years serving on a Roman battle ship.
Before I go any further, I would like to point out the fundamental flaws in this story thus far. Prior to Messala sentencing Judah and his family to prison, it was established that he did care about Judah's family as if they were his own at one point, and might've even been in love with his sister. Therefore, having Messala sentencing them to prison seems a bit out of character for what was established in the movie earlier. Throughout various parts of the film, it was made kind of obvious that Judah's sister, Tirzah, and Messala had feelings for each other, and they almost kissed too at one point, before Judah interrupted them. So my thoughts are if he loves her so much, then would he put her in harms way? Granted, I get why he's pissed off at Judah Ben-Hur, with the way it was setup, but what did Tizrah ever do to him? Seriously if he loved her so much, then why didn't he even attempt to rescue her? Help her escape? Or do something to help her? Or if he was mad at her too, then why wasn't there at least a scene showing them talking to each other about this?
At least in the previous adaptations, Messala was shown to be an opportunistic ego maniacal villain that you loved to hate. In the previous movies, he wasn't meant to be sympathetic, nor was there any signs that he ever cared about Judah's family. And, the fact that we never saw him grow up with Judah only goes to show how less he was as a human being, so it never felt out of character for him to coldly turn a blind eye, when Judah and his family were falsely imprisoned. Here, they show him growing up with Judah, while hinting at a possible romance with Tizrah. He's even shown to have levels of compassion for STRANGERS that he never met, yet when it comes to Judah's family that was established as being like a family to him, he does nothing to help them? Seriously? Are you telling me out of the three years that Judah was gone on the damn war ship that Messala never once felt guilty about locking up the only family he's ever known?
Don't get me wrong. I have no problems if they wanted to make a more sympathetic Messala, but the problem is it doesn't work because the actions he does to follow the original story make it seem out of character for him; based on what was established.
And to make matters worse, the whole idea of Judah's brother in law being part of the Jewish rebellion is never touched on again. We never see him join forces with them or anything of that nature. Nope, it's just there to try to be more historically accurate allegedly. However, it also sets up a pointless subplot of the film that never goes anywhere.
But, I digress. Like the original movies, Judah is sentenced to three years on a Roman war ship to die, while his mother and sister live out the rest of their years in a cold cell, as they develop leprosy. Unlike the original though where Ben-Hur saved the captain to regain his freedom, this time Ben-Hur is the lone survivor of an attack at sea. Still wanted by the law, as he somehow makes his way back to shore. He meets up with an elderly African gentleman, who's played by Morgan Freeman.
Against the African's better judgement, he reluctantly agrees to help Judah win back his freedom during the chariot race against Messala, while taking his revenge against Rome for wronging him all those years ago.
Of course, there's still Jesus Christ bits sprinkled here and there. However, they not only show his face to humanize him this time instead of making him this larger than life figure like the other ones did, but he shows up quite randomly throughout the film for no other reason than just to be there.
It's quite awkward to be honest, and it makes Jesus seem more like a pest than a saint half the time. For instance. When Judah and Esther are arguing over her brother being a part of the Jewish rebellion, Jesus shows up randomly out of nowhere to give them some philosophical advice like some busybody that was eavesdropping on the conversation. Not a bad idea per se, but it takes away the mystique of Jesus himself.
In the original 1959 version, it knew how much to keep humanized and grounded, while still playing up the religious aspects to make Jesus seem like this larger than life figure. They never showed what he looked like, in any of the previous versions, but through the brief glimpses we saw of him, he seemed like a very influential guy. Here, Jesus just comes across as a normal guy that's trying to do the right thing, which makes his crucifixion all the more underwhelming at the end.
Because Jesus was played up as a larger than life figure in the previous ones, you felt the gravitas of his death, and how it greatly affected Judah and his family; in spite of them barely knowing him as a man. Jesus had such a profound impact on him personally it was heartbreaking to watch. Don't get me wrong. It sucks watching people die; especially good people that don't deserve it. But since the film portrays Jesus as this ordinary guy that just happens to be considered the "Son of God", you don't ever feel the same impact.
Of course, there's also the issue of Messala's redemption arc. Unlike the previous adaptations, Messala becomes a good guy again at the end. Apparently after losing his leg in the chariot race, the Romans drag his crippled body back to Judah's place. Now keep in mind folks.
This is the same Messala, who not only threw Judah in jail,but threw his family in jail too. And it could be argued that if he never did that, then his mother and sister never would've gotten leprosy to begin with. But here's the thing. Not only does Judah FORGIVE him, and immediately hug him, but apparently Messala was going to even try to....STAB HIM...right before Judah hugged him. But for some reason after Judah hugged him, Messala hugged back, and they somehow became friends again. Hell, they even transition to a scene later, where a crippled Messala is even hugging Tizrah and Judah's mom. Does this mean they forgave him too?
Look, I have no problem if Messala has a redemption arc in the film. That's not the issue at all. My only issue was how incredibly rushed it felt. Seriously, they were literally shown trying to kill each other in the chariot race, and immediately after it's over they hug it out like brothers, while acting like the past three years didn't happen? And they never even show why Judah's family even forgave him?
Yes, I know Christiniaty teaches forgiveness and tolerance, but this felt extremely rushed because it all happened too quickly. See, I could buy into this part of the story if there was some dialogue exchanged between the characters, where they at least worked out their differences. For instance. Maybe Judah and his family can argue about taking him in again after what he's done, and maybe Esther reminds them about what Jesus would do. Or maybe have Judah Ben-Hur be the one to do it. The point is without some sort of exposition here it just feels like an extremely rushed story arc that probably would've had a bigger payoff if it was handled correctly.
And, don't even get me started on the acting. Apart from Morgan Freeman's sly performance, and Ewan McGregor's presence, the rest of the cast was terrible in their perspective roles.
Apart from the amazing visuals and technical aspects of the film, the new "Ben-Hur" is a giant piece of crap that had a lot of interestingly unique ideas, but failed to execute on every one of them. Unless you're just a huge fan of this classic story, then I'd say just stick with the 1959 version.
Like the old saying goes, "if it ain't broke, then don't fix it." There was nothing wrong with the 1959 version, and it surprisingly holds up to this day, which is more than what I can say about this remake, which'll be forgotten in a matter of months if it hasn't been already...
© 2016 Steven Escareno
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on October 06, 2016:
I always appreciate your critique on movies. Thanks Steven. Sharing.
Setank Setunk on October 06, 2016:
Judah Ben Hur is a charactor in a work of fiction called "Ben Hur". It was written in the late 1800's. He was Judean not palestinian, an important distinction in that period of time. I agree that the new movie is crappy. None of the movies are very close to the original story, but it is a long story. I had to read sections of it in American Literature.