Review: ‘Ben-Hur’ (2016)

Ben Hur poster

Ben-Hur (2016) | Timur Bekmambetov | August 19, 2016

One might perish the thought of a remake – nay, a reimagining – of the celebrated 1959 remake of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston, but it’s happened.

Ben-Hur is by now a familiar tale of two brothers, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), one born into wealth and status in early A.D. Jerusalem (8 A.D. to be specific, as the film takes place from 25 A.D. to 33 A.D.) and one orphaned and adopted. Messala feels that he’ll never fit in, so he goes off to join the Roman army and reclaim his family name. Meanwhile, the Roman occupation of Jerusalem builds to a boiling point when, 3 years later, Messala returns as a captain under Pontius Pilate (Game of Thrones‘ Pilou Asbaek) and throws his adoptive family under the chariot, if you will, after a recuperating Jewish zealot (Moises Arias) tries to assassinate Pilate from the Ben-Hur’s rooftop. Judah’s enslaved in a Roman galley and his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia) are sent to their deaths, which drives Judah to work his way back and seek justice/revenge 5 years later after washing ashore near Ilderim’s (Morgan Freeman) camp after a massive sea battle.

Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in 'Ben-Hur'

There’s not much new about Ben-Hur, frankly, apart from the talent assembled and the production value. Nearly 60 years ago, certain fleeting first-person point-of-view shots wouldn’t have been as feasible, and adding more realism to the signature chariot race might have resulted in camera destruction and camera operator injury or death. But now, utilizing GoPro cameras, soccer balls, and CGI, there are more opportunities for middle-of-the-action shots, like during the brief galley battering ram sequence and during the ten to fifteen minute-long chariot race. Thankfully, Bekmambetov stays away from slo-mo and embraces some practicality with the race but still relies on CG – the lives of the actors and horses are not to be trifled with. And then there’s the 3D, which is converted, underutilized, and, if anything, doesn’t jive with in-frame motion during high-action scenes.

From an acting standpoint, it’s harmless enough. No cast members are necessarily worth writing home about. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is a little more present and grounded as a pacifist carpenter who is clearly Jesus-like in appearance; Freeman fits into his typecast black tutor role (just substitute a little money-driven business savvy and racing acumen for magic and there you have it); and the women are fairly one-note, with the exception of the born-again Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). That being said, religion is more thematic in Ben-Hur, which is beneficial, as some theater-goers came to watch a redux of an iconic chariot race and not a very obvious Sunday school lesson. But above all, Ben-Hur is guilty of whitewashing – or tanning, in this case. Yes, Freeman fits as a North African nomadic merchant gambler, but having Ayelet Zurer and Nazanin Boniadi as the only Middle Eastern actresses in prominent roles (Zurer from Israel, and Boniadi’s family is Iranian) detracts from the impact the film could have had if the cast was better fit for the roles (i.e., not two British men playing Jewish and Roman men, Jesus not being played by a Brazilian actor, etc.).

That being said, the fact stands that with a remake, especially one as culturally ingrained as Ben-Hur, the talent assembled needs to do something to make the film stand out from its predecessor. Ben-Hur doesn’t do that. There’s no real feeling of risk – as it’s happened before and we’re just watching it again but with newer faces, modern tongues, and better special effects.

Rating: 5.0/10