Tuesday, 30 August 2016


The biblical epic is a genre that belongs to a specific time and place in history and that place is Hollywood of the 1950s and 60s, a time when movies could go for over three hours and people would lap it up because you had nothing better to do. Movies like The Ten Commandments, Spartacus and the original Ben-Hur are all classics that really do stand the test of time. Which is why it feels unnecessary to go back and "have another try at the story". That would only be justified if you did it better. That's not the case here.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince living a comfortable life in Jerusalem with his family. He has an adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), who was a Roman orphan before being taken in by the Hur family. One day, he decides to leave and join the Roman Army to prove his worth as a wife for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D'Elia). He returns however, to quell rebels who wish to overthrow the Romans and make Judea free. After an attempt on Governor Pontius Pilate's (Pilou Asbæk) life, Judah is accused by Messala of harbouring zealots and sentenced to labour on a Roman galley. During a battle, his ship is destroyed and he is set adrift, only to be found by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who agrees to free him for help with his chariot horses. After hearing his story, the Sheik agrees to help Judah get his revenge against Messala.

This movie really feels like a bare bones remake of the classic 1959 film. The basic story structure is there, but none of the details that made that movie "classic" are there. From the very start of the movie we know that we are building to the ultimate chariot race showdown between the two brothers, which takes away any of the suspense or surprise at the story that is to come. While the story tries to be epic in its scope, it seems to be on the lesser end because not as many events take place in this movie, which seems counter intuitive. Another big departure from the classic version is the extended presence of Jesus. In the older movie he was limited to the "Drink up, Judah Ben-Hur" scene. (That line is not said in either movies, but a quote from "A Star Is Burns (see below)).

A representation for all those who don't want to watch the clip from the actual movie

While the scene happens almost exactly as it did in the original, it isn't the first time we see Jesus. In fact, his first appearance is pretty laughable. Judah and his wife Esther (played by Nazanin Boniadi) are talking about violent removal of the Romans and he starts to talk about peace in the background, whilst doing some carpentry. It's very on the nose. Apparently the reason he was added was due to the negative reactions from Christians about 2014's Noah. I have to say that the casting of Rodrigo Santoro was an inspired touch. Now he has played the baddest of bads (Xerxes in 300) and the goodest of goods (Jesus).

Rodrigo Santoro is pretty much the only good casting decision of this film. Except for maybe Toby Kebbell as Messala. This had more to do with the fact that Messala was a somewhat sympathetic character. Before leaving for the Roman Army, he is shunned by his adoptive mother and other Romans, so he is just trying to prove his worth throughout the movie. Jack Huston is supposed to be the star of this movie (and also have the weight that Charlton Heston had), but he is outshone by his costars, especially Morgan Freeman. Danish actor Pilou Asbæk seemed like a bit of a wildcard decision.

Ben-Hur is trying to live up to something it will never achieve, which is the case with most remakes. Its lacklustre story that tries too hard to whittle it down to a manageable story feels hollow and in the era of CGI, the stakes are incredibly low in the final chariot race. If you really feel like you need to watch this story, go back and watch the original one with a great performance from Charlton Heston.

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