Timur Bekmambetov's BEN-HUR
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
I guess after Day Watch and Wanted I was expecting something a bit more unconventional from Bekmambetov. Instead, this Ben-Hur plays out more like a very high quality European production for a distributor like HBO than its 1959 predecessor.
That's not necessarily bad. I enjoyed the movie. Other than Morgan Freeman, though, the actors in this movie and the personalities they project are pretty conventional.
The CGI here is wonderful and almost indistinguishable from reality. What the movie lacks is size and scope. Cityscapes are spectacular. But the 1959 film, despite its dependence on traditional matte paintings and live stunts, provides a much bigger impression of the ancient world. When they talked about "casts of thousands" back then, they meant it. Nowadays we see crowds and know that many are software.
Should that matter? I think so. In the 1959 film we had huge vistas and larger than life acting. Most telling for me is the comparison of the sea battle in this film with the old version. The old version just provides a bigger and more extensive sense of the slaves toiling away as they rowed at "ramming speed." Here there are more closeups and annoying "shaky cam" sequences. And despite the older film's obvious use of models in the sea battle there was a much better sense of immediacy and terror provided by the cutting and mixing of shipboard with outside views.
When the inevitable ship-to-ship crash comes here the action becomes disorienting and difficult to follow. In the old version the pacing of the panic and escapes was much easier to follow -- you knew which end was up and where the escape route was.
Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the film and it looks great. The chariot race is terrific. But I think that the editing of the storyline has been a bit too draconian. Jesus of Nazareth has more lines here but his presence and impact in the earlier film was much more central. This Ben-Hur's relationship to the women in his life is not at all well drawn as it was in the original film, and this I attribute to a desire to keep the runtime down.
But if you need a sword and sandal epic to satisfy your craving, this Ben-Hur should be at the top of your list.
Review copyright (c) 2016 by Dennis D. McDonald