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Published August 24, 2016

The one burning question that needs to be asked is “Why was this film made?” The 1959 Ben-Hur won eleven academy awards, which no film has ever topped. It clearly didn’t need to be improved upon. The simple answer is, of course, money, but from whom? The far-more-secular-than-1959 movie-going crowd? Who was expecting them to flock to theatres for this faith-based remake? The lovers of the original film? Who was expecting them to enjoy this PG-13, CGI-laden, action-packed remake? The movie seems to have no idea at whom it’s even aimed, which honestly feels just as gutsy as it does blunderous.

With the original coming in at 212 minutes, this new take is just over half the size, coming it at around 125. As you can imagine, this results in many plot-points being cut down, if not entirely omitted. It plays around with the story a hell of a lot, but I’m unfamiliar with the original novel on which these films are based, so it wasn’t a huge deal to me. Besides, the changes all make a lot of sense, especially in terms of condensation.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince, childhood buddy to Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman soldier. After refusing Messala’s request to help him weed out the Jewish zealots resisting Roman occupation, Judah finds himself betrayed by his friend and sentenced to a life of slavery. At least, that’s what happened in the older version. In the new one, Judah finds an injured zealot, nurses him to health, harbours the fugitive, and then assists him in escaping after the zealot attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate. It’s not quite as easy to take Judah’s side this time around…

 

Both actors give great performances, though. Joining them is Morgan Freeman‘s Sheik Ilderim, an interesting character who also serves as the film’s narrator. He also starts inexplicably directing the Roman soldiers on the sidelines during the big chariot race. That was weird. They were doing what he said, too. Esther, Judah’s wife, played by Nazanin Boniadi, gets much more screen-time than in the previous film, but doesn’t get to do a whole lot with it other than deliver messages to the rest of the characters all movie. Rodrigo Santoro plays Jesus, and this is where the movie decided to not only respect the messages of the original, but really embrace them. We never saw Jesus’ face in the 1959 movie, but here he has several interactions with Judah across the years. Because of this, his appearances were a lot less dramatic, though had just as large an effect on the story.

We got a lot of annoying, unnecessary exposition. “Where are you taking him?” yells Esther. “To the Port of Tyrus!” a soldier responds, before the chyron “THE PORT OF TYRUS” appears over the port. Later, we’re treated to another chyron reading “Five years later”, and are then told that it’s been five years twice more in the next five minutes of dialogue.

It gets very preachy towards the very end, which was expected and fine. The second-to-last scene is actually very touching, and did not appear in the older film. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed its inclusion. The last scene, though, was hilariously mawkish, and as the credits began to roll I found myself shaking my head in exasperation.

It’s the last big-budget film of the season, so, while it’s not a bad movie, we’re not exactly going out on the highest note. Who would’ve thought Sausage Party would be the best film of 2016’s blockbuster period?

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