Sweeping biblical Epics have been Hollywood staples since day one. Having fallen out of favor in recent years, the latest attempts haven’t been great (the less said about Exodus: Gods and Kings the better, yeesh), or tumble into heavy-handed religious fare (this year’s Risen was much more watchable than most of it’s Bible-thumping brethren, but it’s still only okay). But worry not, Timur Bekmambetov, the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is here to attempt to revive the genre with yet another Ben-Hur adaptation. And he’s bringing along the half-faced guy from Boardwalk Empire and an actor best known for being really good at playing a motion capture bonobo in the new Planet of the Apes franchise.
In a summer movie season where I could have saved so much time and energy by posting pictures of myself shrugging instead of writing movie reviews, Ben-Hur is yet another wannabe blockbuster that is just sort of meh. It isn’t great, it isn’t terrible; it doesn’t defile any of the previous versions, but it doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been seen before. In fact, Ben-Hur 2016 plays like a slimmed-down, CliffsNotes version of the Charlton Heston-starring 1959 iteration. There is, fortunately, much less blackface involved this time out.
Set in 33 AD, against the backdrop of Roman-occupied Jerusalem and the rising tide of Jesus, a wealthy Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), is accused of treason by his childhood BFF and adoptive brother, the Roman-born Messala (Toby Kebbell). (I was tempted to kick off with a, “So, a Jew and Roman walk into a bar…” joke.) As opposed to all of the predecessors, the inciting incident in Ben-Hur is no longer a handful of ill-fated loose roofing tiles. A zealot actually takes a shot at Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), which makes more thematic sense. Small victories, I guess.
Along his journey, Ben-Hur is forced into slavery, stranded at sea, and taken in by a kindly sheik, played by Morgan Freeman with a ridiculous head of dreadlocks that makes him look like a lion. He also bookends the picture with voice over, because you don’t hire Morgan Freeman and not make use of his voice at every opportunity.
There’s blood, betrayal, and chariot racing, as to be expected. And, sprinkled throughout, sporadic appearances from none other than Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) himself—Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel that serves as the source material is titled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. And if you’re going have any cameo, the Son of God isn’t a bad get, even if all he does is deliver a greatest hits collection of Jesus’ best lines.
The pieces are in place for Ben-Hur to be a swashbuckling throwback full of high adventure and even higher melodrama. But it just kind of farts around. Early on, the script from Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley plays up themes of empire versus insurgents, of occupier versus occupied, with a healthy dose of class thrown in for good measure—Judah can choose to be passive in this brewing conflict because has money and status that afford him this luxury.
Ben-Hur desperately wants to have a grand, exalted point and to draw modern parallels, but never gets any farther than flinging a slurry of half-raw ideas against a Teflon wall where nothing sticks. Perhaps if the characters were rendered with any depth, but they’re soap opera cardboard cutouts spouting hackneyed dialogue and are as relatable as that sounds. Messala is a butt-hurt orphan who finds a new home and family in the military (that in itself is an interesting thread, though one that’s never explored), while Judah is a rich kid who has no idea how the world outside the walls of his compound actually works. And there’s little personality to be found beyond that.
Neither is terrible, and Huston has charisma, there simply isn’t much to work with. Each even gets an underdeveloped romantic interest—Esther (Homeland’s Nazanin Boniadi) for Judah and Tirzah (Project Almanac’s Sofia Black-D’Elia) for Messala—to heighten the drama, to no avail. It’s toothless at best, tedious at worst, and muddles around in the sand far too long.
Even the adventure aspect, which could have redeemed these flaws, falls short. The climactic chariot race is okay, but it lacks even a hint of the visceral kick of its most famous predecessor—50 plus years later that’s still one of the greatest action scenes in cinema history. Coupled with ubiquitous quaking camera work, CGI horse wrecks, muddy 3D, and Morgan Freeman popping out to offer Ben-Hur sage advice like, “Go, go, go,” it’s not particularly thrilling or noteworthy.
For a movie that wants so badly to be epic—regular swooping helicopter shots of long lines of people walking along some ridge or cliff pepper the film—Ben-Hur lacks any sense of majesty or grandeur. It’s flat, bland, and entirely forgettable; the beige of summer movie blockbusters. [Grade: C-]