2016 will go down in cinematic history as the year of unending remakes. This would not necessarily be such a bad thing if all of them weren’t so mediocre (except for The Jungle Book, which was actually a decent movie).
Now in preparation for this, my wife and sister-in-law told me that I should see the original with Charlton Heston, so I did. And although I wouldn’t necessarily call it a masterpiece, there were quite a few things about the movie that I found to be extremely impressive, especially considering technology was incredibly limited compared to today’s standards. It was also a very deep movie with a profound take on how revenge does not satisfy.
As for this new movie, when judged on its own merits, it’s a bad film. However, when compared to the original, Ben-Hur of 2016 is a wretched tragedy. If I were to judge this movie when comparing it to the original, this one would probably get a 1 or a 2 out of 10. If you loved the 1959 version, then I am absolutely recommending that you do not touch this movie with a stick of any length.
I guess I’ll start by talking about my problems with the movie that have nothing to do with the original.
The character logic is often extremely nonsensical. The Romans as a whole seem to change motivation at every point in the movie. First they want a calm, submissive Israel for the betterment of the empire; then they intentionally do things to royally piss them off; then whenever there’s civil unrest and somebody comes in and calms everyone down and says that there must be peace in the land, we hear one of the Roman officials say how this peacemaker is a cancer to the Roman empire.
Eventually, when we get to the (well… I guess this is a spoiler… but honestly? If you’ve seen the trailer or the original, you know it’s coming) chariot race, and it ends in the Jews cheering and killing Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate says something along the lines of “HA! They’re bloodthirsty. Now, they’re no better than us.” Basically, all this movie needed was to have every Roman guard wear long mustaches so they can twirl them while laughing maniacally.
Ben-Hur himself does quite a few things that make absolutely no sense. In one scene, he assists in the escape of some dude who clearly did something terribly wrong even though it would basically bring ruin to his family. The movie provides no real motivation for Ben-Hur to do this, so I can only guess that it was because plot.
Quite a few pieces of the dialogue are lazily expository, and there were a decent amount of scenes with unwarranted narration. There were also a few scenes where they put “__ years later” on the corner of the screen when I could have easily inferred that passage of time based on all the visual queues that the movie gave me.
There’s a few individual scenes with certain plot development points that were extremely stupid. I can’t really talk about them without going into spoiler territory. Here’s your warning:
<SPOILER> So during the chariot races, Messala and Ben-Hur are neck-and-neck, and Messala basically has his foot inches away from Ben-Hur’s face (as Ben-Hur is close to being tossed off his chariot), and before Messala gets the chance to squash his opponent, all of a sudden, his chariot explodes out of freaking nowhere, and Messala falls off of his chariot and gravely injures himself. At first, I thought I might have missed something, but as I talked to my sister-in-law (who saw the movie with me), I discovered that she got the exact same impression I did.
ALSO, in the original movie, Ben-Hur’s sister and mother both get cured of leprosy after they put their faith in Jesus, and then rain comes upon them. Now, I thought this was a bit silly in the original movie, but it’s nothing compared to this one: basically when Jesus dies, it starts raining, and Ben-Hur’s sister and mother both start drinking the rain that’s dripping down from their prison cells and are immediately healed because… magic rain I guess…? The original movie implied that the women were healed because of their faith… but I guess in this movie, I can only assumed that God cried the rain and EVERYBODY got cured of leprosy? Whatever the case, it doesn’t make any damn sense.
As for the chariot races themselves, I did not fathom that the 1959 movie would exponentially impress me more with their improvised special effects than this movie did with its extreme CGI fest with more shaky-cam and camera-cuts than I could even count.
When the 1959 version had someone get trampled by horses, and the guy occasionally looked like a stiff dummy, I can excuse it because of the lack of technology. When the 2016 movie makes a chariot explosion look obviously computer generated and then have the guy get trampled off screen, then there is ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE for such uninspired laziness.
Every change they made to the original characters was either stupid or unimaginative.
(The rest of this, save the last paragraph, will spoil both versions of the movie)
In the 1959 version, Ben-Hur was motivated by his faith in God, his Jewish heritage, his love of family, and his sense of royalty and honor. When all of these things are wounded, then you can understand why he’s driven by such fury and hatred. This lays the foundation to tell the story of a man who is set on revenge, yet is ultimately unfulfilled when he finally gets his revenge.
In the 2016 version, Ben-Hur has no recognizable faith in God, doesn’t care all that much about being a Jew, constantly disrespects his mother, and has more of a survival complex than a sense of honor. They basically declawed and neutered the very character and made him into an uninteresting 21st century man. This made all of the scenes feel less enthralling despite the fact that the movie looked more realistic.
In the 1959 version, Messala is portrayed as a once great man who fell into the depths of his greed and power lust. This causes him to condemn Ben-Hur and his family out of convenience and a desire to seem like a ruler deserving to be feared.
In the 2016 version, Messala is some whiny brat who gets pressured into condemning Ben-Hur because his fellow Romans were meany-faces. So every time he sees Ben-Hur, he constantly whines about how “YOU CHOSE THE ZEALOTS OVER ME!!!”Also, in the end, Messala doesn’t die and he and Ben-Hur become best buddies. The last scene is both of them riding into the sunset (I shit you not, this happens).
In the 1959 version, Ilderim was an odd, comedic character who exploits Ben-Hur’s desire for revenge to line his pockets (and also to embarrass the Romans).
In the 2016 version, Ilderim was a cold, distant, calculative man who is essentially the Mr. Miyagi of chariot racing. (That being said… I think Morgan Freeman is a bit better than a man in black face playing an Arab).
In the 1959 version, Jesus was a quiet, unquestionably powerful force that did not show up in the movie often, but when he did, you could tell by the reactions of everyone around him that he was something more.
In the 2016 version, Jesus is without miracles and without divine purpose, and he spends every single scene that he’s in preaching an aimless, unsubtle message of “love and peace, brah”, and this makes the Romans angry because they… want the Jews to be bloodthirsty?
Also, this movie has the stink of the political-climate-of-today all over it. I hate when movies do this.
Also, does it ever snow in Israel? Because this movie has it snow in Israel. My guess is no, and this was just for dramatic effect.
This movie makes little sense and is a bastardization of its original content. This is honestly the worst remake of 2016. Even though I can’t call Ghostbusters or Pete’s Dragon good movies, at least both had some minor sense of respect for its original content. This one just seems like an insulting cash grab. I cannot recommend Ben-Hur (2016) whatsoever, and I’m giving this movie a 3 out of 10.