By Shelley A. Sackett
During this summer of bloated spectacles, from the latest Jason Bourne franchise’s car chases to Marvel superheroes pitted against each other instead of a common enemy to the blood lust pageantry of the Republican National convention, the remake of “Ben Hur” fits right in. The CGI-burdened film is a superficial paean to excess, short attention spans, and sound bite pablum.
That said, it does have a spectacular and thunderous ten-minute chariot race made festive by 3-D glasses- enhanced special effects. You almost feel like a character inside a video game.
The plot, in a nutshell, centers on the rivalrous relationship between the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his best pal and Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). The two share an idyllic boyhood in a Jerusalem under benign Roman rule, riding horses and ignoring the civil unrest that will eventually pit brother against brother.
Messala loves Judah’s sister, but knows he is unworthy in station and finance. He does what any red-blooded man in his position and in quest of fame, fortune and globetrotting would do — he enlists in the Roman army.
Turns out Messala has quite a talent for battle and pillage, and when he returns to Jerusalem five years later, it is as a wealthy and powerful commander in a red cape and copper breastplate.
By then, Jerusalem and its Jews are clearly under Roman military control. Jewish zealots are waging a dangerous resistance, and a Jewish carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) proffers a world where one loves one’s enemies. Messala has returned not out of sentimental homesickness, but as a Roman officer charged with snuffing out this unrest.
Judah lives in a naïve rich boy’s bubble. This causes his undoing when a zealot he harbors (for humanitarian, not political or religious reasons) shoots an arrow at a Roman procession from the Hur roof. It misses Pontius Pilate, but the Roman reaction is swift and merciless. Inexplicably, Judah takes the blame and is sentenced to a slave’s slow death rowing in the belly of a Roman war ship.
The scenes shot during the ocean battles are the film’s most riveting. As man-powered ships ram each other to the steady beat of a war drum, we see only what the slaves can see through the small portholes in the ship’s side. From above deck, we are thrust into the turmoil of a losing naval battle. In this era of arm’s length drone warfare, it is a grim reminder of just what hell war is.
Judah eventually escapes and washes up on a desert presided over by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wheeler-dealer who raises and races horses. After witnessing Judah’s equestrian gifts, Ilderim convinces Judah to return to Jerusalem and race his horses in the Circus chariot race against Messala. Of course, Judah’s horses are white and Messala’s are black. Of course, Judah wins.
It’s hard to know where to stop complaining about the cast, script and directing. Huston brings a doe-eyed, easy-going melancholy to a role that demands grit and primal presence. When he cuts his Jesus-like hair and shaves for the race, he looks more like the cover of GQ magazine than a fight-to-the-death warrior.
Kebbell is no more convincing as the malicious Messala. His un-nuanced, soft performance brings to mind Eliott Gould more than Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson. Santoro’s Jesus, by contrast, is the most three-dimensional and captivating of the three. Perhaps the casting should have been rearranged; perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference absent a complete script overhaul.
The only breath of professionalism is the always magnificent Morgan Freeman, whose voice has that certain remarkable quality that inspired his casting as the voice of God (twice) and the narrator of countless films. Even wearing a grey dreadlocks wig that makes him look like the love child of the Lion King and Whoopie Goldberg, he injects his scenes with a grounded artistic integrity the rest of the film lacks. His cheeky delivery and rascally expressions is an oasis in a creative desert.
The remake of Ben-Hur is most interesting in its treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the blame for which is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Romans. It’s a shame that the whole episode is treated like a cinematic afterthought.
Perhaps the silver lining to this gratuitous remake is that it may send the Generation CGI-ers scurrying to their computers to stream the 1959 masterpiece that won eleven Oscars and catapulted Charlton Heston to godlike status. Who knows — it might even turn into a teachable moment that sometimes it really is best to leave well enough alone.