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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Ben-Hur movie review: it’s fine, everything is fine

Ben-Hur yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
It’s not great. It’s not terrible. It is bland manufactured entertainment product. It’s fine. Hollywood is not creatively bankrupt. Everything is fine.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s fine. Everything is fine. This new Ben-Hur is fine. It’s not great. It’s not terrible. It is a piece of bland manufactured entertainment product. It exists. It’s fine.

Competent actors deliver their lines in a professional manner. They are fine.
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It’s fine that major Hollywood studios that insist they are businesses first sunk $100 million into producing a movie that no one was demanding, and many more tens of millions in advertising and marketing trying to convince audiences they wanted to see it. Hollywood has its priorities straight. Hollywood knows what is best for us. It is far more important that a story about powerful white men squabbling over their own personal freedom two millennia ago — even while they fail to notice the institutional oppression all around them — get told on the big screen for a fourth time than audiences should be subjected to stories about nonwhite people and nonmale people battling the actual institutional oppression. That would be distressing and maybe even dangerous. So this is fine. As long as the stories of powerful white men continue to be told, that is what matters.

Magic Negro Morgan Freeman dispenses wise and helpful advice to a white man on a journey, again. Everything is fine.

Magic Negro Morgan Freeman dispenses wise and helpful advice to a white man on a journey, again. Everything is fine.tweet

It’s totally comfortable and not in the least bit unexpected for Our Hero, Judah Ben-Hur, Jewish prince of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, to say to his adopted sibling, Roman soldier Messala Severus, “You’re my brother, you’ll always be my brother” mere scenes before Judah is swearing vengeance and death to Messala after an act of betrayal. That’s called irony, which is an accepted storytelling conceit. It’s fine that this sort of construction is no longer actually ironic or surprising. No one watching wants to feel anything too strongly anyway.

Jack Huston (Hail, Caesar!, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as Judah and Toby Kebbell (Warcraft, Fantastic Four) as Messala are competent actors who deliver their lines in a professional manner. They exhibit the degree of handsomeness we have come to expect from people appearing on a big screen. They are fine. They are white men of European heritage, but they’re not, like, blond or anything, so they can pass as men of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean without being too unpleasantly ethnic. This is fine.

Smokin’ hot Rodrigo Santoro Jesus because religious fervor isn’t thwarted and redirected sexual desire or anything. Everything is fine.

Smokin’ hot Rodrigo Santoro Jesus because religious fervor isn’t thwarted and redirected sexual desire or anything. Everything is fine.tweet

Nazanin Boniadi (The Next Three Days, Iron Man) — as Esther, the Ben-Hur household maid whom Judah dares to love — and Ayelet Zurer (Man of Steel, Angels & Demons) — as Judah’s sister Naomi, whom Messala dares to love — are more exotic, because hubba hubba. They are fiiiiine. Anyway, it’s not as if the story is about them: they are mostly present only to suffer in order to motivate the men and make the men have all the feels, which is proper and fine.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Wanted) is fine. He clearly understood that the secret to getting the jobs with blockbuster budgets is dropping all pretense of personality or style in one’s work. I mean, his bonkers Russian vampire flicks Night Watch and Day Watch feature the coolest subtitles ever, but c’mon: subtitles? So the two big action sequences here — the Roman sea battle during which Judah, who has been five years a galley slave, escapes; and the bloodsport chariot race in which he finally confronts Messala — may be technically competent, but they are rote. We have literally seen them before. Even if you haven’t seen the 1959 Oscar Best Picture version of Ben-Hur, in which the chariot race was an action spectacular unlike any the big screen had ever seen before, you have definitely seen the pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which borrows heavily from it. Action spectaculars get served up regularly these days, and they are now mostly cinematic fast food. Bekmambetov here gives us an overcooked burger when we specifically asked for rare but there’s no point in sending it back when everyone else will be done with their food by the time you get a new burger. It’s fine. It’ll do. But it’s not very satisfying.

Ben-Hur is an overcooked burger when we specifically asked for rare but there’s no point in sending it back.
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Oh, and Bekmambetov will be fine. Never mind that his movie is the biggest flop of summer 2016. He’s probably already got his next directing gig lined up, and it probably has a budget of $150 million, so there. And it’ll likely be a sequel to a remake of a reboot. But Hollywood is not creatively bankrupt. It’s all fine.


yellow light 2.5 stars

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Ben-Hur (2016) | directed by Timur Bekmambetov
US/Can release: Aug 19 2016
UK/Ire release: Sep 07 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, injury detail, threat)

viewed in 3D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    How were you able to make this review both indifferent AND scathing, both a “meh” appreciation AND a withering takedown? It’s like that drawing that simultaneously depicts an old woman and a young woman, with exactly the same lines. Brava!

    http://www.reactiongifs.us/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/slow_clap_citizen_kane.gif

  • Jan_Willem

    Damning with faint praise is an art and you have mastered it. Cheers.

  • Nathan

    This review isn’t fine, not nearly as fine as this movie. So not fine.

  • What did think was fine about the film?

  • bronxbee

    the silent version of BenHur had the *more* spectacular chariot race because there really was very little “special effects” it was even more organic than the 1959 one…

  • RogerBW

    Look MaryAnn, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

    (That banner shot looks as though it’s been massaged and composited to put the maximum real-world separation between the expensive actor and anything that might cause him to break a sweat. Even as a still frame it looks safe.)

  • I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

    I’m drinking wine. Does that count? :-)

    the expensive actor

    Alas for him, I doubt Jack Huston is all that expensive.

  • Bluejay

    Look MaryAnn, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

    I see what you did there. :-)

  • RogerBW

    My dear fellow, I most certainly hope you would. :)

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