You can’t top an Oscar winner that’s widely regarded to be one of the greatest biblical epics of all time, but that didn’t stop Paramount Pictures and director Timur Bekmambetov from bringing the beloved 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston back on the big screen in their $100 million blockbuster remake of the movie most remembered for its gripping and brutal chariot race. It doesn’t take the prophet Isaiah to tell us that it’s an ill-advised undertaking from the very start and whose doom at the box office is preordained.
The 2016 remake (they can call it “re-imagining” or “re-interpretation” all they want but it’s still a remake) re-tells the familiar story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jew from a wealthy family in Jerusalem, and his adoptive brother Messala Severus (Tony Kebbell), a Roman living under the ignominy of his grandfather being branded a traitor for his role in Julius Caesar’s assassination. When the latter stomped off to join the Roman army and returned years later to suppress Jewish rebels in revolt, Judah and his family were implicated in aiding and abetting the rebels and sold into slavery. Several years later, Judah miraculously survived his prolonged “death sentence” to seek vengeance against his once-beloved brother, culminating in a chariot race pitting the two against each other. Great Hollywood melodrama, right?
For all its efforts, this unwelcome 2016 remake falls short in matching the storytelling, grandeur and soul of the original. While competent enough in a purely technical sense, it nonetheless failed to contribute anything new or useful other than more contemporary film making techniques and better special effects. Its only bankable star is Morgan Freeman as a wealthy trader and businessman, and Jesus was included as an afterthought only to allow the film its claim to being a “biblical” movie. And what should have been the most exhilarating scene of the film, the much anticipated chariot race, seemed rather anti-climactic and lacked the intensity of the original’s. Overall, this exercise in futility is a half-baked and lackluster cash grab that deserved all the rejection it received at the box office during the final weekend of this summer blockbuster season.