Ben-Hur is a retelling of the story of Judah Ben-Hur (this time played by Jack Huston), prince of Jerusalem. It actually opens with a tease of the climactic chariot race, with he and Messala (Toby Kebbell) talking a bit of trash to each other right before the start. The film then cuts back to years ago, when the two were the best of friends. In this version of the story, the Roman Messala is an adoptive brother to Judah, and once saved his life after an accident. He leaves to join the Roman army, and later returns a decorated soldier working directly under Pontius Pilate. He and Judah become enemies when Judah and his family are falsely accused of sedition.
Apart from Judah never traveling it to Rome, the film pretty much plays out in essentially the same way. John Ridley’s script puts much more emphasis on the bond between Judah and Messala, the film playing up the betrayal in the buildup to their final confrontation at the Circus. In doing so, the film attempts to build a message around the emptiness of revenge, and the harm that comes from bloodlust. This film essentially chides people for enjoying violent entertainment, which is kind of a problem because this film is violent entertainment.
The paradox at the heart of this film is in its apparent disdain for the bloody spectacle of the Circus. And yet, there isn’t really much more to this film than that climax. This film starts in the Circus, and then spends most of its runtime trying to get back there. The whole film is basically sold on this chariot race, with even the closing credits weirdly designed to mimic the aesthetics of the event, with the names of the filmmakers charging down dusty turns. So much effort is clearly put into building this one sequence, into capturing the thrill and violence of an actual chariot race.
The film’s moral interjection would be a lot easier to swallow if the film so didn’t clearly want people to be awed by this sequence. It is somewhat impressive, no doubt, though it does suffer from what has come before. The visual effects don’t quite keep up at times, the computer-generated dust not quite as visceral as the real deal. There are other directorial touches that are a little more impressive. The whole sequence in the galleys is smartly shot, Judah’s captivity perfectly captured, just a small sliver of the daylight constantly out of reach.
But as a whole, the film just feels kind of confused. Its two sides are inherently incompatible. It clearly wants to be a big blockbuster spectacle, and draws people in with the promise of the crazy action of the climactic chariot race. But it also wants to be this thoughtful meditation of the limits of hate. The film is never able to integrate the two. The production values and the acting are certainly of a class that matches up with other tentpole releases, but it’s all in service of a story that feels wholly unclear about what it really wants.
Ben-Hur is unlikely to unseat the 1959 film as the definitive version of this tale. It just doesn’t feel right, the movie too beholden to sensibilities that just don’t work with the story’s peaceful themes. Something is lost in the translation to epic action movie, some measure of heart and thoughtfulness that made the other film so classic. It isn’t even a terrible film when all is said and done. It just feels totally confused and misguided, like the characters at the start of this story.