The weird thing we all noticed in the trailers of Ben-Hur is that there were no big names. No names mentioned at all. No recognizable faces. I know the actor playing Ben-Hur – it’s Jack Huston, and I came to know him on Boardwalk Empire – but he’s not well-known. Matt never recognized him without the half tin-face, and Sean doesn’t know him from the third freckle to the left of his arsehole. Huston’s decent in it, but he’s no movie star. Isn’t it weird that a studio would spend $100 million dollars on a movie and neglect to cast any celebrities? And I don’t mean Kanye West as Jesus (Yeezus?) – but to cast a whole roster full of nobodies seems like a gamble.
So Ben-Hur is a bonafide flop. Not because Jack Huston couldn’t carry it, but because he should never have been asked to. And of course you could say that Ben-Hur didn’t need a remake, but the simple truth is that no movie needs a shitty remake. If you insist on having a go at a famous and beloved movie, you’d better be bringing something to the table. And Timur Bekmambetov thought he was: CGI. But he failed to appreciate that a lone 10-minute sequence of blood-rushing speed just doesn’t cut it anymore. This is the era of action. 60% of the shite in theatres right this very minute, competing against it, is action-packed. Suicide Squad, which is a pretty terrible movie, is at least more energetic. Star Trek Beyond is full-throttle. The days where Charlton Heston going all fast & furious on a chariot could save a movie are gone. Long gone.
I’m trying my hardest to think of one nice thing I can say about this, but I’m drawing a blank. The editing is tumultuous. I think the film makers are relying on our general knowledge of the classic Ben-Hur to pull us through this one’s bumpy ride in story-telling (quite general: lots of details are changed, and I’m not sure to what end). That, and two really genius visual aids: 1. white horsies vs. black horsies (guess which ones the good guys ride) 2. Caesar haircuts vs. Jesus haircuts (guess which ones the good guys wear). Subtle enough for you? Not that it matters. This movie lost me in its first 5 minutes. You know why? It’s stupid. You’re going to want to kick a black horse. It was a camera angle that took me out of the time period. It made me feel like Judah Ben-Hur was wearing a GoPro. He may as well have posed for a selfie.
The 1959 epic Ben-Hur used 2500 real, live horses and 10 000 real, live people. It was made with love – I know this because one of the last living American crew members told me so
in a documentary recently (The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur. Unfortunately he died before he could save us all from this one). Ben-Hur 2016 is a re-imagining lacking imagination. It used just 86 horses, 400 extras, lots of computer fakery, and – fuck me – GoPro cameras. Jesus fuck. Speaking of whom: unbelievably, the 2016 version is the more Jesusy of the two. I suppose producers were hoping for a built-in Christian audience, but the heavy-handed message will likely ring false even with them.
I’m afraid that this iteration of Ben-Hur is a symbol of our culture generally: devoid of our own ideas, we steal old ones and then make them crappier by half-assing things and cutting corners. Tell me I’m wrong.