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.
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.
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.
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.
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.