Ben-Hur online movie review - Mixed blessings.
The big question is, how does the 2016 version of "Ben-Hur" compare with its 1959 counterpart? To start with, the whole story is told in about the same duration as just Part One of the 1959 epic, so there are lots of plot and character reductions.
Totally missing is Quintus Arrius, who was central to both the sea battle and for setting up Judah Ben-Hur's subsequent bid for freedom and his chariot racing career via adoption into Roman society. Someone called Quintus does crop up in a very minor role, but is probably not the same person at all. Jesus Christ's appearances, although significant, are very limited, almost to the extent of making him anonymous, so non-believers will need to dust off their family Bibles to work out what he was all about, not that you'll find any reference to Ben-Hur in either the New or Old Testaments. Little is shown of the Hur household to suggest status; they come across as fairly ordinary people, sufficiently well-to-do to maintain a family of home-helps and the odd refugee, but they don't boast quite the opulence implied in the 1959 version. However, they obviously look after their roof tiles; in fact their DIY is so good that dodgy roofing doesn't need to be featured at all in the entry to Jerusalem "accident".
Typical of Twenty-First Century screen presentations, the plot commences with an exciting preview of the famous chariot race to get the audience's adrenalin rushing before settling down to tell the story that led up to it. Unexpectedly, more is actually shown and told of Judah's early relationship with Messala in the new version, also Judah's marriage to Esther is established early on, and Judah's mother has changed her name yet again (since the 2010 TV series). Sheik Ilderim does a very thorough job coaching Judah in the finer technicalities of chariot driving to the extent that his enthusiasm for tutoring overlaps into the race itself, nearly scuppering the whole exercise (visions of an uncontrollable football manager invading the touchline), not that Judah would have heard what was being shouted at him above the pandemonium because Bluetooth wasn't around that long ago. The chariot race of 2016 itself looks highly convincing as the cameras aren't obviously under-cranked to simulate greater speeds than the actors/stunt team were actually capable of achieving in the 1959 version without risking unnecessary casualties; also, modern CGI has done away with wobbly back-projection, and works to very good effect except for depicting the misadventures of a runaway horse. The naval scenes earlier in the story are shown almost entirely from below deck, so you can't see where the filming tank joins up with the scenic backdrop; frustratingly, during the battle you don't see much else, either. At the conclusion of the film there is an unexpected double happy-ending twist to the story ? a means perhaps of opening the door for at least one obligatory sequel, if not a lengthy franchise. Maybe by then the chariots will have grown wings, and Ben-Hur will be in conflict with the Son of Smaug.
The whole story whizzes along at a relentless pace, thanks to the camera being almost constantly mobile and hand-held, often very shakily regardless of the subject matter (never heard of Steadicam?), making the whole thing look as if it has been shot by an excited child who keeps looking back over his shoulder to seek his parents' approval instead of concentrating on what is actually being framed in the viewfinder. One can only surmise how vomit inducing this must look in an IMAX theatre. The high edit count makes the effort seem more like a salvage job than a work of art, and some horrendous jump cuts are employed to speed up the narrative. Worse, much of the film is shot in telescopic perspective, cramming the screen with close-ups as though intended to be shown on a small TV stuck in a corner of the living room instead of in the grandeur of a cinema. Even from the back of a standard auditorium this "blown-up" effect is very in-your-face, that doesn't allow the 3-D much depth opportunity except in the big action set pieces where it is given a rare chance to stretch out, and then it looks amazing.
There are few big names in the leading parts, avoiding the distraction of guessing who's playing who. The main characters are well drawn with the exception of Pontius Pilate who comes over even weaker and more stupid than he may have been (possibly miscast but actually played by a very competent and normally impressive actor, so his portrayal could have been intentional). Everyone appears very natural for the times and places depicted ? the men look suitably tanned and unkempt, although the principal protagonists do get a "Toni&Guy" makeover for their potentially terminal arena appearance; the women hardly come from a cat-walk background, yet are very charismatic. Much of the architecture is appropriately mundane except for public edifices. In contrast to the squeaky-clean Charlton Heston version, there is a true-to-life rawness here. Even the sun rarely seems to shine, and everything looks a lot greyer than in 1959 Technicolor, not that one is given much chance to admire the scenery. Has our air pollution really worsened so much in half a century?
It's quite likely that people with a modicum of perception would describe this "Ben-Hur" as interesting, rather than notable. 2016 youngsters will surely lap it up as a yet another tour de force of crash-bang-wallop entertainment, just as the kids of 1959 enjoyed their version for its sheer majesty, a cast to die for, and the way it drew its audience into the depths of the story ? and still does, many years later. Dare one surmise that by the time the current version gets issued on Blu-ray its cinema release will have been exiled into insignificance by the latest "must-see" attraction?