Ben-Hur (2016 Movie Review)

Ben2 Kernels

Should there be a law against remaking classic movies? Perhaps they should be left untouched, like master paintings done by great artists. After all, filmmaking is a form of art. It’s not like anyone is taking a paint brush to one of Picasso’s or Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces and updating it for today’s audiences. So why do that with other art forms such as film? I’m struggling for an answer.

I get it that the younger generation thinks those movies from the 1940’s, 1950’s, and even 1960’s are hokey, out-of-date, and lacking cool CGI make-believe worlds plus 3D thrills. Is that why we remake classics – to make them relevant to the younger generations so they finally sit down and watch these tales that they would otherwise ignore? Well, here is my advice Hollywood. Put your paintbrushes away and grab a clean and empty canvas and make new original masterpieces. Stop messing with perfection especially with the most Oscar-awarded movie of all time.

I was nine years old when Ben-Hur was released in 1959. I’ve probably watched it a hundred times, and also watched it on the big screen. Sometimes I wonder why Hollywood doesn’t re-master and re-release these masterpieces by improving sound and visual quality. They do it for Blu-Ray DVDs but not theater. After all, Charlton Heston was as buff as any other leading man on screen today.

Okay, so I filled a seat at Regal theater with the new recliners for $11.50 at 7 p.m. to see the new version of Ben-Hur. Of course, I had to sit through 10-12 coming attractions beforehand, all of which I’ve forgotten except for Dr. Strange. The lion roared at the MGM credits, and I settled in for two hours (rather than three in 1959). After the first fifteen minutes, I wanted to walk out. Really. Walk out.

I made myself stay put, agonizing over the beginning of the tale with new actors and a different beginning until they were all arrested and sentenced. The only time I perked up was when Judah was chained in the galley for a short-run of rowing. The iconic line of, “We keep you alive to serve this ship,” was never spoken. (Actually, I was thinking you keep me alive suffering to see this movie so I can write a review.) There is no friendship formed between Judah and Quintus Arrius. The ship sinks and Judah is washed up on a beach, saved by the Sheik with the dreadlocks (Morgan Freeman) with the four white horses, that all lead up to the chariot race. Missing is the humor of the Sheik and the relationship you enjoy between him and the horses.

Well, the chariot race was, as expected, the highlight of the movie, but afterward, it turned into syrupy hug feast far from the 1959 version. I won’t spoil it for you folks, only to say that the story takes a vastly different twist at the end, void of the heart-wrenching emotion of the original.

What really bugged me? Women in pants. Costumes that looked like modern hoodies on Judah Ben-Hur, and pearly white teeth flashing in every scene. A few times I thought that Messala and Judah were in a toothpaste commercial together. In this version, you see the face of Jesus and hear him talk. The ending is a weak and a sadly made replica of the crucifixion and the healing of Judah’s mother and sister. The dialogue in places is laughable. I’m sorry, but I did not like this movie except for the famous race.

As far as acting…

Jack Huston is a very different Judah Ben-Hur. As the critics have already cited, I agree that he is a weaker version of a character who should have been stronger. The man had big shoes to fill to match the Oscar-winning performance of Heston. Huston somehow failed to convey the hatred and revenge that led him to the races and the British accent didn’t help.

Toby Kebbell as Messala appeared to be a casting attempt to match the looks of Stephen Boyd. His character was a washed-down version of a would-be Roman soldier always trying to prove himself to Pilate. Boyd, on the other hand, had nothing to prove to anyone in character or as an actor. He was Messala – a man who drew emotion from the audience.

Naomi (mother) and Tirzah (sister) were entirely different, as well as Esther. Esther in this version marries Ben-Hur before the tragedies strike.

Morgan Freeman is a very different character than the cheerful and endearing Sheik who encourages Ben-Hur to give a big burp in the ’59 version.  He’s dull.  Sorry – dull.

To sum it up, the story is vastly different except for the core of the tale. I won’t go into any other specifics except to say don’t expect a remake of the 1959 version. Much of the “heart” is gone, even though they obviously tried to present a tale of forgiveness and love. For me, it just didn’t pull my chariot across the finish line.

Perhaps those young folks who have never cracked the DVD of the 1959 version will get a thrill from the CGI masterpiece. However, the CGI doesn’t do the justice that the original 10,000 extras of actual flesh and blood who stood around the Circus Maximus in Rome when it was filmed. Nor does it do justice to the 200 camels, 2,500 horses, the film score, or any other parts of the carefully crafted and well-acted original.Ben_hur_1959_poster

It’s time I get out my DVD version and relive the magic that brought me love, laughter, heartache, tears, and redemption. I don’t need a Hollywood Jesus to move me. Frankly, I prefer the reverence of the old days when they never showed his face or heard his voice.

Finally, Hollywood, get some new talent and start writing new tales! There must be other untold masterpieces waiting for the big screen. Stop tinkering with perfection.  It only shows your shortcomings.

Watch this one!

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