Some people will wonder why we are even looking at this remake of the 1959 classic. With all the negative press, the MTV-esque trailers, and the distinct vibe amongst movie-goers of “why did they bother making that?”, you could be excused for thinking that Kneel Before Blog would just write this one off as a busted flush, and move onto something more interesting. The thing is, there was a movie shaped hole in my social calendar, and this time of year is a bit of a graveyard for new releases, so I bravely donned my sandals, strapped my sword to my hip and headed out to see how bad this could really be.
And bad it really is. Timur Bekmambetov, director of such classics as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter“, “Daywatch“, and “Nightwatch” was, for some reason, given a production budget of $100 million to remake a biblical epic. This with the backdrop of such box-office failures in the genre as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, you have to wonder if this is just Mel Brooks “The Producers” brought to life.
The story follows Judah Ben-Hur, played with soap opera earnestness by Jack Huston (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, American Hustle), and his adoptive brother Messala Severus, played with Roman stoicism by Toby Kebbell (Warcraft: The Beginning, Fant4stic). We meet Judah and Messala as they are lining up for the chariot race that you’ll have seen both in the trailers, and in the original, and, as is becoming painfully fashionable in film-making these days, we are almost immediately taken back to happier times, and see our protagonists as they race horses outside Jerusalem. Oh yes, it’s in and around Jerusalem that all the action takes place. In much the same way as Life of Brian is set there and references other goings on, we see a certain carpenter every so often, and just in case it’s too subtle, we really do see a carpenter planing some wood whilst being serene and wise. You can almost feel Bekmambetov preening himself as he appears to find this such a smart way of introducing that we are in a mirror story to the bible. Personally, it made me want to throw pop-corn at the screen, but it appears to have made him happy, so I restrained myself.
Anyway, back to the story that we are supposed to be seeing, and back to Judah and Messala. The horse-race ends badly, and Judah is hurt. The film is called Ben-Hur, so you are fairly sure he’ll be ok, but it’s just an excuse to add Days of our Lives style plot twists and acting levels to the story. Messala is a Roman orphan, Judah’s mum ain’t always too keen on him, Judah’s sister has the hots for him, and Judah has the hots for the help. In an effort to be seen as worthy for his adoptive sister, Messala heads off to join the army and find fame and fortune, and give Bekmambetov an excuse for some voice-over of letters being read as we watch Messala being all Roman and stabby. Long story short, and it is a long story, Messala comes back to Jerusalem promoted, at the head of a legion, the local’s ain’t happy, Judah tries to be the middleman, someone does something stupid, and Messala goes off the deep-end big style, blames the folks he grew up with and sends them all off to die in various ways. I will pause briefly here to say that this all takes about an hour of a two hour film, and the trailer for this film shows you none of this, it really is just setup and just window-dressing for the set-pieces. If you were sold on this film by the trailers, you’ll not be getting what was sold to you, and the highlight so far for me was the gentleman several seats along from me letting loose the most epic yawn I’ve heard in quite some time.
Returning to the plot, we now have Judah in the belly of a Roman galley, chained up and rowing. I’m assured from fellow cinema-goers that this produces a great moment of eye-candy, but as we are finally getting to the stuff shown in the trailer, and the main point of the movie, I didn’t really have an opinion. The galley is in a sea-battle, and if you’ve seen the promotions for the film, you’ve already seen this entire scene. That being said, it’s still the most impressive part of the movie so far. The whole thing is shown from the belly of the galley, and so the chaos and claustrophobia comes across really well. It’s a real pity that this is only about 10 minutes of the total runtime of the film, and makes you realise just how low the expectations on the rest of the movie must have been for it to be so prominent in all the trailers.
Judah escapes, lucks out with the people he meets, and ends up racing a chariot against his brother, who is still all about the unreasonable anger. Other things happen, you struggle to care, we dip back into the bible, there’s magic rain, the acting gets no better, everyone heads off into the sunset, and you leave into the cold autumn evening wondering why the hell you didn’t just watch the original or read the book.
The biggest problem with this film is that it really doesn’t know what it wants to be, and is so busy trying to figure that out it just gets lazy. In an attempt to make it feel more contemporary the costume design is bizarre at best, and downright grating at worst. There are times when Judah is basically wearing jeans, and his love interest looks like she’s been rotoscoped in from the latest Bollywood feature. This would be fine if that was the stylistic choice the director decided to go with, but these costumes share the screen with folks that are in period accurate garb, so it just pulls you out of the movie.
To add to the already myriad of very basic issues that this offering is dealing with, even the weather makes you stare quizzically at the screen. For the Middle East, especially by the desert, it does seem to rain almost all the time, and the snow was also a pretty big surprise. These little things, added in so that Bekmambetov can have his actors looking wet and pretty, are just pointless in this type of film, but at least give you something else to concentrate on to take the focus away from the aforementioned soap opera acting.
So is there anything worthwhile in this feature? Well, if you go in with low expectations, and you’re looking for something to pull apart you’ll have an ok time. The action, when it finally arrives, is actually fairly well directed. It has a very modern flavour for a biblical epic, and choices were clearly made to try and appeal to a younger demographic, but it does get the pulse going. True, when compared to the daytime television levels of acting that you are subjected to before anything actually happens, this is probably a good thing as it stops you slipping into a coma, but that is just me being mean.
A fair amount of the $100 million budget can be seen up on the screen, and if you like pretty people being pretty, and like your helping of middle-eastern fairytales to be unchallenging, then you will happily fill your boots with this. However, just don’t scratch the surface, because you’ll have used all your energy already suspending your disbelief, so any imperfection on the paintwork of Ben-Hur’s shiny new chariot will have it crashing and burning against the wall in the Circus Maximus.
- the excellent naval battle.
- well shot set-pieces.
- atrocious acting.
- atrocious costuming.
- atrocious screenplay.
- Atrocious character motivations.