While witnessing this modern take on the classic tale of Ben-Hur, I began to feel like a parent—bound by paternal duty—attending a school play. There’s the skeleton of a story I’m familiar with and none of the sets fall over, so that’s good; but the amateur, perfunctory nature of the whole thing makes looking in any direction but forward a more fulfilling alternative.
The plot hangs upon the relationship between the wealthy Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adoptive brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). As close as they are, Messala is never able to shake his lowly origins and adapt to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, so he sets off to join the army. Some time passes, and Messala returns a high-ranking Roman soldier, whose orders conflict with the well-being of his adoptive family and result in Judah’s sentencing to slavery. Meanwhile, a fellow named Jesus isn’t having the best time, either, and despite only a few interactions, he and Judah end up having a profound effect on each other’s journey.
As far as I can tell, the motivation behind this revisiting is to lay a thick coat of metallic, computer-generated sludge—I mean, paint—onto the story’s two big set-pieces: the slave ship and the chariot race. Both sequences are not nearly as obnoxious as they could have been, but they still feel tailor-made for those deficient of attention. The shaky-cam combined with the quick cuts is a recipe for migraines–throw in some 3-D glasses and permanent blindness can be yours! Huston doesn’t need to be a replica of Charlton Heston, whose over-acting melded perfectly with the epic, but, at the very least, Huston should have a little magnetism. He and Kebbell have little to no chemistry as brothers, and, what’s more, the film hightails it through the first act, leaving its emotional crux of brotherhood unfinished. As such, the events of the film feel hollow and without purpose, like actors reciting lines to each other and nothing more. Morgan Freeman makes an appearance, too, and he might as well have a stamp on his forehead, because he mailed this one in.
Jesus is a powerful figure and, as such, should be used sparingly for maximum effect. This film, not listening to my advice at all—nor that of its predecessors—portrays him as a pull-string doll of wisdom. There’s one instance where Jesus is being ripped away from his apostles by soldiers and instead of shouting out something like “I’ll be okay” or “Don’t come after me,” he yells out “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword!”
Gone are the glorious wide shots, the gravitas of the leading man and the thematic restraint we’ve come to expect from a film filed under “epic.” When deciding to remake “Ben-Hur,” surely the Rolodex stops at names like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson or maybe even Christopher Nolan—directors who have tackled epic stories without losing the human element. Instead, we get the guy coming off “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
1 out of 5 stars