Ben Hur: Chariots of boredom

Even the cinematic feat of evoking pathos cannot make up for Ben-Hur’s failure to resonate with its viewer.

August 19, 2016 11:52 am | Updated 12:03 pm IST

Why are we so obsessed with remakes? Especially of those incredibly ambitious projects that when unsuccessful will burn some serious holes in pockets. This year’s Ben-Hur is one such example, made on a whopping $100 million budget. The epic biblical drama is largely a borefest save for a few redeeming sequences, but more on that later.

In 1959, William Wyler had every reason to remake Ben-Hur , after all, the previous adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel was a silent film made in 1925. The 2016 remake retains the book’s plotline of a prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), who’s accused of sedition by his friend Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer of the Roman army. After years of being a galley slave, Judah manages to escape and returns to avenge the betrayal by challenging Messala to a chariot race. But chance encounters with Jesus of Nazareth change Judah forever.

Wyler’s magnum opus was universally lauded, earning a record 11 Academy Award wins including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. With such massive shoes to fill, how on earth could Timur Bekmambetov (who made Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ) do the film justice? It's not for wont of trying though. Despite Ben-Hur ’s period setting, the film is a visual spectacle with perfectly captured Judean landscapes and lush costumes. But it’s not enough to hold the audience’s attention.

The 2016 film has been dubbed a reinterpretation of the book. As proof, there are several differences: this time, Messala is an adoptive brother thus making Judah’s betrayal worse; Judah’s journey, from slave to participating in the chariot race is entirely altered, albeit stretched out. But perhaps, the most glaring variation has to be the end of the film. John Ridley (known for 12 Years a Slave )’s script chose a happier ending excepting, of course, the inevitable crucifixion of Jesus. The film also gave the ‘son of god’ a lot more screen time, showing the audience his face several times (the glorious mug of a tanned-to-perfection Rodrigo Santoro).

Then there are those irksome moments, when eyes will roll. Judah’s spotted wearing a pair of jeans while riding a horse and what was up with Morgan Freeman’s American accent even though he’s supposed to play the Nubian Sheik Ilderim?

Now for those redeeming factors. There are a few times, the film genuinely soars. For instance, the sequence in the galleys just before Judah makes his escape is a numbing experience. It reiterates this writer’s belief that humans are the worst…they hurt other creatures and even themselves. The whips on the slaves’ backs, the claustrophobic cramped space, the stripping away of human dignity will strike a chord of empathy with all.

Then there’s the chariot race, an adrenaline rush-fuelled sequence of men trying and mostly succeeding in eliminating the competition. Every casualty — both man and animal — induces wincing. But even such the cinematic feat of evoking pathos cannot make up for Ben-Hur ’s failure to resonate with its viewer. Judah’s victory in the race would have been an apt way to end to the film. Yet Bekmambetov tortures us with scenes of reconciliation and a forced promise of a happy future to provide closure to — at this point — an uncaring audience.

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