Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hey, 'Ben-Hur' Isn't So Bad

Ben-Hur is a remake of the 1959 classic film of the same name (which in turn was a remake of a 1925 silent film, based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace) that won 11 of the 12 Academy Award categories it was nominated for.  It tells the story of a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) who is betrayed and falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbel), who has recently returned to Jerusalem as a high-ranking officer in the Roman Army.  Removed of his status, and separated from his family, Ben-Hur is sentenced into becoming a slave rower of a galley.  After years at sea, he finds the opportunity to return to Jerusalem with the help of a wealthy Nubian sheik (Morgan Freeman) and carries out his intention to seek revenge against his estranged brother, which culminates in a deadly chariot race.
Though I like the 1959 Ben-Hur, and have seen it a few times over, I’m not really a big fan (trivia: when I was younger, I even got it mixed up with the 1960 film Spartacus; I remembered the two movies as if they were the same thing, and treated them as such for a while).  However, when I first saw the trailer of the 2016 Ben-Hur, I was bemused and astonished of the audacity of the idea of remaking something like Ben-Hur (Seriously, Hollywood.  What’s next?  Lawrence of Arabia? CasablancaCitizen Kane?!).  Especially since the trailer made it look like it was going to be a loud, dumbed-down, action-centric popcorn flick.  It felt like it was 300-ing the whole thing.  I expected that if I ever did find it entertaining, it’s likely because it was a ridiculous trainwreck.

Unsurprisingly, the 2016 Ben-Hur turned out being significantly inferior to the 1959 Ben-Hur.  The flow of the narrative is choppy.  The editing is poor.  Its CGI-heavy chariot scene is devoid of the visceral excitement and realism of the iconic chariot scene of the 1959 classic.  All attempts to “reinvent” plot elements of the original movie fail to improve anything about the story.  HOWEVER, it actually made an attempt to be something thoughtful.  Thus, though it’s not an excellent movie, it’s neither a trainwreck.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a Christian novel through and through, as it’s set during the life of Jesus and even involved Ben-Hur becoming a Christian (its subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ” after all).  But though the 1959 movie ran for three-and-a-half hours, it failed to make time for making Christ a significant part of the movie (in fact, the movie only covered about half of the plot of the book), lessening him to more of a “background.”  The 1959 Ben-Hur is truly an epic movie, but it also basically de-Christianized the story.

On the other hand, the 2016 movie has more of Christ in it.  Thus, its “Gospel” flavor is stronger than what the 1959 movie ever had.  Thematically, the 2016 movie is closer than the 1959 movie to the book.  Unfortunately, despite this, it still doesn’t completely commit to the Christian essence of the Ben-Hur story.  Hence, the profundity of the Gospel, as what the novel is all about, is still not fully realized in this movie.  I appreciate its presence, but its poor utilization, mixed with the bad editing, makes the Christian message of this movie felt diluted, inorganic, forced, and sappy.
Ben-Hur (the 2016 movie) isn’t the perfectly faithful film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel – that is yet to happen.  But it’s not as stupid as what I initially thought it would be.  Its themes on forgiveness and redemption are refreshingly reflective, though its impact is negated by hesitant execution.  In the end, I liked enough parts of its parts to deem it an averagely entertaining, good-for-one-viewing movie.

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