Ben-Hur (2016) - Threading the Needle
| "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” - Matthew 19:24
There is an interesting idea in the story of Ben-Hur about the revolutionary nature of redemption. Judah Ben-Hur's journey is one of privilege and his struggle through that towards an understanding of true justice. Most of that gets lost in the tellings which become about revenge as in the most famous adaptation of this story. This remake attempts to wedge that in, having Jesus pop up occasionally with a strong social gospel message, but it is the film's lack of clear direction which leaves that never fully realized.
One of the biggest mistakes most movies make is not taking the time to tell their stories in a way that feels honest, organic, truthful. Many films feel like they are rushing through story beats to get it all in, worried their audience can't sit through the emotional layers necessary to give weight to story. Ben-Hur feels that way. There is so much to tell her, so many characters than need to be developed, that most get short shrift. The film's "villain" Messala is so thinly drawn (and acted by the weak Toby Kebbell) that he seems like a caricature. Never once does he have a convincing emotion or motivation. Since so much of the story depends on him and his relationship with the title character, played by the much stronger Jack Huston, so much of the film feels like a lie. The film rushes through it's story points, making sure we have a narrator or a character tell us just what is going on so we don't miss anything, until the film reaches it's whole reason for existence; the chariot race.
Yes, it's 2016, imagine how the chariot race, one of American cinema's finest achievements and most fondly remembered moments, can be realized today! Well keep imagining because the biggest disappointment with Ben-Hur 2016 is not that it's a poorly plotted and, for the most part, acted film. The biggest disappointment is how lackluster the chariot scene is. I'm not saying it wasn't a big spectacle filled with violence, tension, and drama. It is. But it felt like any other action sequence in any other movie. Ben-Hur needs this scene to feel like nothing you've ever felt before, especially since the emotional gravity is so weak in the rest of the film. It needs this scene to blow us away. It does no such thing.
As the chariot race ran its course and the film limped along for its surprisingly long denouement, the weakness of this film truly came to light. As it tacked on a completely dishonest happy ending you realize that Ben-Hur just couldn't do what it needed to to tell its story, to make us care, to make us believe in anything.