We’re in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ. The weather is fair, the markets are open for business—and people are quoting silly moral platitudes in silly British accents. That’s a major problem with this new $100-million Ben-Hur, which aims to offer mainstream audiences, Christian and otherwise, a new reason to care about the 1880 novel. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (Son of God, The Bible, A.D. The Bible Continues) prayed to turn their Ben-Hur into a summer blockbuster, yet in exchange for those thirty pieces of silver, the movie is stripped of virtually any daring or kink. The classic 1959 version won 11 Oscars and retroactively has been noted for Gore Vidal’s controversial screenplay, baked in obvious homoeroticism, which Vidal and director William Wyler concealed from star Charlton Heston. And what has the passing of almost six decades given us? A fresh take on Ben-Hur that is more noble, dweeby, and neutered than a Sunday school in South Dakota.
After an opening tease at the chariot race, plus portentous narration from, God bless him (or, rather, bless himself) Morgan Freeman, we’re introduced to Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell). The two young men are adoptive brothers in this version, rather than best boyhood friends. That’s one easy way to thwart those pesky Gore Vidal complications. Messala runs away to join the Roman army, leaving Jewish nobleman Judah and his family behind in Jerusalem. Brazilan actor Rodrigo Santoro pops up sporadically as the carpenter Christ, bestowing Jesus-y bon mots. When Judah and Messala reunite some years later under fraught circumstances, director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) shoots all the scenes in trembly handheld camera. Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk, so square compared to past Pilates Gary Oldman and David Bowie) is coming to town, and an assassination attempt by a refugee boy gets Judah arrested and banished to life as an oarsman slave on a Roman ship.
Bekmambetov’s action chops are on display during the chaotic slave galley sequence, which actually improves on the 1959 film, and not just technically. In the dimly lit galley, we stick tightly on Judah’s point of view as he furiously rows during a maritime battle. Overexposed sun shines through the small oar holes, and every detail which we do not see — other ships, commanders on deck — helps to amp the violence and tension. And for five vivid minutes, we’re watching George Miller’s Ben-Hur. The war drummer’s keeps banging away, even though his arm has caught on fire. Judah watches another ship coming at him in the seconds before it rams in for the kill. Eventually, Judah washes ashore on a beach and is saved by chariot gambler Ilderim (Freeman, in the scene-stealing role that won Hugh Griffith an Oscar), who sets the table for film’s climactic bloodsport.
But this arena, unfortunately, is no Thunderdome. The chariot race is sloppily framed, choppily edited, and droopily choreographed, with special effects that look like they needed another few passes through the CGI machine. The 1959 sequence is one of most famous in the history of movies because, for all the chaos and carnage, audiences could easily follow the action, thanks to clean, generous wide shots. Bekmambetov’s insistence on close-ups might have been a budgetary matter, but the result is a muddled, inconsequential mess—and another symbol of the modern conservatism and lack of tentpole imagination. In the movie summer of 2016, that at least makes Ben-Hur a sign of its time. C