'Ben-Hur' Couldn't Have Been Worse

The new version of the Charlton Heston epic barely qualifies as a remake. In fact, it barely qualifies as a film.

by J. W. McCormack
Aug 20 2016, 1:30pm

All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The movie entitled Ben-Hur, which is opening this weekend, has so little in common with the sumptuous 1959 Charlton Heston epic of the same name, it barely qualifies as a remake. It barely qualifies as a film.

Case in point: About 15 minutes in, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), the Jewish prince of Jerusalem under Roman rule, strolls through the market with his love slave Esther, the camera suddenly goes wide to reveal that Jesus Christ is standing next to them. Putting aside his carpentry for a moment, he looks directly into the camera and intones, apropos of nothing, "Love your neighbor!" with the same studied nonchalance with which you might ask the CVS manager where the condoms are. (Prudish Ben-Hur, for his part, is put off and scoffs, "Well, that's rather progressive!")

I immediately asked myself: How many movies have I seen in which Jesus was actually standing just off-camera the whole time? Maybe all of them? If we panned over to the foosball table at Rick's in Casablanca, would the son of God look up and go, "Blessed are the meek?" Is there possibly a post-credits sequence in Citizen Kane where he guides Charles Foster through the eye of a needle?

Jesus's presence in the William Wyler film is minimal and generally considered a bit of a joke—the Coen Brothers parodied it in this year's Hail, Caesar!but this Jesus, played by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, vaguely familiar from Lost, will, before the movie is over, use the force on a Roman centurion and look out at the empty seats of the theater to implore God's forgiveness, for we know not what we do. This is because Ben-Hur is the latest—and at a $100 million budget, maybe the most expensive—instance of faith-based marketing, which puts it in the company of God's Not Dead, Heaven Is Real , and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein's 2008 expose of the theory of evolution.

These movies are screened for churches and conservative groups, run trailers during FOX News, and generally aim for a Christian audience with $5.1 trillion of purchasing power in the United States that might not otherwise attend an average mainstream, godless movie.

The goal here isn't to compete with other blockbusters any more than Christian rock competes with Guns & Roses or the Nintendo game Bible Adventures competes with Mario. The goal is to vaguely simulate non-secular pleasures for the Tim Tebowdemographic. But for a person to unironically enjoy the crime against celluloid that is the 2016 Ben-Hur—in which nothing, not the costumes, script, acting, or camerawork betrays that slightest competence—that person would have so little in common with other humans as to constitute some kind of atavistic mutation.

I cannot say this more plainly: This is not jaded cynicism at an indifferent Hollywood picture. This is a film so baffled by its own existence, it is almost The Room. We're talking The Garbage Pail Kids Movie . We're talking Hell Comes to Frogtown, people.

Heston's Ben-Hur traded gay-subtext barbs with rival Messala; This movie has a pained-looking, impassive Morgan Freeman as a Nubian sheik who looks out from under dreadlocks and says, "I had my 'All Romans must die' phase, just like you," as though recalling having owned a Sisters of Mercy CD in the 12th grade. And generally, the actors do look miserable, generally sticking to one facial expression and trying not to move too much, like they've confused filmgoers with the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and think you won't be able to see them if they stand in place. Ben-Hur features, as all period-costume flicks must, a wayward Game of Thrones actor and this time, it's Pilou Asbæk, TV's Euron Greyjoy, as Pontius Pilate. He spends most of the movie squinting, looking offscreen and mumbling under his breath.

The director who was conned into this folly is the Kazakh-born Timur Bekmambetov, best known for the Russian vampire movie Night Watch and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; effulgent Christian hauteur, then, would not appear to be his métier, though he seems to be more at home in the scene where Ben-Hur confronts the lepers and they lurch toward him and yell, "We're lepers!"

Lew Wallace, the author of the 1880 novel of the same name, was a Union Civil War general who later became US minister to the Ottomon Empire. His version of the story is saturated with themes of displacement and divided loyalties. This movie, meanwhile, is so rife with treacle, even the galley slaves seem like they're about to break whimsically into song. And here I was, thinking this movie was going to be about chariots.

You know what was a good movie, at least by comparison? The Nativity Story starring Oscar Isaac as Joseph, the eldest Sand Snake as the Virgin Mary, and three wisecracking wise men to leaven the mood. Or how about Darren Aronofsky's Noah, where the prophet chilled with some Rock Biters out of The Neverending Story ? Or Gods of Egypt, in which Transformers seeded the Fertile Crescent? Basically, we need to go back to Clash of the Titans and apologize, because even the most saccharine exemplars of the sandal-genre are nowhere near as bad as Ben-Hur, which cost $60 million more to make than Passion of the Christ . It is, ironically, the only film in memory to be pitched to a Christian market whose very existence testifies there is surely no God, for He would not so forsake His children as to deliver them into a cinema showing Ben-Hur.

Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.

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