Scene from the remake of Ben Hur

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Lightworks Media/MGM

Ben Hur:

Revenge of the Digital Age Remake

| published August 20, 2016 |

By Maggie Nichols, Thursday Review contributor

The dazzling advance of special effects and digital gimmickry make the temptation to remake and reboot almost anything irresistible. Sometimes this proves wasteful and pointless: such was the case of both the pointless Point Break remake (2015) and the sluggish, dreary, strained The Heart of the Sea, which sacrificed heart and emotion and passion for the undeniable power of special effects. Patrick Swayze and Joseph Conrad each squirmed a bit in their graves, no doubt.

A newly improved version of Pete’s Dragon, complete with all the wonders of digital technology and blue screen wizardry, now also graces the big screen (I have not seen it, but friends and family who have are offering sharply mixed reviews; some love it, some hate it-go figure). I’ll give the beloved, if computer reconfigured, dragon a shot next week, then berate you with my opinion. Just as I did with the remake/reboot of Ghostbusters (2016).

Ben Hur—the newly released 2016 version—offers us a special example of why these sorts of compulsions to remake almost anything can become quickly complicated and contentious, and how the desire to see something rebooted in new sleek technological skin divides us along a variety of lines. It is often in the eye of the beholder.

I suppose this sort of remake was certain to happen. The massive success of other ancient-times big period pieces digital age has lured many a filmmaker and studio down this path, from Gladiator (directed by Ridley Scott; starring Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix) to Kingdom of Heaven (also Ridley Scott; starring Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons) to Troy (Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom). Much easier to create those thousands of ships, thousands of horses, and ten thousand soldiers at the helm of the computer and the mouse than it is to construct, train and hire the same.

Plus, gritty realism is in vogue—with a vengeance—even in cinematic interpretations of ancient times. From Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to Zack Snyder’s 300, accurate portrayals of guts, gore and general all-around ancient gruesomeness prevail, adding texture (literally) to what is already possible using computers and enough rendering time on the file server down the hall.

First of all, as everyone knows, the original Ben Hur (Directed by William Wyler, MGM) was campy and cheesy to a fault, but it was also filled with epic grandeur and modestly effective special effects nonetheless. It remains one of the biggest box office hits of all time (adjusted for inflation, of course) and remains highly entertaining even after decades. That 1959 version also put Charlton Heston on the Hollywood map, elevating him to the A-list instantly. Watching the 1959 version requires that one be critically patient and extremely tolerant, however, to make it intact to the big finale—the chariot race scene which was, at the time, one of the most complex and expensive scenes ever filmed. This was a day when studio moguls and chieftains knew how to entertain: the chariot sequence remains the brutal, visceral highlight of the 3.5 hour monstrosity of a movie.

For those looking to see a movie which replicates that power—while also possibly exceeding it somewhat—then rush off right now and buy your online tickets to see Ben Hur (2016). The film offers every known form of high-powered technological audio and video gimmickry to dazzle your senses and send your ears and eyes into overload. Again, we would be greatly disappointed if director Timur Bekmambetov had come up short on this stagey sequence. We want horses, we want dust and dirt, we want slashing spatters of blood and gruesome dismemberments, and most of all we want the sound of two hundred horses and scores of chariots in a bone-rattling ear-jangling race to the death.

For viewers younger than me, the impressiveness of the new race scene will seem par for course; such extreme levels of violence and such over-the-top special effects are the norm, not the exception. Seen Suicide Squad yet? But for those looking for a connection to the original Lew Wallace novel, from 1880, don’t waste time. Trivia question: bet you didn’t know that the 1959 version was itself a remake of the 1925 version, which was based on that best-selling novel from the previous century. Does that mean that Ben Hur is tied with King Kong for its trio of big screen attempts?

The good news: the new Ben Hur is not only tolerable, fun, dazzling, colorful, and all those other things we somehow imagine a remake would be. The bad news: its narrative and the passions and motivations of its characters are murky at times, totally missing at others, and even muddled here and there. A common failing when special effects and technology attempt to carry the film. Just read my review of Heart of the Sea.

The newly minted Ben Hur suffers also from another inevitable problem: actor Jack Huston, who plays Ben Hur, doesn’t nearly pass the can-he-compare-to-Heston test, a task perhaps impossible anyway. After all, Charlton Heston was Ben Hur. This is not like those civil well-meaning debates over who is the better James Bond—Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig (heaven forbid, Timothy Dalton)—this is something akin to sacrilege. Charlton Heston (then at the prime of his gravitas and stage presence) is forever linked to Ben Hur just as George C. Scott is to George S. Patton, or Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain. I have a great aunt who claims that in 1959 she would have swooned and fainted just listening to Charlton Heston—bare-chested and in sandals—reading the Baltimore White Pages. Denzel Washington was meant to play Malcolm X, Michael Sheen was meant to play Tony Blair, and Leonard Nimoy will forever be Mr. Spock.

In this vein, the remake of Ben Hur also suffers slightly from an obvious lack of star power. The actors and actresses all perform admirably and with passion: but the cast is notably B-list and even C-list. The relative obscurity casts a strangely lowball feel to a story which cries out for gravitas and big screen name power, not to mention charisma. Huston does well enough as Ben Hur, but seems frankly small (I don't mean physcially) for a part which requires intensity and magnetism. The rest of the fine international cast seems equally diminished for their parts even though they look the role: Toby Kebbell as Messala Severus, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus Christ, Nazanin Boniadi as Esther, Ayelet Zurer as Naomi Ben-Hur, Pilou Asbaek as Pontius Pilate.

One oddball element in this new Ben Hur is the lack of Jewish and early Christian subtext and plot development, and the absence of passion and conversion. This too may be explained by the times: easier to bleed away the religious and moral consequences lest they offend someone, somewhere. More politically correct than either the 1925 or 1959 versions, the film thus misses the heart of its own story of betrayal, false witness, slavery, moral courage, and redemption. The characters surrounding these elements of the 19th century novel seem mechanically placed just long enough to fulfill the requirements that the 2016 version vaguely match the older versions, then—to avoid controversy—we move quickly along.

Only at the end does Morgan Freeman’s voice over offer a sermonette of sorts in a hurried attempt to tie the whole epic into the context of Judeo-Christian ethics. Sort of “Oh, and by the way, telling the truth is good and lying is bad and violence really solves nothing except when it does.” Otherwise, it’s just another day and night at the races, or the latest UFC event. Say what you will, but those patriarchal studio chiefs in 1959 had the cornball sensibilities to make sure the morality play remained central to the story. In that sense, the plot of this 2016 remake unfolds in a manner more strikingly similar to the aforementioned Gladiator, with Morgan Freeman as the elder, wiser trainer in Ben Hur (as opposed to Oliver Reed’s imposing portrayal of Proximo in Gladiator).

All told, I have mixed feelings. This is certainly the sort of big screen spectacle one should see at the theater. Technically, it is flawless and rich and seat rattling, and loud. At its heart, however, it seems hollow and void of the campy passion expressed in 1959.

Here’s a test: if you are a fan of Charlton Heston and believe that the 1959 version of Ben Hur is indeed a classic—don’t bother to spend money now (wait for it on HBO or Showtime). If you had to do a search for Charlton Heston on Google because you aren’t quite sure who he is or because you seem to recall he has something to do with guns or because your grandmother swooned when you asked her, then dash off this instant to the nearest theater to see the new Ben Hur. You’ll love it as much as you loved Suicide Squad and X-Men: Apocalypse.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Star Trek Beyond; review by Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 17, 2016.

Point Break: Pointless Remake; review by Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; January 16, 2016.