Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ben-Hur Review

"Oh no! They're remaking Ben-Hur! How dare they!" Yes. They did remake Ben-Hur. No. I was never happy about it. But do you know what? The closer we came to the release of this movie, the more I realized that the idea alone of remaking Ben-Hur is not a bad one. If you disagree with this and you think that the idea of remaking Ben-Hur is a blasphemous one because this property should never be touched by anyone, regardless of talent, let me quickly remind you of the history of Ben-Hur. The 1959 classic that me and you both love was in fact a remake. Ben-Hur began as a novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace. This novel was the best-selling novel in it's time and stayed that way until Gone with the Wind in 1936. That novel was adapted into a super popular play in 1899, running until 1921. It was first adapted into a short film in 1907, then to a silent film in 1925. Following the beloved classic in 1959, it was adapted into a direct-to-video animated movie in 2003 and became a TV mini-series in 2010. So yeah, this is a story that has been adapted quite a bit. Technically it would be unfair to bash it based on the remake argument alone. But since remakes are a dime a dozen nowadays, now is as good of a time as ever to dive into what makes a good remake.

You know the story of Ben-Hur. If not, you should. This is a religious tale centered around Christ's life, ministry, and death that's intertwined with the fictional tale of a man named Judah Ben-Hur and his longtime childhood friend Messala. Judah is a Jew and Messala is a Roman. In a tragic turn of events, the two friends become enemies after Judah refuses to give Messala certain information that he wants, which is proceeded by Messala betraying Judah after Judah is accused of attempting to murder the Roman governor. Messala knows he is innocent, but sentences him, his mother, and his sister into captivity anyways because Judah didn't cooperate. Judah swears vengeance on Messala for this wrong-doing, especially since Judah has no idea what the fate of his mother and sister, and thus we have on our hands an epic tale of revenge and faith as Judah eventually comes across the Christ and has this inner turmoil between getting his revenge and doing what is right. This leads to so many beautiful themes throughout the story as well as some incredible character arcs with Judah Ben-Hur as well as a whole host of side characters. We also have on our hands a ton of emotional moments, both positive and tragic, and a beautiful ending that gives you all sorts of feel-goods.

That's what the story of Ben-Hur is supposed to be, anyways. That description is actually my description of the 1959 Ben-Hur. I have not actually read the book or watched any of the other adaptations, so I can't officially speak for them. But if you haven't seen the 1959 movie, I beg of you to completely ignore this 2016 Ben-Hur and go watch that 1959 Ben-Hur. I know it's 212 minutes long (3 1/2 hours), but it's 212 minutes of pure glory and perfection. The 2016 Ben-Hur may only be 125 minutes long, but it's 125 minutes of cringe-worthy story-telling, dizzying camera work, and pure disappointment. It's now another prime example of what NOT to do when you remake a movie. And it's suffering the financial consequences because of it. Based on its $100 million production budget, Paramount and MGM were hoping for big things out of this. In order for it to make a good profit, $200 million would probably towards the low end of what it needed to make here in the U.S. An opening weekend of $50-75 million would've been needed to get to that mark. Instead it had a sixth place finish with a mere $11.2 million and is looking to end up with only $25 million total. Ouch!

To put that into perspective, the 1959 Ben-Hur made a grand total of around $75 million. That was nearly 60 years ago. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, that would be equivalent of $848 million today, which is close to what Star Wars: The Force Awakens made in its theatrical run just recently. It would've been unfair for this remake to make that much money even if it was done perfectly and pleased everyone, but when you remake a movie that came out 57 years ago and you only make a third of what that movie made without adjusting for ticket price inflation, that is flat-out embarrassing. Especially when considering the story you are adapting is one of the most popular and well-loved stories ever. Even a moderately done remake of a story this popular would take in a good chunk of cash. Sometimes I'm sad when movies crash this hard. In this case I am applauding our country for uniting together to completely reject this 2016 Ben-Hur. Hopefully this will be a lesson to Hollywood that this phase of constant remakes is not a good phase. And if you're going to do a remake, you better be justified in your remake and you better do a good job. I'm looking at you 2017 Jumanji. And all of our movies on our long list of remakes.

With this said, what is it that constitutes a good remake? First off, a studio should look at the property they are remaking and ask themselves why are they remaking it? If the answer is, "we think we can make a good chunk of money by remaking this," then the filmmakers deserve to be slapped. Money shouldn't be the primary motivation for remaking a movie. The best answer, in my opinion, is that a filmmaker takes a good long look at a certain property and comes up with an idea of how this can be improved or has a new idea of what they can add to this property. My favorite example of this comes with Hitchcock's classic The Man Who Knew Too Much from 1956. This is a classic that many Hitchcock fans love that has inspired so many other movies. What people may not know is that this is the second time Hitchcock made this movie. The first time was in 1934 and while it had some good ideas, it was poorly executed and really wasn't that great of a movie. I imagine that in the 1950's Hitchcock looked at this movie and said to himself that he can do better with this premise. So he did it again. And he created a masterpiece. This same idea was done this month with Pete's Dragon. Disney took one of their lesser movies and created a new movie that was phenomenal.

Keeping with Hitchcock, a bad example of a remake comes with the movie Psycho. The 1960 version is another Hitchcock masterpiece and my personal favorite movie. In 1998 they decided to remake Psycho using the same exact script as before. The 1998 Psycho is literally a carbon copy of the the 1960 Psycho, but executed much more poorly. It literally adds nothing to the original. Yes, you can remake a classic and be justified. The Coen Brothers proved that with True Grit in 2010. But once again, even though the 1969 True Grit is a good movie, the 2010 True Grit added a lot to it and made a phenomenal modern western out of it. I'm hoping for similar results next month with The Magnificent Seven, which looks fantastic based on the trailers. There are so many more examples that I could dive into, but let's finish this idea off with the chronology of Ben-Hur itself. We started with a book. Then we turned that book into real life by making it into a play. Then we had our first attempt at a cinematic version with a silent short film. That was followed about ten years later with a feature-length silent film. Then in 1959 we had our beloved classic which added this thing called sound among other things. Each adaptation added something valuable to the previous version.

I can't speak for the 2003 animated version or the 2010 TV mini-series, but the idea of each seems like it adds something new and unique. An animated movie is fun. That even had the voice of Charlton Heston a few years before he passed away. A TV mini-series has the option of extending the story beyond the length of what is accepted in a movie. With how much story there is in the book, you could cover a lot more details with a TV mini-series. But this 2016 movie? Yuck! This takes the story of Ben-Hur and completely butchers it. The first mistake was the choice of director. If you're planning to remake a big religious epic, choosing Timur Bekmambetov, director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, probably wasn't the right choice. Granted the screenplay that was written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley is pure crap, but Mr. Bekmambetov proved that he couldn't get anything worthwhile out of that screenplay. A Steven Spielberg or a Ridley Scott level of director probably could've done something here. But not Timur Bekmambetov. The actors themselves did their best with what they were given, but they weren't given much and they didn't have much help from the director here, so there's not much that they could've done, all things considered.

First and foremost, the principle focus of Ben-Hur should've been Christ and his teachings. That's the point of this. The book is actually titled Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Both the book and the 1959 movie start with Christ's birth and end with his death. The principles that Christ taught are the focus of the story and those themes are told mainly through the experiences of Judah Ben-Hur. This 2016 Ben-Hur doesn't start with Christ's birth. It starts with a tease of the chariot race scene, then jumps back in time and spends the whole movie building up to that moment. Christ is in the movie, but he was certainly not the focus. In fact, Christ seemed shoe-horned into the movie. The purpose here seemed to be to make a cool action movie with these fancy special effects that we now have access to. The chariot race scene and the ship battle scene were the huge focuses of the movie. And do you know what? The 1959 Ben-Hur did both scenes better. The use of practical effects to pull off both scenes in the 1959 was phenomenal. I just re-watched the movie this past weekend and those effects hold up very well and have a lot more emotional impact than the new movie. I'm not going to say the special effects in the new movie were bad. They were just unimpressive.

The other huge problem with this movie was the story-telling. Some remakes are bad because they create a carbon copy of the original. This 2016 Ben-Hur is bad because of the exact opposite reasons. In an attempt to do something different, they went completely off the rails and essentially threw the original story in a blender. The set-up is the same. Judah and Messala were friends. Then Messala betrays Judah and sends him into slavery where he spends several years as a slave on a Roman warship. That's where the similarities end. Remember in the 1959 Ben-Hur where Judah saves Arrius' life, the Romans win, and Judah is adopted by Arrius, becoming a Roman citizen? Yeah, that's not in this movie. Completely axed. In fact, the character of Arrius does not exist. Remember how Judah spends years having no idea where his mom and sister are and is told they are dead right before the chariot race starts, which adds to his anger towards Messala and is followed by Messala revealing the truth about them after the race is over and before Messala dies? That's all mixed around. In fact, Judah's mother and sister are about as much of an afterthought as Christ is in this movie. You know how Judah doesn't officially get together with Esther until the end of the movie, thus making for an interesting romantic drama? Yeah, they get married in the first act of this movie.

I don't mean to be one of those annoying fans that complains about everything that is changed from the original story. It's okay to change things. I haven't read the book, but I did read the detailed summary of the book after re-watching the 1959 movie. There were plenty of things that the 1959 movie changed. But they were acceptable changes. The story-telling was effective. Every moment in the movie was built off of the previous moment and we had a beautiful story that was told with great character arcs. I expected this new movie to change things, too. But the things they did change made no sense. Their new story that they told was really stupid and had no emotional impact. All the important moments and reveals happened at the wrong time and Judah's character arc wasn't fleshed out enough, but was super rushed at the end instead. Thus the warship scene is wasted. The chariot race is kinda pointless. His conversion to Christianity doesn't make much sense. Completely removing everything about him becoming a Roman citizen removed a lot of the heart and soul of the movie. That's like remaking The Lion King but taking out the Timon and Pumba sequences. Everything was completely off and things ended in a total trainwreck. No feel goods for me. Just confusion.

The actors in this movie were just fine. Jack Huston made a great Judah Ben-Hur. Toby Kebbell was a great Messala. Rodrigo Sanchez was a serviceable Jesus. Nazanin Boniadi was a good Esther. Morgan Freeman had some weird dreadlocks, but once I got used to those, he did a good job with his character. Some of these choices made me nervous at first, especially with Jack Huston stepping into the ginormous shoes of Charlton Heston, but they did great. Their characters weren't written too well and some of them of them were forgotten. But the acting was fine. Technically speaking, the movie was also fine. We had great sets and great costume designs. The special effects were unimpressive, as I previously mentioned, but they weren't bad. The one major glare on the technical side of things was the camera work. I'm not one to say that shaky cam is inherently bad. It can be used effectively if done right like in the Bourne franchise. But this movie was very shaky and there was no reason for it to be. There were a lot of scenes when the camera just started shaking for no reason and I was like, "SOMEONE HOLD THE FREAKING CAMERA STILL!!!" And those action sequences with that camera got rough. I'm glad I didn't see it in 3D because that could've been bad.

In the end, I went into this movie with very low expectations given that the trailers made the movie looked awful. I hoped for the best, but yeah this is just as bad as the trailers make it look. The 1959 Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorite movies and my heart sunk just like everyone else's when this was announced, but I eventually concluded that the idea of remaking Ben-Hur wasn't a bad one. There was a lot that they could've done with this. But they completely butchered everything. The focus of the movie wasn't in the right place. Instead of being centered around Christ, it is centered around the action sequences and the revenge plot with the religious themes being more of an after-thought. After a boring introduction, there was a brief period of time where I was engaged, but when the warship sequence ended in a completely different way, I became confused and I started to wonder where this was going. That place ended up being right down the tank because they got everything wrong in the final two-thirds of the movie. With such an inspirational source material, the fact that I felt empty and confused was super disappointing. I would easily give the 1959 Ben-Hur a perfect 10/10. This 2016 Ben-Hur, though, gets a 4/10 from me.

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