There are some works of art that one should never seriously attempt to reproduce. No matter how many times the Mona Lisa or The Scream is painted over and over again, those reproductions will never live up to, equal or out-value the originals. Can those reproductions be enjoyed? Perhaps. But it’s just not the original. The same can be said for many songs, great pieces of poetry and prose, and yes, movies. And if one chooses to take on a classic work of art, one better make damn sure the job is done properly. In the case of 2016’s Ben Hur, the $100,000,000 it took to make 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 might seem to just fine. But as a fan of classic movies, I can assure you that those who are familiar with the original 1959 version starring Charlton Heston will be quite unimpressed with this reincarnation. When I say “the original,” we’re not just talking about some movie that is considered a classic by matter of some fluke. 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?
Anyway, now that the history of the original has been covered, we can move on to discussing the 2016 version of Ben Hur based 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 done right, effects are not what is at the heart and soul of this story. There needed to be an equally strong focus on warming up the relationships between and among these characters. Many of the scenes felt rushed, and not enough care was taken to convey the character’s emotions. Most characters seemed cold, detached or indifferent most time. It was as if they 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. Most times they seemed like a group of actors – acting. With the exception of the battle scenes, the boat crash and the horse and/or chariot racing (CGI and other special effects events), there was not a time when I felt transported to ancient Jerusalem. I was in a theater watching some people do some acting on a screen.
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 all the juicy material they had to work with. There was love, hatred, revenge, redemption; and I felt none of it. I saw it, but I did not feel it. The chemistry between Judah (played by Jack Huston) and Messala (played by Tony Kebbell) was great. They were believable as friends and brothers who cared for one another, grew to hate one another and forgave one another. But there was absolutely zero spark between Messala and who was supposed to be the woman of his desires, Tirzah (played by Sophia Black-D’Elia). 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 this character 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 five year old brother and sister. During one important scene, Tirzah is pleading with Messala not to harm Judah and he is generating the oddest facial expressions and ill-timed smiles, making their interactions seem awkward and cold. It was almost as if someone was off camera making him laugh and he was trying not to crack up or something.
Morgan Freeman could have done this role in his sleep. Hell, he might have been asleep through the entire thing for all I know. He walks, he talks, he projects, he stands, he pontificates, and he does it all well. He is the only character who consistently seems to be acting with the other actors and not against them.
Ben Hur earned 6 out of 10 bloops. It’s not a terrible movie, saved by CGI scenes, that with a lot more care on the human side, could have been and should have been exponentially better. Actors playing Hebrews and Romans with British accents did not help; zoom-whitened teeth in ancient Jerusalem and ancient Rome (and I don’t car how rich the characters were supposed to be – nobody was doing tooth whitening back then!) did not help; full color and Dolby® sound did not help; the fact that Jack Huston is the grandson of the late, great John Huston did not help. Cutting one hour and 28 minutes off the time of a 3 hour and 32 minute classic did not help. There was too much wrong for anything to help really. Nothing helped. Do yourself a favor and watch the original on Amazon. If you’ve seen the original already, watch it again before you go to see this version. You’ll enjoy it much more.