There aren’t many surprises in the new Ben-Hur. It’s a noisy, dull, thoroughly soulless affair built on banal dialogue, flat acting, and slapdash computer-generated imagery that barely looks better than your average Playstation game.
It does nothing that its source material — namely the 1959 MGM epic Ben-Hur and the 1880 Lew Wallace novel it was based on — didn’t do better, and does lots of things worse. In other words, it’s almost exactly the movie you’d expect from the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
The most baffling thing about the new Ben-Hur is why it was made at all. Why remake one of Hollywood’s most enduring and iconic productions? And why remake it with director Timur Bekmambetov at the helm? The result is a remake with no guiding principle beyond mere existence.
Worthwhile remakes put a new spin on an old idea
Remakes, as a category, don’t always have the best reputation, and are frequently derided as signs of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy. That’s not totally unfair — especially given how many turn out like this year’s Ben-Hur. But the best remakes show us how cinematic do-overs can work, and in some cases even improve on their originals, by expanding on the ideas of their source material. The key to a successful remake is making it relevant and accessible to new and different audiences.
Take a movie like The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror classic. It’s based on science fiction writer John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, as well as on the 1951 Howard Hawks film version The Thing From Another World.
All three versions share the same core premise: While isolated in icy Antarctica, a group of men encounter an alien creature that can take the form of any creature it kills. But Carpenter’s outrageously gory film emphasizes the physical horror of the creature’s violence, as well as the psychological terror and trauma of not knowing who might be an enemy in disguise. It wasn’t just a modernized treatment of the Howard Hawks version; it was very, very much a John Carpenter film.
The same goes for most successful remakes. In contrast to, say, the joyless recent remakes of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Total Recall — both of which seem to have been made simply for the sake of rolling out a new film with a familiar name — successful cinematic updates tend to be driven by exceptional filmmakers and strong visions more than by the legacy of the original properties.
Think of movies like the Coen brothers’ quirky, existentialist version of True Grit; Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy new-Hollywood-royalty riff on Ocean’s Eleven; Brian de Palma’s hyper-stylish, hyper-violent Scarface; Martin Scorsese’s Boston crime take on The Departed; John Carpenter’s grim, urban reimagining of Rio Bravo or Assault on Precinct 13; or Terry Gilliam’s knotty, fatalistic sci-fi film 12 Monkeys.
Some of those films drew on source material that was relatively unknown to American audiences: The Departed was based on the 2002 Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs, and 12 Monkeys was inspired by the 1962 silent short film "La Jetée." The others were based on American films that would have been somewhat better known.
But regardless of their predecessors' profiles, these new versions weren’t content to just repeat the formula that had worked before. Instead, they were made by directors with strong, consistent visions who wanted to put their own unique stamp on the material.
That even goes for something like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds remake. With its history, name recognition, and opportunities for massive special effects set pieces, it’s the sort of film you can easily imagine being adapted just for the sake of adapting it. But with its focus on failed fathers and broken families, dangerous radicals and social breakdown, human weakness and alien inscrutability, the version we got was recognizably Spielbergian. It was the product of a filmmaker’s distinctive taste and vision, a movie that works on its own terms, not as a faint reflection of the original.
Ben-Hur already has a storied remake history
The 1959 version of Ben-Hur was itself a remake of a well-known 1925 silent film, which was itself a defining epic of the silent era and which followed a previous 1907 short film adaption. The first feature’s $3.9 million budget made it the most expensive silent film ever produced, and its climactic chariot race set a new standard for action scenes.
When William Wyler, who worked on the set of the silent version, was brought on to direct the 1959 remake, his aim was to create a new epic on a scale that had never been accomplished before. Once again, the film boasted a record-breaking budget — some $15.9 million — which funded a mammoth production effort.
Wyler shot for six days a week for almost eight months on a sprawling set, creating 100,000 costumes and more than a million different props in the process. There were more than 350 speaking parts in the movie, and thousands of extras. The script ran some 230 pages, and the final cut of the movie was more than three and a half hours long.
Visually, the film is just as extravagant. It features two iconic action set pieces—an ancient naval battle and a grueling, deadly chariot race, both of which hold up today. The entire film was shot on bulky cameras using a process that gave the film an unusually wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio. (For comparison, most movies are displayed in either 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratios.) The ultra-widescreen format paid off during the famed chariot race sequence, allowing Wyler to easily capture multiple four-horse chariots side by side.
Wyler’s Ben-Hur is far from perfect and hasn’t worn entirely well with age: It’s too long and too slow, too insistent on capturing its dialogue in medium shots that box its actors into the movie’s stage-like sets, too invested in Charlton Heston’s hammy performance. But it is a movie that more than justifies its own existence on scale and spectacle alone. It achieves — sometimes overachieves — the epic greatness to which it aspired.
There are ways to update Ben-Hur for 2016, but this film ignores them
The new version, by contrast, lacks the scale of a typical episode of Game of Thrones. It was made for a reported $100 million, making its budget smaller than Wyler's, which, adjusted for inflation, was equal to about $131 million in today's dollars. Indeed, the remake is smaller and less spectacular in just about every way.
The 2016 Ben-Hur is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, a Kazakh filmmaker who, in addition to helming a movie about the slave-freeing president who fought a secret army of vampires, also directed the 2008 comic book adaptation Wanted. Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur is far shorter than Wyler’s epic, clocking in under two hours, but thanks to its bland lead actors — anchored by Jack Huston in the title role — and pedestrian dialogue, it still manages to drag on far too long.
Ben-Hur’s action scenes are hectic and graceless digital-era creations, a blur of ugly pixels scattered haphazardly onto the screen. Even when Bekmambetov replicates the major set pieces from Wyler’s 1959 production, it just ends up reminding viewers how much better the originals were. The final chariot race borrows the same basic elements, but adds nothing except an occasional GoPro shot to suggest an on-the-ground perspective.
The whole sequence suffers from overreliance on computer-generated imagery — which is good for the horses, which in Wyler’s version were cruelly forced to run over tripwires. But the thousands of extras and most of the racetrack set are now computer-generated too, giving the entire sequence a sense of weightless unreality.
The new version bungles the story’s religious aspects as well. The 1880 Lew Wallace novel was subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and occurs in parallel to the biblical story of Jesus. Previous adaptations have always served as conversion stories pitched to the faithful. (The 1925 version was advertised as "The Picture Every Christian Should See!")
Bekmambetov’s remake doesn’t completely excise the story’s religiosity (though it does skip the nativity scene that opened previous versions). But it certainly muddles the material, portraying Jesus as a kind of hot Mediterranean guru of peace and love. Played by a tanned and buff Rodrigo Santoro, he’s the sort of hunky, hippie male model type you can imagine on a romance novel cover, whose most profound idea is that "love is our true nature."
The character of Jesus is barely an afterthought in this Ben-Hur, and Bekmambetov’s normally hyperactive direction grows tepid and dull every time he appears onscreen. As a director, Bekmambetov appears unfamiliar with the concept or experience of emotions, and can’t manage to drum up a modicum of sentimentality. He stages Jesus’s crucifixion with all the feeling of a laundry detergent commercial and none of the despair that comes from not being able to remove those blue stains.
There are ways to update Ben-Hur for a modern audience: The sprawling story could be clipped and converted into a short and bloody B-movie, or reworked as an anguished period drama — perhaps with some of the homoerotic subtext brought to the fore in ways that wouldn’t have been allowed in 1959. It could be overhauled as a brooding critique of conversion stories, or it could stay true to form as an extravagant Christian epic about both violence and forgiveness.
But Bekmambetov went none of these routes. He seems to have had no animating idea other than a movie with a clunky CGI chariot race, which might as well be called Ben-Hur. The result is a passion play without any passion, an epic without any scale, a remake that has no idea why it was made.