Ben-Hur 2016 closes with a pop song, Andra Day’s “The Only Way Out.” Appropriate in a lyrical sense, if indicative of Ben-Hur’s wholly contemporary, too splashy approach.
The story itself is a timeless composition, inviting romance, betrayal, history, belief, revenge, and more. Taken as is, Ben-Hur’s value never diminished since its original publication. It’s able to slip into society as needed, and relate back to an audience whether in a single or multiple of those instances. Humanity is forever cyclical.
At the helm Timur Bekmametov, an eclectic filmmaker with a striking penchant for action. His visual style lends fleeting qualities to this update, sinking the film with an overzealous computer generated naval battle and only a handful of his signature ticks. Some first-person camera work adds zest and interesting panic to Ben-Hur’s (Jack Huston) rise, fall, and rise. Otherwise, spectacle falls empty, littering the tale with minimalist battles and dialog-led political strife.
Ben-Hur succumbs to a narrative dryness akin to television
Ben-Hur succumbs to a narrative dryness akin to television
That’s fine – Ben-Hur is and always was a political tale of invaded lands, rebels, and disgraceful paranoia. Fitting the film with intense character exchanges isn’t wrong, but in the neighborhood of $100 million to produce, Ben-Hur succumbs to a narrative dryness akin to television. This sort-of-remake doesn’t recall the expert craftsmanship of classic Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics nor the imaginative spectacle possible of modern film.
Condensed and folded to its minimum, the story goes through its motions as ailing pop entertainment. Characters speak literally of their arcs – Severus (Toby Kebbell) reminds audiences he wishes to see the world – and the peddled romance is so thin as to offer no genuine emotion. Ben-Hur pays immediate lip service to the chariot race, as if to say, “It’s coming,” with a flash-forward noting the memorable sequence is something worth waiting for.
To his credit, Bekmametov’s style finds its purpose in this key sequences. With exceptions made for the crowd and animal harm, this chariot run hosts plenty of interesting viewpoints, PG-13 gore, and well realized intensity, all done practically. Even if Ben-Hur fails in establishing the careful nuances leading up to this clash, the pay-off comes with plentiful theatrical pageantry.
In the undercurrent, Ben-Hur uses the earliest glimpses of Christianity to spill its morals. Fitting, if a deliberate breach of the “show don’t tell” rule. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) preaches parables and lessons, popping into the narrative at key junctions, speaking to Ben-Hur as the time of revenge draws near. Rather grossly then, Ben-Hur uses the crucifixion as an emotional climax, an exploitative touch when given such little emphasis elsewhere. Then again, Ben-Hur’s own story is too thin to carry the film through.
A bit everywhere in terms of visual style, Paramount’s Blu-ray captures the film as-is. This means flip-flopping contrast, swaying color, and thankfully, consistent fidelity. Some astounding close-ups reside in this movie, and they happen throughout. Ben-Hur excels with brilliant establishing shots too, whether the chariot race stadium or the mountainous landscapes.
Opening scenes, vivid in saturation and contrast, soon lose out to graying black levels. Out goes the color, taking on the dour mood as Ben-Hur is pushed into Roman slavery. Expect teal and blues. Once free, color rushes back, including warmed flesh tones and appealing primaries. Costume design adores using a multitude of fabrics.
Shot on a trio of digital cameras, the movie offers a slight hint of noise. Skylines like to buzz and scenes in darkness tend to involve similar artifacts. Shots during the naval battle are particularly prone to problems, likely due to the CGI side of things. Otherwise, images come across clear with minimal fault.
This is a fun DTS-HD 7.1 track, laced with energy during action scenes with a few standouts. Foot soldier battle scenes happen while covered with music or narration. Expect few clashing swords when in their midst. The key scenes are expected: The naval battle and chariot race.
The former excels by keeping ocean water constantly in the soundfield, contextualizing the near first-person take on the scene. Wood creaks and groans against the ocean, while drums hammer in the background. An eventual crash locks into the low-end with satisfying power, and the use of available channels to sell the space is sublime. Directionality scatters, and rightfully so.
Come time for the iconic scene, chariots audibly travel through the soundfield, special attention given to the horses whose steps hit nicely in the sub. A lively crowd swells to pour from each channel, making the most of the 7.1 staging. Accuracy is exquisite.
Outside of this action, Ben-Hur stays sonically sedate, capturing a few thunderstorms or parties. Some arrow slinging pans around to some effect.
The Legacy dips into the story’s origins of Lew Wallace’s novel, interesting stuff as Wallace’s work tends to be overshadowed by the 1959 film. In terms of bonuses, The Legacy is the most honest here. Producers have too much time to talk up the remake everywhere else. The Epic Cast comes pre-explained by its title, and A Tale for Hour Time speaks of the approach in tackling such a project. The Chariot Race details the efforts to physically bring this scene to life.
Seven deleted scenes follow, along with music videos. In total, features add up to around an hour.
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