Ben Hur – Film Review

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro and Morgan Freeman

Release Date: Sep 7

In the Simpsons episode ‘A Star is Burns’, Mr. Burns rather unwisely recreates a scene from Ben Hur for a film festival, depicting himself as Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.
While this remake of the 1959 classic doesn’t offend for the same reasons (it would need to cast Donald Trump as Jesus, with a Black Eyed Peas-heavy soundtrack to cross that line), it is still a hopelessly dull and utterly pointless film that should, and will, immediately fade from memory.

The plot sticks very closely to that of the Charlton Heston film; Judah Ben Hur (Huston) is a wealthy merchant, living in Jerusalem with his family. His adoptive brother Messala (Kebbell), for vaguely indignant reasons, decides to leave and join the Roman army when they are still young men.
He returns three years later, has a bit of a falling out with Judah and sends him off on a slave ship for five years for being mean to him.
Cue slavery montage, redemption and a big, expensive-to-produce chariot race fuelled by vengeance and very noticeable CGI.

If this description seems a little slap-dash, it’s nothing compared to the lack of passion, ambition or sense that went into this rehash. It is a lifeless retelling of the story, played out by a series of non-characters with less chemistry than fashion sense.

Ironically, the plot takes pains to create a stronger bond between Judah and Messala, but in execution, they come off as work acquaintances in a crowded office block.
A prologue featuring the adoptive brothers racing in the desert could have been a rock-solid foundation for their troubled relationship. Instead, it relies on Morgan Freeman’s silky smooth narration to tell us how we should be feeling, as if totally aware of how devoid of emotion or life the scene is.

As the one actor of note in the casting, not even Morgan Freeman can add anything special to this formula. He plays Sheik Ilderim, the Arab who wants Ben Hur to race his quadriga before Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) in the Roman circus.
Frankly, it’s difficult to tell what Freeman is more embarrassed by; the fact that he is supposed to be Eastern European or his steam-punk, silver dreadlocks. He delivers his flavourless dialogue in a listless deadpan, clearly as impartial to his surroundings as we are.

One character worth looking out for is Jesus himself, and that’s a sentence worth re-reading for how ridiculous it sounds. One of the few guilty pleasures that the film affords is the amount of gravitas it seems to think Jesus has. Unfortunately, actor Rodrigo Santoro doesn’t have the presence the film allows him, so seeing centurions and civilians recoil in awe when he appears is like watching Magneto hold Wolverine in place with his magnetic powers.

While the remake of such a classic film was practically guaranteed to fail, unintentionally hilarious moments like these can at least make them memorable. Gleefully out-of-place action sequences, involving slow-motion and a ‘whatever-the-kids-are-listening-to’ soundtrack, contribute to this and are a lot of fun to hate.

So it Hur-ts as much as that pun when this glorious, OTT segment never actually arrives. By retaining the barest sliver of humility, Ben Hur manages to disappoint on a whole other level. The film plays it straight, right up until the chariot race, and even that scene feels like the lacklustre canapé to a value meal in a back alley takeaway.
With nothing overtly ridiculous to punctuate the tedium, the film is just white noise, (a phrase with a double meaning when you consider the primary skin colour on display).

A word of praise, then, should go to the editors. Clearly aware of how little there is to salvage, they move the film along at a breakneck speed. Plot and character developments are rushed (to an almost farcical degree at some points), but it is a merciful compromise, as the film doesn’t noticeably drag until the last thirty minutes or so of its two and half hour runtime.
This is also a testament to the original story which remains timeless and relatable, even if the films’ characters are not.

So for those who skipped all the way to the bottom of this review, right past all of my scathing witticisms, here is that confirmation you were looking for:
The remake of Ben Hur is a bad film and absolutely not worth your time.

Score: 1/5
Written by Stephen Hill

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