Timur Bekmambetov's new cinematic vision for Ben-Hur was confronted with pessimism right out of the starting gate, emerging as yet another remake from the Hollywood machine that seemed to fall squarely into the "unnecessary" spectrum. Naturally, part of that comes from the iconic legacy of William Wyler's magnum opus from the late-‘50s: an adaptation of General Lew Wallace's epic story of revenge and religion that continues to stir audiences over half a century later, one that transcends its faith-based intentions with a certain depth of human drama and grand spectacles of action. One shouldn't forget, of course, that Wyler's film was also a remake, though the transition to color cinematography and full sound gave his take on the material -- emerging in the same climate as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments and other high-dollar epics -- some reasoning for its creation. Bekmambetov's iteration of Ben-Hur doesn't have that justification, nor does its dull and messy execution provide any of its own.
Covering the general plot points of Ben-Hur without describing how it gets across the finish line can be difficult to do, largely because the more meaningful courses taken by the drama emerge later in the story, that of a wealthy prince in Jerusalem named Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). This version begins where it ultimately ends: a depiction of the iconic chariot race sequence that serves as a framing device for the sprawling journey of Judah and his close friend and adoptive brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), whose clashes of personal beliefs force the once-close pairing to become political and philosophical rivals. Over several years, the story charts how their ideology forms from their experiences, revolving around religious zealots, Rome's militaristic oppression, and how aristocrats like Judah and his family fit, and should fit, into the equation. Through many challenges, from near-death experiences to criminal charges of attempted assassination and imprisonment, Judah focus his determination, vengeance, and evolving faith onto the injustice of the Romans.
Director Bekmambetov previously stated that his version of Ben-Hur is "a completely different movie" than Wyler's classic, something clearly and quickly observed in the chain of events that begin Judah's saga, transitioning from the dusty spectacle of chariots into a quaint horserace between young men. From a script penned by The Way Back's Keith Clark that was reworked by 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley, the catalyst that begins the conflict between Judah and Messala starts things off on the wrong foot, forcing heavy-handed alienation between the "brothers" through overblown responses to an incident. Ben-Hur never fully recovers from these adjustments, even though they plant the seeds for this new version's expanded focus on having mercy upon others for their past transgressions. Their emergent personalities must constantly shoulder the burden of the script's simplified and blatant formation of their rift, undercutting their individual depths while highlighting their unconvincing bond as "brothers".
Spurred by a genuine yet nondescript performance from Jack Huston, the thematic path taken in Ben-Hur produces a lethargic and uninvolving voyage through biblical Roman authoritarianism, one that regularly evokes the personal, family-centered revenge dramatics found in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Director Bekmambetov goes through the motions in his depiction of Judah's transformation from wary aristocrat to weathered vengeance-seeker, providing him with enough superficial motivation to rationalize his actions without diving into the nuances that'd empower his charge against the legionnaires. Much of this hinges on the film's jumbled, sporadic relationship with religion and how it intersects with the story of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) uncertain of how to carefully portray Judah's spiritual awakening and hunger for retribution while also periodically shining a light on the religious figure, his followers and teachings. Unremarkable supporting performances leave these historical theatrics, along with crisscrossing romantic pursuits and surrogate-family melodrama, in a stale and forgettable state.
Timur Bekmambetov isn't renowned for his skill with character drama, though, but for his crafty visual flair and relentless energy in action sequences, who specializes in elevating the outlandish into a feast for the eyes. He only has a handful of moments to shine like this in Ben-Hur, and if anything, the pair of iconic sequences that would appropriately utilize his talents are, in fact, weakened by the director's overstated design, marred by inauthentic computer-generated effects -- boat collisions and chariot crashes alike -- and a sophomoric perspective on high-energy activity. Not even the fraught glances and scrambling of Morgan Freeman as gambler/chariot owner Ilederim can distract from the ridiculousness of this revamped take on the iconic horse-drawn spectacle that hallmarked the original, yet it's the kind of irrational action that obeys reality just enough to invite one to try and continue taking it seriously until its expected outcome. Ben-Hur may've not deserved such vehement opposition sight unseen, but the way it ultimately crashed and burned proves that there was something to all the lack of faith in the deadweight of this visually ornate remake.
Video and Audio:
Ben-Hur storms onto Blu-ray in a handsome treatment from Paramount, led by a tremendously detailed and evenhanded 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer. There's a lot of warmth to be found across the landscape and within the range of skin tones, but the shades that exist around the warmth remain neutral -- even cool -- depending on the lighting's needs, projected in stone walls, metal helmets, and the musty wood bowels of a ship. Fine detail is tremendous across the board, ranging from broad range of hair, skin, and textile textures in close-ups to the organic surfaces of wood and stone, also accentuating the minute details in rain/sea water and rays of sunlight pouring through cracks. The contrast presentation is, by and large, quite fantastic, rending rich black levels that, even in the dark corners of a ship's belly, still retain details in the shadows; there are, however, a few scenes of lighter contrast that bring out overly blue and gray shades. Ben-Hur certainly looks the part of a historical epic due to its budget, and Paramount doesn't disappoint at all in the high-definition rendering of its production.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio stands high and mighty as well, flexing its surround-sound muscle at just about every opportunity it gets. Naturally, the most significant examples of what this track can do are found in the monumental set-pieces in the film, one by land and one by sea, which exercise the full breadth of the surround channels both at the front and the rear of the design, telegraphing explosive bass response from crashing boats and colliding chariots. There's a little thinness in some of the sound effects here and there, ones that should pack a stronger front-end punch, but the clarity grasps onto a natural presence all the same. Subtler element like the gentle lapping of waves, the shoveling of hay and the gallop of hooves are delightfully strong at the mid-section of the track, while the methodical music fluctuations are robust and responsive to the accompanying effects. Dialogue remains strong and discernible throughout, and there's never any distortion regardless of the strength of the delivery. French, Spanish, and Portuguese language tracks are also available, as well as subtitles in English and all those languages.
The job of the extras accompanying the film is usually to make the viewer more fully appreciate the production they watched, and that's something the special features for Ben-Hur handily accomplishes. The best of the lot comes in the Legacy (10:37, 16x9 HD) featurette: while brief, it quickly traces the process of the filmmakers tackling the insurmountable task of readapting Lew Wallace's book. Interview time with Wallace's great-great-granddaughter, a bevy of historical photos, and discussion about different themes expanded on in this new vision are fitted within this ten-minute feature, and it's a whole worthwhile watch. The Epic Cast (12:10, 16x9 HD) adopts a fairly standard rhythm in discussing the casting process for such an iconic film, but it's great to hear Jack Huston discuss his near-brush with being cast as Messala, to hear Timur Bekmambetov discuss how important the casting of Morgan Freeman was in the film's creation, and to hear several folks discuss how the female character impact the trajectory of the make characters' development.
A Tale For Our Times (15:25, 16x9 HD) intersects with the Legacy featurette extremely well, mostly centered on the "modern" slant that Timur Bekmambetov bequeaths upon the film and how the vision deviates from Wyler's classic. They discuss using contemporary production elements -- the design, the cinematography, everything -- to keep the film "grounded", covering the recreation of Judea and shooting in the principle south-Roman location, as well as how they crafted textiles and the natural carved-out-of-rock look required for the locales. Sketches and behind-the-scenes shots are scattered throughout. An entire featurette is dedicated to the Chariot Race (10:37, 16x9 HD), which touches upon both the craftsmanship and "earning" the emotion circulating in the scene, charting the thirty-plus days shooting the sequence, using Rome for building the location, and the numerous methods and elements used in piecing it all together into something distinctive and culturally inclusive.
Paramount have also included a batch of seven Deleted and Extended Scenes (10:25, 16x9 HD), as well as a collection of three Music Videos and two behind-the-scenes videos for those.
Timur Bekmombetov's Ben-Hur needed to reach certain heights and generate something exceptional to break away from the shadow of William Wyler's seminal classic, let alone to shake off the stigma of it being another remake from the Hollywood machine. There are a few unique ideas and concepts in this take on Judah's story -- adding more definition to his relationship with Messala, focusing a bit more on themes of forgiveness, amplifying the chaos of the chariot race -- but these aren't strong enough elements to overcome the lack of imagination in this familiar-feeling historical epic. What's more, the scripting from Keith Clark and John Ridley gets lost in cautious modernization and creative tweaking, and its faith-based messages feel muddled and takes-on against this rendition of Judah's hardship and redemption. Top that off with mediocre CG bringing to life blandly elevated-reality action pieces and largely unexceptional performances, and you've got a subpar spin on the tale. Paramount's Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal, though, and it's got a really solid slate of nearly an hour of behind-the-scenes extras. The whole package is worth a Rental, but those who viewed this remake with trepidation are wise to continue doing so.