Ben-Hur — the first reviews are in, and they’re not that good

Ben-Hur — the first reviews are in, and they’re not that good August 17, 2016

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At last, one day before it comes to the multiplex, the first reviews of Ben-Hur are here — and for the most part, they’re not that positive. Here’s a quick sampling.

One of the more appreciative reviews I’ve seen is this one by Jordan Hoffman @ The Guardian, who likes the changes the new film makes to the story:

Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakh director whose previous work includes Night Watch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is unafraid of implementing the sweeping changes that might make his Ben-Hur more palatable for current tastes. So out with the tiles, in with an arrow fired from an angry Zealot our hero Judah (Jack Huston) is reluctantly hiding in his compound.

Surprisingly, many of Bekmambetov’s updates work well. Important characters are removed (so long Quintus Arrius) and “stakes are raised,” as they say in screenwriting textbooks. Judah marries the servant girl Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) at the beginning of the picture this time and Messala (Toby Kebbell) gets a whole new backstory. . . .

The galley sequence is the best thing Bekmambetov has ever shot, and that includes all the discorporate lunacy in Night Watch. In the bowels of those ships we see, in addition to all sorts of innovative ways for people to die horrible deaths, Judah take charge of the situation and grow from a rich prince to a hero. This is something we didn’t get with Charlton Heston – that was a man born at “ramming speed”.

David Ehrlich @ IndieWIRE is mixed on the film but calls it “redeemably garish”:

But if this new “Ben-Hur” was only provided with a fraction of the potential that’s been afforded to its predecessors, it sometimes finds the strength to reach out and scrape against its frustratingly low ceiling. It may be a pale shadow of the previous films that have been adapted from the same story, but it follows in their grand tradition of using this saga about the bedrock of Western civilization as a spectacle to flaunt how far we’ve come. And, in some cases, how far we’ve fallen.

Most of the other reviews are pans of one sort or another.

For example, Owen Gleiberman @ Variety isn’t impressed by the writing or casting:

The 1959 “Ben-Hur” was directed, by William Wyler, with a kind of fake classicism, and that was part of its cardboard studio-system majesty. It didn’t need to be subtle; it worked as mythological machismo. But the new “Ben-Hur” tries to “humanize” everything, starting with Huston’s overly moist Judah, and the result is that this story seems a lot less human than it did 57 years ago. It’s become a chariot of mire.

Todd McCarthy @ The Hollywood Reporter says the movie “diminishes” the story:

What’s the point of making a cut-rate version of Ben-Hur? Of creating a chariot race so heavily digitized and over-edited that it’s the worst scene in the picture? Of casting lightweights in the leading roles? Of laying a wailing modern pop song over the end credits? Since its birth as a novel 136 years ago, Lew Wallace’s grand melodrama of a Jewish prince whose life intersects with that of Jesus under Roman rule in Judea has always been a Grand Event — as a best-selling book, a stage spectacle that toured for decades and two spectacular film blockbusters, silent and sound. Misguided, diminished and dismally done in every way, this late-summer afterthought will richly earn the distinction of becoming the first Ben-Hur in any form to flop.

Robert Abele @ The Wrap isn’t impressed by the film’s dramatic approach:

By that point, Bekmambetov’s graceless handling of actors furiously delivering their motivations — Kebbell’s volatility comes off a tad more interesting than Huston’s whispery earnestness — has been mostly wince-worthy, never more so than when Ben-Hur’s path crosses with that of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro). (Each offers the other a drink of water at their respective lowest points.) Where Wyler drew haunting power from keeping Jesus a faceless and voiceless figure, like a rumor of deliverance shadowing the hero’s moral struggle, here we get walking, talking son-of-God face time, and the effect is oddly diminishing, turning Jesus into a religious-movie animatronic, spouting greatest-hits scripture.

Stephen Whitty @ NJ.com objects to the film’s anachronisms:

There’s even a clumsy bit of politically correct lecturing when Ilderim tells Judah to stop complaining about his five years of slavery on a Roman galley, considering he enjoyed 20 years of riches before it happened; this spoiled rich kid doesn’t know what suffering is.

Really? A scolding lecture on white privilege, even in 33 A.D.? (More literal anachronisms include several characters – including a woman – wearing trousers, and Messala’s plea to Judah to speak to “opinion makers,” as if 1st century Jerusalem is holding a TED conference.)

Jonathan Pile @ Empire says the rewrite skews the character dynamics:

All this, in any ordinary situation, would be a bad thing, but Judah is so over-privileged and infuriatingly bland, you’re almost rooting for Messala at this point. He’s a man we’ve seen being belittled by his adopted mother, and who has refused to coast through life on his new family’s wealth, instead deciding to make something of himself in the Roman army. Then there’s that assassination attempt — in previous versions the catalyst for the arrests was tiles accidentally falling from the Ben-Hurs’ roof, and in that situation Messala’s overreaction is another layer to his villainy. Here Judah leaves him with little option but to act.

Matt Prigge @ Metro gives the film two “globes” out of five:

Despite going back to the Wallace source, this “Ben-Hur” has the same conceptual problem as the Charlton Heston version: Messala makes no sense. For that film, script doctor Gore Vidal slipped in some homoerotic subtext, wink-winkingly suggesting that Massala destroyed Judah because he had spurned his advances. Clarke and Ridley leave that out but never fill the narrative gap. And so Massala turns on the family that raised him, far as we can tell, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

Sr Rose Pacatte @ National Catholic Reporter objects to some of the costumes:

My one major issue with the film, as with all films dealing with Jesus, is the costuming of the Jews. Once again, care is given to the Romans, but the dress of the Ben-Hur family, certainly observant Jews, seems completely uninformed. I brought this up to costume designer Varvara Avdyushko, a frequent collaborator with Bekmambetov, and she told me: “No one knows what Jewish women wore at that time.”

That’s not really accurate.

And so on. You can find more reviews via Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Meanwhile, the studio has released three new 15-second TV spots:

Check out earlier trailers and other videos here:

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