There are some works of art that one should never attempt to reproduce. As old as she is, no matter how many times the Mona Lisa is painted over and over again, reproductions will never live up to, equal or out-value the original. Can those reproductions be enjoyed? Perhaps. But it just isn’t the original. Something’s lacking, something is different, something is off, it’s just not right. The same can be said for many pieces of music, poetry and prose, and yes, movies. And if one chooses to take on a classic work, one better make sure the job is done properly. In the case of 2016’s Ben-Hur the $100,000,000+ it took to make was not enough to make it comparably as good as the 1959 version and would have been more wisely spent elsewhere.
If one has not seen what will hereinafter be referred to as “the original” (even though there were earlier versions released), this 2016 rendition may seem fine. But as a fan of classic movies, I can assure you those who are familiar with, and dare I say love, the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston will be quite unimpressed. The original is not considered a classic randomly. We are talking about a movie which won 11 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith, playing an Arab sheik who befriends Ben-Hur – played here by Morgan Freeman), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Costume Design and Best Special Effects. It was also nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Ben-Hur’s record number of Oscars still stands, although two films (1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) have matched it. Why not just re-release the original in theaters and call it a day?
Now that the history of the original is out of the way, we can move on to discussing the 2016 movie on its own merits.
One huge mistake made on this movie was focusing too heavily on CGI and action. While effects are certainly important and it is important they be done right, and they were absolutely done right here, effects are not what is at the heart and soul of this story. There needed to be stronger focus on warming up the relationships between and among these characters. Some scenes felt rushed, and not enough care was taken to convey the emotions of the characters. Most scenes felt cold, detached or indifferent most times. It was as if the cast were acting individually, but never really acting together as a team. There was no time where they were playing off of one another. Something about the delivery was very straightforward and stilted. I did not get the overall feeling that these people were family, friends, comrades, enemies, lovers – who were interested or invested in one another.
This film felt tepid at best during scenes between any two or more characters that should have conveyed much more passion (with the exception of brothers, Ben-Hur and Messala), considering the richness of the plot. This is a story of love, revenge, redemption, forgiveness. The chemistry between Ben-Hur and his brother Messala was great. They were mostly believable as friends, brothers and enemies. But there was absolutely no spark between Messala and what was supposed to be the woman of his desires, Tirzah. I can’t say if it was poor directing, poor acting, lack of chemistry, a combination of some or all of these factors or what, but Messala goes off to become this respected, feared, powerful soldier in the Roman army so he can be considered “good enough” for the woman he loves, and they play their scenes as if they are brother and sister. During one important scene, he generates these odd expressions and ill-timed smiles, making their interactions seem awkward and disconnected. It was almost as if someone was off camera making him laugh and he was trying to hold it in.
The times during this movie that I was transported from the theater to ancient Jerusalem or ancient Rome were the scenes where special effects were used. The horse and chariot race, the boat collision and the battles were all done well. During most non-action scenes, I was back to sitting in a seat in a theater watching a movie.
Morgan Freeman could have done this role in his sleep. He may have been asleep and no one even knew. That’s how gifted he is as an actor. He walks, he talks, he projects, he stands, he pontificates, and he does it all well. His performance is subtle, yet his is the only character who seems connected to those he is acting with during his scenes.
Ben-Hur earned 6 out of 10 bloops. It’s a good movie that with a bit more care could have been and should have been so much better. Actors playing Hebrews and Romans with British accents did not help; zoom-whitened teeth did not help, despite how charming the smiles were; Dolby® sound did not help; the fact that Jack Huston (Ben-Hur) is the grandson of John Huston did not help. Cutting one hour and 28 minutes off the time of a 3 hour and 32 minute classic original epic did not help. I will not even discuss the 3D version. Nothing helped. If you haven’t seen the original, catch it on Amazon. If you have seen the original, watch it again on Amazon. You’ll enjoy it more than this version.