Ben-Hur (2016) Review

This has nothing to do with the movie, but I’ve been listening to the hell out of this bitchin’ song:

Oh my God. I had a feeling this was going to be bad, walked into it expecting to be bad. It did turn out to be bad. But, I mean, wow, this went bad in ways I just did not expect. It’s just simply baffling, to the point of laughter. I’m not sure what to think of it, but by the time I’m done with this review, I think I’ll know.

So the film opens with the chariot race about to start, with Judah and Messala showing their disdain for one another, then jumps back 8 years, to another horse race. Guess the film already knows what the audience wants.

“We want to see the bitchin’ chariot race!”
“Hold your horses, you’ll eventually see it.”

Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are a bit different than their portrayal in the 1959 epic. Especially Messala. Unlike the 50s film, it really starts with Judah and Messala together, having fun racing, being fun young competitive men, really giving you a feel for their friendship. It’s honestly not a bad start to the film, giving a different feel and portrayal, showing the characters at a different point in time. It also portrays Judah’s mother as a bit of a bitch.

Anyway, Messala eventually answers his inner calling to Rome, driven by the need to do something with his life outside of living with the family who adopted him, and living under his Roman grandfather’s shadow. Not sure how he would know about his grandfather if he was raised an orphan, but I’ll go along with it.

From there on, the film bounces back and forth between Messala on the battlefield, and Judah just doing his usual rich peaceful boring shit. But in all seriousness, Judah’s love interest is confronted and confessed, and him and Esther get engaged quite quickly compared to the 50s film. In fact, I don’t think they ever got married in the 50s film. Not to say they weren’t going to, but things happened more slowly and naturally in that film. Here, things just get rushed through quickly to squeeze as much as possible in the 2 1/2 hour runtime.

I expected this, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating. Fast-paced films can work, but that doesn’t mean they have to sacrifice atmosphere and suspense to do so. The introduction to Judah and Messala is fine, Esther’s relationship to Judah was non-existent until he rode out to propose to her, and Jesus just shows up out of the blue. I don’t mean he just popped out of Mary’s honey pot and instantly became a full-grown man and was all like, “Hey, hatred sucks, but Winnie the Pooh doesn’t!” Remember in the 50’s film how the Romans talked about some unexplainable supernatural presence in the land, how some messiah was talking about peace and love, and how dangerous that is, and how to defeat it? Remember how it never showed Jesus’ face? Yeah, forget about all that, because there’s no build up. Not only does he show up to give Judah water in one of his lesser desperate moments (he was just starting get escorted out of the city) as opposed to the 50s film where Judah was dying of thirst after who knows how many number of hours walking in the desert and felt he was at the end of his rope, but he shows up face and all. No hiding him at all. He looks like a normal dude. And for some reason we are to believe this normal mortal bland faced dude is enough to intimidate a Roman guard into letting Judah have some water, and completely halting all traffic in the process. You see, this is the problem with letting the viewer see Jesus’ face, there’s no mystery to it anymore. If he’s to look all holy-like, or have something about him that makes the Roman’s stop acting like assholes for a moment, you either need a damn good actor or some special effect around him (make his fucking face or eyes glow for God’s sake!). So, no build up, no holy-looking actor, big mistake that weakened the movie.

There’s other pacing problems that have nothing to do with Jesus that are in the movie, but I’ll just leave it at that. There’s much else to talk about.

So, Massala is fighting battles and gaining fame within the Roman ranks, and Judah is getting married, meeting Jesus, trying to keep the peace, and dealing with zealots. Massala is dealing with the conflict of sacrificing his noble peaceful ideals for the sake of Roman glory and fame, Judah is dealing with the conflict of staying peaceful and aloof, even at the expense of knowing the growing conflict between the Romans and local zealots. His wife Esther, on the other hand, gets involved with them. And this part is what irritates me and pisses me off the more I think about it. You’ll see why as the film goes on. Anyway, she and the other Roman killing zealots are telling Judas he can’t keep out of this, he has to get involved one way or another and help them take down the Romans. He can’t just stay coddled up in his high rich status. There is no other way but violence. The only thing he does is patch up a wounded zealot’s wounds, because he wants to make sure everyone lives, no deaths, on either side.

After Massala and Judah meet again, tell of their experiences, and all that other stuff. Oh, did I mention that Messala has a crush on Judah’s sister Naomi? And she feels the same way about Massala? And their bitch-tits mother (or in one case bitch-tits Judah) gets in the way whenever they try to have an intimate moment or conversation? Hey, it’s ok, it’s not incest, they’re not related by blood. If they were, this would have to be made in Japan or something. Keep that in mind for later (that they have a crush on each other, not that they should be Japanese).

So the same stuff pretty much transpires from there as from the 50s movie, up until the Romans start marching through the town with their leader (I think it was Pilate in this case, unlike the 50s film). Now, in the original, one of Judah’s family members accidentally dislodges a weak tile from their roof which falls near the Roman leader which nearly gets him killed, which causes the Romans to break in and arrest them all. In this movie, that’s not quite what happens. Instead, that asshole zealot Judah was nursing back to health steals one of Judah’s bows and arrows (kinda wish we saw Judah using those earlier, him and/or Messala, would’ve been less random that he had one of those and made Messala’s realization more obvious), and tries to assassinate the leader, but kills some other nameless Roman instead. Judah decides to let the zealot escape for some stupid fucking reason (I mean, I know he’s a passionate pacifist and all, but it’s still a stupid fucking reason). So of course Massala is angry at him, justifiably at this point I might add, but under pressure from the other Romans, not only arrests Judah, but his bitch-tits mother (and let’s face it, he probably enjoyed doing that) and his love interest Naomi. Wait, what? Ok, I know this makes him the asshole that he was in the earlier films, but seriously, what the fuck? It takes a lot to just do that to someone you love who did nothing wrong who you have no reason to dislike. Seriously, they either needed to make him more conflicted about it, or make him have less of an involvement with that. I mean, it just doesn’t fit in with his character portrayal at this point.

And speaking of not fitting in, Romans are Italians. Don’t you wish that they spoke like Mario? I mean, when the assassination happens, there should’ve been dialogue like this:
“Mamamia, our leader almosta gotta assassah-nated! Make a pizza pie-a and arresta the asshola ina there!”

And speaking of changes made from the 50’s film, if they are going to make changes, they could’ve changed the whole ship slavery thing. Because, historically-speaking, Roman’s didn’t have slaves rowing their ships, they just had Roman soldiers. It doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise, doesn’t it?

“Row to live! Stop rowing, and you all die!”
“But we’re in a lifetime of enslavement with no hope of getting out, and our life is hell, and you treat us like shit. Why should we row?”
“I’ll whip the shit out of you if you don’t!”
*crack*
“Ow! Alright alright. We’ll just make sure the ship gets decimated in the next battle, or send it crashing among the rocks.”

Anyway, this is the part where I thought the film would do better than the 50’s version. Because if the 50’s Ben-Hur had any weakness at all, it’s that the fleet battle sequence looks dated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still entertaining, and the amount of work and effort they put into the ship models is admirable, but it still doesn’t look all that great with the wide battle shots. So, is it better? Well, it has a different perspective to it, which in all honesty isn’t that bad of an idea. They keep the action within the confines of the ship, where all the slaves are rowing, with the occasional glimpse of the outside. Arrows fly in and get someone off and on, hot oil gets poured in, people get lit on fire, we see ships get rammed, we see blood get spilled from above, oars get knocked loose and whack some of the rowers into the head, seeing some people and objects fly around upon impact. I admire the perspective limitation, because less can be more. But the execution could’ve been done a lot better. Even with the more limited perspective, they still CG the hell out of just about everything. Plus the close shots and the shakey cam and some quick cuts made it difficult to tell what was going on some of the time. At one point, I couldn’t tell if Judah got hit with an oar, or with the drum barrel that flew off from impact. Plus, the pacing. The battle just happens with practically no buildup.

There was a moment I found quite interesting near the end of this battle sequence, some potential that could’ve been used effectively, but isn’t. When pretty much all the Romans on the ship are killed, Judah rallies everyone to row to freedom. It’s a brief but inspiring moment, which makes me think this is alluding to his leadership and charisma, which would foreshadow some moment later on that has a payoff to this moment. Nope. It just happens in this one scene, and his leadership traits are never to be seen again.

And, as I feared from watching the trailer, there is no Quintus Arrius. No Quintus Arius? Well then how does Judah get off the ship? How does he get pardoned for his crimes? How could be possibly participate in the chariot races? How does he get experience and skilled enough to be a worthy competitor in the chariot race? Morgan Freeman, that’s how.

morgan freeman pimp

In all seriousness, this takes away a lot of meat from the 50’s film. This was a plot change that made the movie destined to be inferior to the 50’s movie. Here’s why: the relationship between Judas and Arius was part of a core message that film delivered. How your enemies can become your friends, how they can become like family. Not to mention the great character arc and development moments that are just nailed so perfectly in that film. It all was setup just to see how far Judah was going with his hatred, and how it evolved into a hatred for Rome as a whole, which caused him to cast aside his relationship with Arius, a truly shocking moment that sent an impactful message as to just how damaging hate can truly be, and how it mirrored Judah with Messala, who was ultimately consumed with and destroyed by hatred, and Judah was moving towards the same fate, and acting just like those zealots who improved nothing.

And, I’m sorry to say, Morgan Dreadlocks Freeman is a piss-poor substitute for that. In fact, he doesn’t really contribute much to any message like that at all, much less develop a father-son relationship with Judah. “I wanna be rich, you want revenge, we can both humiliate Rome, let’s do it!” I mean, granted, he does a little something at the end that I guess is meaningful, but it’s just out of character and laughable. I’ll get to that later.

Anyway, Judah meets Freeman, becomes a chariot racer, and gets involved in the big chariot race, all within the span of a few weeks. In the older film, he had 3 years to get good at it. In this movie, it’s 3 weeks.

bullshit

But before the race, he reunites with his wife Esther, who has become a disciple of Jesus (apparently close enough of a disciple to be there when Jesus gets arrested in the forest prior to his crucifixion, which happens later on). And then Judah has a secret meeting with Massala, beats him up, tries to kill him, but runs off when the Romans show up, somehow escapes from them and gets back to Camp Dreadlocks, Esther shows up, and they sleep together (no, the sex scene isn’t shown, that’s asking for too much apparently), and then Esther talks about love and peace and how Judah must forget Massala and live with her and move on with his life. Soon after this, Esther finds out about Judah attacking Massala, which resulted in the Romans killing a bunch of Jews, and then she gets pissed at Judah saying something equivalent to, “Look what you’ve done! You should’ve listened to me and never attacked him, now you suck and I don’t want to be around you!” and then walks off.

Now, I want you to analyze that last paragraph for a moment, ignoring any run-on sentences or some other fancy English teacher bullshit bitching. Notice anything strange about what I described about the order of events? That’s right, Esther told Judah to forget about Massala, only think of her and peace and love, and got pissed at him for doing otherwise, all after Judah had done what she told him not to do after he already did it. You could say she would’ve been angry regardless, but I say it was an editing error because they didn’t know how else to fit those and other scenes in without being more awkward in the order that the final version went in. So Esther comes off slightly as a goody too-shoes bitch, like Patrick Swayze’s bitch girlfriend in Roadhouse.

“He was trying to kill me, I had to rip his throat out!”
“How dare you defend yourself! Fuck you! I’m leaving you you heartless bastard!”

What makes me irritated by her even more is when she visits Massala and they have a back and forth speech.
“Make love (not in the homo way or we’ll have to stone you), not war.”
“Yeah, like anyone believes I’m going to listen to this self-righteous bullshit at this point in the movie, especially when the beginning of the film shows we’re going to still hate each other and race.”
*scoffs and walks off*

Now, what irritates me about her during this whole part of the movie is that it’s a change from how she was at the beginning of the movie. Sweet and innocent, until she goes with the zealots and is all Kill Kill Kill! Die Die Die! Slight exaggeration. I mean, I naturally dislike self-righteous goody-too-shoes who can do or say no wrong in general in movies, but it gets on my tits even more when they just transition from zealot/rebel loving/supporting for violence to the self-righteous state instantaneously without any progression towards that state on-screen. If the film showed her progressing in that way, it would’ve helped a bit. At least in the older film Esther is shown listening to one of Jesus’ sermons before getting scriptural on Judah. Not showing any progression to that state unintentionally makes her come off as being like an asshole.

But anyway, so then the chariot race sequence. Now, whether you watched the trailer or not, did any of you really believe this was going to be superior to the older film’s chariot sequence, much less on-par? Well, this is going to surprise the hell out of you, it actually is! This racing sequence not only blows the original out of the water, but it will go down as one of the greatest racing sequences of all time…

I’m just busting your balls and hymens, of course this fucking race is inferior to the older film’s! First, it pretty much starts with little build up, not giving much of a chance for atmosphere to set in, as opposed to the original where no music was playing which allowed the horse trotting neighing and anticipation of Pilate to let the handkerchief drop preluding to the start and the running. Here, it just happens, with less than half the build-up the original had. There are a couple tense moments here and there, but the quick cutting combined with the CGI and implementation of music (as opposed to the lack thereof from the 50’s version) prevented me from getting drawn into it.

But then, something unexpected happened that caught me completely off-guard. Unintentional hilarity. I shit you not, I started to crack up at this one scene in the middle of the chariot race. This guy stands up after his chariot crashes, turns around, and screams as Judah’s chariot swiftly approaches and crashes into him. Judah is stunned for a moment, looks behind him expecting to see a mutilated corpse, but that’s not what happens. Instead, he turns back, looks down, and there the guy is, holding onto his chariot, staring up at him, and still screaming his lungs out with that over-the-top facial expression. I fucking lost it. I just had to laugh at that bit. Oh my God, I wanted more of that. More unintentionally ridiculous stuff like that would’ve redeemed the movie for me. I should’ve been careful for what I wished for. Keep that in mind.

So the chariot race more or less ends the way the older films ended, but in a more overdramatic fashion that I would almost say was not to the film’s benefit. But then a moment comes that took me by surprise again, and not in a “this is hilarious!” or “this is stupid!” sort of way. It’s a legitimately good emotional moment. You see, up to the race, Esther is encouraging both Judah and Messala not to race or destruction will happen. It comes to fruition by way of seeing Judah’s horse destroyed and crippled from an impact near the end of the race. Holy shit. That’s actually a pretty good way to deliver that message, winning the race, but at a terrible cost, making the race not worth it in the end. I mean, of course there’s Messala, with the message being that vengeance and hatred will bring no satisfaction, but this part is actually a pretty good addition to the story that the original didn’t have. I’ll give it kudos for that moment.

But, man oh man, does the film go downhill fast from that point. Actually, that would be understating things. It didn’t go downhill, it fell from whatever fragile raft cloud was keeping it up in the air, got a jetpack forcefully attached to it in mid-air, and then got blasted downwards even faster until it impacted the ground in an explosion that is every bit as marvelous to look at as it is disappointing and laughable.

They changed the ending from the older film.

I shit you not.

Alright, let me put in a warm-up paragraph before you read what happens for the climax (if you don’t already know what happens next). So, yeah, Jesus is still around. He gets captured and crucified, Esther and Judah follow him, go all boo-hoo, and Judah has a change of heart. The thing that’s missing from this equation is Judah’s mother and sister. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that he found them earlier in the movie before the chariot race, they have leprosy just like the older films, and his mother’s bitch factor got multiplied during that time. So if Judah and Esther didn’t come to take them to see Jesus, and if they’re still in some prison-like place, what the hell happens with them?

Oh, what happens with them is just part of what makes this ending unbelievably stupid and hilarious. So, on his way to the crucifixion, Jesus makes some speeches, straight quotes from the Bible. They needed a better actor to deliver those lines. But anyway, when he dies, it rains, and when it rains when Jesus dies, people with leprosy get healed. The water seeps into the room Judah’s mother and sister are being held in. The bitch-factor the mother has disappears, Mr. Dreadlocks grows a conscience and comes to pay for the mother and sister’s release (again, way out of character), Judah realizes hatred has been consuming him up to this point, and then he goes to the Roman barracks to see Messala, who is still alive, and has had his right leg hacked off at the knee. Sort of like what they wanted to do in the older films, except they didn’t, and he was in a much more fucked up condition in those. Here, he’s not that bad, but he’s still angry at Judah and threatens to get better and stab him with his sword. But Judah makes some half-assed Jesus speech, goes in to hug him, and then Messala stabs Judah in the heart and then he dies. The End.

No, I’m just kidding, he embraces Judah and drops his sword. Then they reunite with the rest of the family, and go off on a journey with Mr. Dreadlocks. So, yeah, no hard feelings for having them imprisoned and stricken with leprosy apparently. God’s tears do wonders. But when the end credits roll, music plays that does not fit this film at all. In case you’re wondering, this is what plays:

It fits about as well with the rest of the film as the fucking music for the trailers for The Birth of a Nation, and Assassin’s Creed. Fuck music today. If you’re going to put in music that doesn’t fit with the movie, at least make it music that I enjoy.  I demand that this be played over the end credits:

This movie is fucking stupid! It’s as if some fan fiction writer got a hold of the script and rewrote the last act of the film before they filmed it. Either that or some pussyfooters demanded changes to it to make it stand out from the older films. The whole ending brings up the message about how hatred is bad, but delivers it in a less impactful way than the older films. Granted, there’s less preachiness during the climax overall, which is something that sort of bugged me about the 50’s movie, but the cons very much outweigh the pros here. I was laughing, facepalming, and then laughing some more.

Make no mistake, the flaws are heavy in this film, and it is practically inferior in every way to the much more deservedly famous 50’s film, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some unintentional entertainment from it. The last third is unintentionally hilarious. Depending on my mood, the film’s rating can range anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 stars. If Rifftrax does a recording for this film, I’m buying that ASAP. I’m giving it the 1 1/2 star rating because, in all honesty, this shouldn’t be seen in theaters. It doesn’t deserve your money. But when it comes out on video, get a group of friends together, chug a few beers down, and you’ll have a ball laughing at this movie, during the last 3rd anyway. If only the earlier bits could be just as unintentionally hilarious. Well, maybe if you feel like laughing at Jesus.

Rating: 2/5

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