A good story’s just hard to topple.
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is an example of a good story that has stood both the changing times and commercial abuse.
It's had a history of adaptations – from the extravagant theater productions that saw stages overburdened with both actors and horses, to the many movies that saw the valuable possibilities of cinematic pageantry out of the fable of a Jewish charioteer.
But Wallace’s novel proves that no matter the medium or motivation, a narrative that recruits familiar pulp elements of revenge, adventure, and derring-do with faith and religion can be both excitingly spectacular and emotionally affecting.
Condensed and simplified
Then there’s Timur Bekmambetov’s version, a film that foolishly ambitions to infuse contemporary Hollywood sensibilities to a story that is more than a century old.
The result is quite an odd film, a piece of entertainment whose most stirring moments rely on Bekmambetov using digital wizardry to amplify violence – violence that should have only been an accessory to the plot. Ben-Hur is an action film that only sees Wallace’s narrative as a frame to mount outrageous sequences that delight in the goriest of deaths and the loudest of destruction.
Wallace’s novel has been condensed and simplified, with the story concentrating entirely on the relationship of Jewish Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Roman Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), who is now an adopted brother to the film’s titular hero instead of just a childhood friend.
There are other changes, including the introduction of Nubian gambler Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), whose existence serves as both perspective to the pedantically relayed moral center of the adaptation and condenser of many of the novel’s complicated plot movements.
The core still remains. The film is still staunchly about Judah’s fall from the ranks through Messala’s disloyalty, his struggle out of galley and into the chariot race. His story still intertwines with that of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), whose prominent Scripture-spouting presence seems to behoove the film’s indulgent depiction of that era’s brutality. Screenwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley are more sympathetic towards Messala, making his motivations a little bit more ambiguous, and making his differences with Judah more ideological than personal.
The most intriguing tweak is perhaps driven by this adaptation’s thrust to focus on the dynamics between Judah and Messala, how their individual circumstances and fates have separated them, and how faith will eventually play a part in their destiny. However, this endeavor to complicate the characters' motives isn’t followed through by Bekmambetov, who handles all the scenes that are not driven by special effects with hardly any grace and elegance.
Of races and sea warfare
Bekmambetov knows that any adaptation of Wallace’s novel will be judged by the climactic chariot race. He even opens the film with a foreshadowing of the race that is yet to come, introducing Judah and Messala as fierce rivals prior to their contest and exclaiming rousing threats against each other. He even raises the expectations of the audience for a thrilling spectacle that will at least rival the indelible one that was staged in William Wyler’s 1959 version.
Sadly, Bekmambetov’s race is as incoherent as it is boisterous – it sells cruelty and bloodshed as highlights of the sequence. The race, an exhausting parade of frenetically edited, sand-covered blurs of tortured horses and angry faces, only becomes lucid when something brutal happens.
For example, when a racer is mutilated by rampaging hooves or when Ben-Hur suddenly discovers that 5 years' worth of intense rowing can save you from being dragged to death by speeding stallions. Otherwise, the film’s chariot sequence is a chaotic mess, an extravaganza of visual tricks and noises rather than a cinematic event that will stand the test of time.
If there is one spectacle in Bekmambetov’s short-sighted epic that truly satisfies, it is the one set within the tight confines of the galley where Ben-Hur is but one of the hundreds of slaves that fuel the ship to battle.
The sequence starts with Ben-Hur, fresh from living the life of a prince, joining the ranks of the lowest of the low. The scene cuts to several years later, with Ben-Hur now looking less princely and used to the life of a slave. His galley is about to fight against a team of Greek triremes, which serves as an opportunity for Bekmambetov to cook up with all the digital effects he can muster for an impressively visual and visceral sequence. It's one that meticulously captures all the dangers and horrors of ancient warfare up close.
Confused and misdirected
To call Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur a complete failure seems too harsh.
It is, however, a thematically confused and misdirected effort to reduce Wallace’s story of faith and redemption into a Hollywood blockbuster in an age where the market has become desensitized to violence elsewhere that entertainment must go to a further extreme.
The film still somewhat resonates at the very end, even after the many questionable turns it took to navigate its way towards that conclusion, and despite all the grisly distractions that pull the attention away from its supposed soul. – Rappler.com