Remakes are part of movie culture these days, and studios are digging further back into their vaults in order to find franchises which can be revived for modern audiences. But “Ben Hur”, the legendary Hollywood epic, feels like one that cannot be topped, so what did they do in their attempts?
Like the original, the movie is set during the Roman-occupation of Jerusalem, and focuses on a Jewish Prince named Judah Ben Hur. (Jack Huston) His family took in a Roman orphan named Messala (Toby Kebbell), and despite their differences, are close friends. The struggles in Jerusalem begin to form rifts between them however, as Ben Hur seeks peace while Messala wants a unified people under the Romans. Messala, now an officer in the Roman Army, is forced to take things into his own hands after his brother’s refusal for assistance, and banishes Hur to slavery upon the Roman fleet. Hur’s struggles for freedom and for his people will ultimately lead him bcak to his brother, to settle their past scores.
It’s all very familiar to the original, and of one of my all-time favourite movies. Universal and MGM took quite the gamble on putting this into production, and the theatrical release saw them leave the table with nearly nothing to show for it. And once you start looking at the details, it’s not too hard to see why.
There’s something I find quite grading when a historic piece is “modernised” with small things like gestures and one-liners that feel out of place. And that happens a hell of a lot in here. Performance-wise, you can’t blame the cast who are trying hard to carry the material across. Toby Kebbell is probably the best you’ll see here, since he is at least threatening in some points. But then you have the horrible miscasting of Morgan Freeman as an Ethiopian royalty funding his ow Chariot team. The dreadlocks look appalling, and my guess is they wanted a hard hitting name to be part of the cast to gain interest. Sadly, this is one role Freeman can forget over a glass of scotch afterwards.
Another glaring issue is with the score. The original has music that was as epic and thematic as the visuals, it is awesome to listen to. But the score in here barely leaves any impression upon the audience. You’ll be sad to hear that it is just another example of a series of chords and notes, compiled together in an uninspiring fashion. They could have left it out entirely and you might not have even noticed.
The alterations to the original story that are here go a small, small way towards shaking the storyline up. But not to an extent where it feels refreshing. The motivations behind what sends Ben Hur into slavery are kind of questionable, his brother doesn’t seem to go along the line of slowly turning his back against his adopted brother. He just switches, and that’s it. I will give a little credit to the Chariot Race where they did indeed use real horses and practical effects. If they hadn’t have done that I would have snapped the damm disc in half immediately. But it has some exciting moments, and is certainly the high point of this 110-minute feature.
But even with saying that, I have to point out that there was CG implemented, and one sequence with horses getting loose and running through the stands is so bad looking I almost laughed out loud. Their movement looked horrendous, I cannot believe that made it past the quality control. A kind of similar feel covers the scenes upon the Roman fleet, it was kind of cool seeing the scale they were aiming for. But it also came across as very cluttered, with the special effects letting the side down from time to time.
But overall, the biggest problem I faced here was how uncharismatic the whole production felt. Emotions kind of just get yelled out, without there being proper set up, and the battle of wits from the original. I was having a hard time keeping interest with the story’s progression, not because I had seen the story before, but rather that the raw intent to create something incredible was never there.
This remake of “Ben Hur” feels like something that was created, simply to fill a gap in the year’s release list. That is what I was left to conclude upon by the end. It tries to replicate some of the action and set pieces from the original, but never even comes close to capturing the grand scale and epic story telling. The movements feel very flat and linear, and results in a depressing shadow of the classic. Go watch the original instead, it holds up exceptionally well and has so much more to enjoy.
Thanks for reading!