HTS Moderator , Reviewer
HTS Overall Score:76
There are very few movies that are considered true “epics” anymore. “Ben-Hur” with Charleston Heston is one of the true greats amidst a sea of classics. There is a reason it is the film that made good old Chuck a household name too. “Ben-Hur” is a classic tale of love, hatred, vengeance and ultimately, forgiveness. The 1959 film was actually a remake of a classic 1925 silent picture of the same name (a great film in its own right) and has become one of the most beloved classics of all time, raking in award after award even after it’s time in the spotlight was done. I’ve watched the 1959 version so many times that I can almost quote it, so when I heard they were remaking it yet again you can bet your bottom dollar I was more than a little bit wary. Couple that with the fact that the cast was all unknowns (which isn’t always bad) and given a ridiculous $100 million budget, AND the initial trailer was so incredibly underwhelming that my nervousness became outright terror for the final product. As much as it tries, “Ben-Hur” 2016 is a shell of the first two films, and a box office embarrassment as well (not even making half of what was needed to break even).
Have you ever watched a movie that started out rather good but got progressively worse? That’s how this iteration of “Ben-Hur” was. The movie had gotten eviscerated critically and word of mouth was that it was a wretched film. However the first 40 minutes of the movie were actually rather decent. We get to meet Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a rich Jew living in Jerusalem under the rule of the Roman Empire, and his adopted and orphaned brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), a Roman child who was shamed by his father’s help in betraying Julius Caesar and subsequently adopted by the Hur family. Both grew up as inseparable as real brothers. Playing together, fighting with each other and even falling in love together. Messala is still haunted by his demons and shame though, and joins the Roman army. Years later he comes back a hardened soldier and acting as the honor guard for Pontias Pilate, who is coming to rule over Jerusalem personally. After one of the Jewish zealots tries to assassinate Pilate from the Hur’s household, Messala makes the decision to throw his adopted family under the bus and sentence them to death and Judah Ben-Hur to become a galley slave (a fate that was almost worse than death, and would eventually lead to said eternal slumber).
Judah is a survivor, and giving up is not in his blood. Fueled by pure hate and anger he makes it out of a battle zone by the skin of his teeth, even though all of his shipmates drown. Washing up on shore, he becomes the ward of an African racer name Ilderium (Morgan Freeman). With Ilderium’s help, Judah returns to Jerusalem only to find Messala as the poster boy for Rome and his entire family is presumed dead (although if you’ve seen the original 2 films you know that isn’t true). As much as he wants to get close to Messala, Judah has no way. That is, unless he can enter in the Roman chariot race that is about to happen and take out his vengeance in the no holds barred circus that is the race. A race that Messala is the undisputed champion of for several years running.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=86658[/img]As I said, “Ben-Hur” actually starts out pretty good. The first 40 minutes (ish) of the movie made me wonder if the critics had actually gotten it wrong. It wasn’t the greatest 40 minutes of my life, but easily 3.5/5 so far. However once Judah is picked up by Morgan Freeman sleep walking through is role as Ilderium things start to dip downhill. I know that each movie is meant to be judged on its own, but with a movie as powerful and highly regarded as the 1959 version, comparisons are a natural part of the game. Things start to deviate pretty heavily when we see Judah learning of his mother and sister’s fate much earlier (and not be Messala, one of the most twisted and powerful moments of the 1959 film) and the changes just keep coming. None of them good either. All of these made me start to downgrade the movie just a bit. By this time I was thinking a decent 3/5 for the film. It wasn’t going to win academy awards, but I was decently entertained.
Then came the chariot race. That’s really what we’ve all been waiting for and what was so iconic about the 1959 iteration. That chariot race was one of the best action scenes of the period and is still an incredibly powerful confrontation between the unforgiving Messala and Judah Ben-Hur. However here it is more of a visual spectacle without the emotional impact. Gone is the intensity and gone is the viciousness that made the Heston version so breathtaking (not to mention only like 15 minutes long, which leaves the viewer just a tad bit disappointed). All of this is slightly disappointing, but it’s the part AFTER the chariot race that just takes the movie and impales it on a spike, making me give it a 2/5 rating. I hesitate to actually DESCRIBE what goes on, but sufficed to say, the ending of the film absolutely guts the entire production. I’m not one to revel in dark endings, but this goes beyond syrupy sweet and insufferable to the point of utter nausea. It’s one of those endings that you actually start feeling sick to your stomach watching because it’s so sickeningly sweet and clichéd that your stomach feels like you’ve been eating cotton candy for the last 2 hours and it’s time to pay the piper. All of the impact and powerful emotional conflicts that came to a point in the original is just wiped clean with a horribly done set of scenes that makes you stare in absolute bewilderment. Messala is reduced to a simpering, sympathetic brat who just needed some sense smacked into him instead of being the one of the two “brothers” who loses himself completely to his own hatred. You know that fantastic scene in the 1959 film where Messala whispers the fate of Judah’s mother and sister to him? That is completely gone and replaced with a scene that is emotionally sterile, than made even more sterile and pointless in the final moments of the movie. I literally couldn’t believe it. I was staring at the screen wondering how things could have turned out so wrong so quickly.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=86666[/img]While the movie was not a rousing success, the 1080p AVC encode is just what you’d expect from a summer blockbuster. The 2.40:1 framed image is spectacular, with rich colors of the time period popping off the screen. Beautifully brocaded purple silk robes, the bright red of the Roman army’s uniforms, and the dusty browns of the Israeli locale all are wonderfully saturated and lovingly textured. The period piece clothing shows off amazing fine detailing, with the individual fibers and threads on the roughhewn garments showing up beautifully, and the shiny dark leather of the Roman’s contrasting against the rough stone architecture. Faces are all perfectly framed and in focus, giving off every beard hair drop of sweat that can be seen. Even the longer range shots show a great amount of detail to the naked eye and the artifacting on the disc is near nonexistent. Blacks are deep and inky, down to the very bowels of the galley that Judah Ben-Hur is on.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=86674[/img]The 7.1 DTS-HD MA experience on the disc is nothing short of awe inspiring, with a finely nuanced track that carries with it all the force of chariot race and the built up rage of Judah Ben-Hur himself. There is quite a bit of nuance and fine auditory detail in the opening scenes of the movie, with birds chirping off the side, the sound of horses hooves pounding away at the ground and the soft hiss of cloth over dirt stone floors all rendered perfectly audible to the ear. When the film gets exciting, so does the audio. The chariot race is full of the fury and power of 36 horses stampeding around a track amidst the howls and roars of the crowd. There is no shortage of LFE with multiple impacts and crushing blows delivering wallops of deep and clean bass to the listeners seating area. Surrounds are always fully active with ambient noises and the immersiveness of the race itself, while the sea battle in the center of the movie actually makes up one of the most three dimensional experiences of the whole 2 hours. Dialog is perfectly rendered, and balanced to a T with the rest of the mix. Simply put, an amazing track.
• Ben-Hur: The Legacy
• The Epic Cast
• A Tale for Our Times
• The Chariot Race
• Deleted & Extended Scenes
• Music Videos
“Ben-Hur” wasn’t going to be a great film like the 1959 sword and sandal epic, but it had some decent potential nonetheless. The first half of the movie is actually rather decent, and even the second half is quite palatable until the final 15 minutes. Then the train completely derails and burns the entire picture to the ground without hesitation or mercy. I wanted to like the film, and even was giving it more than its share of generosity when comparing it against its superbly superior predecessor, but that ending just sucked every ounce of goodwill I had for the movie out of my being and chucked it out the window. While the movie wasn’t great, it DID have fantastic audio and video specs, and the extras are pretty decent. While I never like to tell people what to watch and not to watch, I have to advise just skipping the 2016 film and going straight to the old Charleston Heston classic and giving that a spin instead. Just skip it.
Starring: Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack Huston
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Written by: Lew Wallace (Novel), Keith R. Clarke
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 7.1, French, Spanish, Portuguese DD 5.1
Runtime: 125 Minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: December 13th 2016
Buy Ben-Hur On Blu-ray at Amazon
Recommendation: Skip It
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