Skip to main content

Five years of pain after twenty of privilege and now you think you know a thing or two about suffering.

Ben-Hur
(2016)

(SPOILERS) MGM has been entirely consistent in plundering its back catalogue for remakes. At least, to the extent that they never at any point suggested quality results were a determining factor. You’d have thought a redo of one of their greatest success stories would have presumed more care and reverence, but Timur Bekmambetov brings the same level of depth and discernment to Ben-Hur he did to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. About the best you can say for it is that’s it’s relatively concise in the telling.


Not that MGM didn’t throw money at the property ($80m of the $100m budget, with marketing on top, the rest coming from Paramount; it made $94m), but their understanding of what makes a good epic was closer to Kingdom of Heaven than Gladiator. Or, if you’re going the full biblical route, Exodus: Of Gods and Kings than The Passion of the Christ (or even Noah, like Exodus made by an atheist).


Indeed, there’s a faint embarrassment about the overly religious content that comes attached to the picture and none of the awe reserved for Jesus present in the previous iterations. We see Jesus’ face this time, in the unfortunate form of Rodrigo Santoro, who comes with an in-built, slightly unscrupulous vibe, which doesn’t exactly sell the crucial divine majesty aspect; the key to attracting the religious viewership, which can mean big bucks, is to make it at least appear that you buy into the nominally espoused values. There’s a pronounced absence of such conviction here. It’s notable that one of the producers stated faith-based movies need to feel like epic summer blockbusters in order to attract young and secular audiences, since that’s exactly what Passion didn’t rely on, and why its success hasn’t been repeated. Target audiences knew Mel bought into the depiction of a welter of suffering.


In attempting to deliver epic texture too, Ben-Hur gets it wrong from inception. You can fault Chuck Heston’s range as an actor, but there’s no doubting he had the presence to stand tall in the genre; he filled the screen. Jack Huston is a decent thesp (he stole Boardwalk Empire whenever he had a scene, and had you willing the makers to cut back to his plotline), but star wattage he lacks. We’ve seen this before, with much lesser actors Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven and Taylor Kitsch in John Carter, where, whatever merits the material nursed, they required underpinning by a performer of sufficient stature.


In fairness, the attempt by Keith Clarke, and John Ridley’s rewrite, to lend the relationship between Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebell’s Messala greater substance than previously at least half works. Kebell’s a more interesting actor when he’s going unhinged, and Messala’s a little too routine to bring out the best in him, but he succeeds in translating the character’s doubts and crises of conscience, even as there are some odd decisions en route to his change of heart (the ungainly scene in which a centurion explains to Judah that he didn’t carry out orders to kill his sister and daughter and instead locked them away stands up to no degree of analysis). Consequently, he’s a more interesting character than the protagonist, who’s there to give off a pin-up vibe and little else (Huston gets himself a short back and sides in time for the race; this picture, which sees the title character wandering around in hoody, also continues a trend of anachronistic garb in period pictures that reached its – hopefully – inglorious nadir in last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).


Still, employing versatile actors doesn’t mean they can get away with stinkers of dialogue. A more mannered approach, more closely aligned with the epics of old, would have helped foster a much-needed sense of scale. Instead, we’re left with a decidedly undressed form, one fixated on unlikely comparative views (“and we crushed the freedom of innocent civilisations simply because they were different” notes Messala at one point of his adventuring campaigns as an officer). Bekmambetov considered the stress on forgiveness rather than revenge marked it out from William Wyler’s film, but I guess he wasn’t paying attention to Wyler’s conclusion regarding the futility of revenge. Or that the forgiveness angle here is played out in risible fashion – not to mention it seems entirely unreliant on Christ’s presence –  with Messala losing a leg and Judah announcing “No more killing” as the latter rages and then breaks down (“All I can do is carry you” he tells Messala, and they all head off in frightfully friendly fashion with Morgan Freeman, whose role is marked out only by the mightily sculpted dreads Hair & Makeup have furnished for him).


Judah’s fall and rise are considerably truncated in this version. There’s a Quintus Arius (James Cosmo) but he dies in the naval battle (on the evidence of the CGI-heavy galley adventures, it’s just as well Bekmambetov’s Moby Dick remake failed to get off the ground). Cue Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim and Judah earning his trust by saving a sick horse.


The subsequent selling point chariot race – to the extent that it’s teased in the opening shot and throughout as the main event – is a bit of a damp squib, failing to capture the immediacy or visceral quality imbued by Wyler, with Bekmambetov breaking the pace by cutting away too much (including inept use of flashbacks) – somehow, we’re expected to believe Judah can hear Ilderim’s advice over the din of the racetrack –  and relying on obvious CGI (most egregiously when Judah rolls across the finish line and the remains of his chariot tumble over his head after him). Indeed, the only truly affecting moment in the entire bodge is when Judah realises the horse he brought back from the brink has bought the farm.


With Messala less hissable, that slack is made up by Marcus Decimus (David Walmsley) and Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk). The latter’s role is more prominent but also less interesting than previously; the character is always more intriguing when presented as half reasonable. Judah’s leprous mother and sister are once again healed during a magic rainstorm – but no blood of Christ with it –  but there’s no sense that, unlike wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), he has undergone a conversion. Indeed, it’s difficult to conclude the picture has any perspective towards belief or politics, rather suiting it’s artless genesis. At best, one might come away with the vague idea that individual empathy will overcome divisions of race or class; perhaps everyone leaving Jerusalem to its fate suggests a disinterest in resolving conflicts where there’s no will for peaceful resolution by all parties. Or it’s just careless writing.


MGM’s list of remakes and reboots is continuing apace, with the last few months seeing Tomb Raider and Death Wish released to predictably mixed responses and joining the similarly less than rapturous reception of The Magnificent Seven, Poltergeist, Fame and The Pink Panther. Upcoming: a gender-swapped Overboard (which wouldn’t have gone down well in its original form, but reverse the roles and apparently, it’s fair game). Like the biblical epic generally, it’s unlikely they’ll get wise while there are still success stories out there (even if they’re coming from other studios). In the current cycle, though, about the only approximation of hit criteria for a sword-and-sandals romp is that Russell Crowe has been in about two of them. But then, on a mean average, we won’t be due another big screen Ben-Hur until 2062.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II (1989) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post- Aliens , that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period ( Cocoon , Predator ). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II , though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.