It looks like the Ben Hur remake is on its way to surpassing Waterworld as the box office bomb against which all box office bombs are measured. What went wrong? Don’t know. There are enough bad reviews, as well as word of mouth, that suggest it’s not worth paying top ticket price to see. Not that critics always shape box office results, but a movie that is a remake of one of the most successful, celebrated and iconic movies of all time panned by critics, will no doubt have an impact.
My guess is? It’s OK to remake movies. Sometimes the remakes end up being better and more celebrated than the originals (see 1959’s Ben Hur for an example). But if you do a remake, you need to do something with it. There needs to be a reason. You do something different, bold, big. Or you take the original and turn it on its head. Something. The 59 remake capitalized on the sweeping epic, wide screen, full color sound movie that the silent version obviously didn’t have. And it had Heston, who had emerged as the towering superstar of American pride and power that many saw in the 1950s.
What did this do? Morgan Freeman in dreadlocks? A digitally enhanced chariot race? What could the race scene hope to accomplish? The 59 chariot race is considered one of the greatest sequences ever filmed. How do you match that? You don’t. You do something different. You take it in a different direction. You say, “This is why we did the remake – and it isn’t just because Hollywood has run out of new ideas.” Unfortunately this, like so many modern remakes, seems to say nothing else.
As an extra aside, I notice that many reviews and stories about its tanking ask what happened to the religious movie goers. Apparently some thought because they focused on the Jesus story, religious movie goers would flock to the multiplexes. And yet, apparently, they didn’t. Every time a religiously themed movie comes out, the press acts as if the religious movie goers will snap to it and go to the movies just because some religious movie has been made.
Why? Because it was rumored to be telling the Jesus story from a traditional, pre-modern, non-liberal point of view. No affairs with Mary Magdalene. No fantasizing about gay sex with the Apostle John. Just the traditional Jesus story one would have found in Sunday School or old religious art. And the result of this news? The Passion was compared to Triumph of the Will, scholars and pundits declared that the Gospels were racist, Nazi propaganda. Some in Israel called for it to be banned, while some in America tried to pressure theaters to not show it (what liberals in the olden days used to call censorship). And again, all of this well before the movie was even in the can.
So seeing their faith called evil Nazi racism, seeing people want a movie about their faith banned, and being told, by extension, they belong in the same category as a Nuremberg rally unless they denounce this movie, had a strange impact. Funny thing about people. They don’t like being told they are evil Nazis, and that their most cherished beliefs deserve to be eradicated from popular culture.
If Hollywood wants another super smash religious movie, perhaps it would do well to make sure there is a backlash and threats of censorship . Who knows? It worked once.