Being asked to work on a remake of Ben-Hur – and more specifically, the iconic chariot scene – would be a feather in the cap of any horse wrangler. There were no doubt many conversations about how everyone wanted it to look “real” and “intense” and “seamless” with the inevitable addition of computer effects. And most of the time, it does. But remaking an Oscar-winning classic ostensibly for one scene is about as smart as racing around in circles to the death. It’s a perfect metaphor for the state of Hollywood movies today.
Think about it; no other Best Picture winner has ever truly been remade (new versions of Hamlet, notwithstanding). So it takes a boggling level of audacity to remake a film that is still tied for the record of most Oscar wins in history (11 – along with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). In other words, there is no world in which a new version of Ben-Hur can be anything other than an inferior artistic achievement. At best, it will be a safe production that makes a modest return on investment. And knowing that may have removed the pressure from participating in the film. It was enough for me to relax and generally enjoy it, at least.
After all, Ben-Hur was always an audacious film – one in which Jesus Christ himself was only a minor character, getting crucified in the background. When the Passion plays second fiddle to horse race, said race damn-well better be good.
The filmmakers know it, too. From the opening frames, we’re teased with a flash-forward of your climactic set-piece. By acknowledging the audience’s bloodlust, director Timur Bekmambetov obviously hopes to stave off the ennui from unknown actors delivering uninspired plot developments in unmatched accents. And that’s a problem when the majority of this film is simply a costume drama following the now all-too familiar fall-and-rise to glory that’s been chronicled ad nausea in Gladiator (another Best Picture winner), Spartacus, and basically every boxing movie ever made. Only this time, none of the actors have enough complexity in their delivery to suggest that they are anything more than spokes in the wheel of the plot. So the story trots along, but it all feels overly beholden on a big finish.
There is one battle in the film that does truly stand out. It’s the only other action set-piece, aboard a slave ship as the Roman battle Greeks for naval superiority (so more Aquarian than equestrian). The limited perspective we’re granted, stuck in the gallows along with the rowing slaves, does make for a rather thrilling scene. But otherwise, this is not the action-spectacular the previews would have you believe. The _Ben-Hur from 2016, much like the one from 1959, depends on engaging character dynamics and growth for the climax and resolution to mean anything. So taking the scenic route in the original four-hour epic wasn’t such a chore. Here we get there in half the time, but the journey is much less satisfying.
So yes, the horse scene was fun – even if there was a surprising lack of antics to the race (no wheel spikes or whippings). But in the end, it has to be said: Ben-Hur, done that.