On paper, making another version of Ben-Hur is a really stupid idea. Though an adaptation of a novel, it will inevitably be overshadowed by the powerhouse of the 1959 version, winner of 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was the most ambitious spectacle epic of its time, and in modern cinema a sword-and-sandals flick just isn’t going to get the same kind of attention, either critically or from a general audience. But here’s the thing: even though this new version of Ben-Hur absolutely does not approach the classic status of its most famous predecessor, it is a well-crafted and engaging film in its own right, primarily because it does everything in its power to avoid direct comparison.
The emphasis on events is very different in this telling of the story. Rather than painting Judah Ben-Hur as a pure-blooded protagonist fighting against the injustices of his evil, adoptive brother, this version takes great pains to develop Judah’s and Messala’s kinship, only to have Messala betray his family for what he believes to be a greater good in the dominion of the Roman Empire. Judah is also given an appropriate tweak, staunchly against the Jewish rebellion that he is derided for not participating in, yet grudgingly hospitable in treating wounded rebels who cross his path. This creates a narrative rich in moral complexity, where we not only see Judah come to grips with his brother’s betrayal and seek vengeance, but also see Messala come to grips with his decisions and ultimately embrace a philosophy he knows to be wrong.
The film continually finds ways to tweak the narrative in order to keep seasoned viewers on their toes, purposely changing minor story elements from the 1959 version in ways that subvert expectations without impacting the broader strokes of the plot. In committing to a retelling of a classic tale, it’s a brilliant tactic, especially because screenwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley recognize when and what to change, such as how exactly Judah comes to be imprisoned and just what sort of role Sheik Ilderim will play in Judah’s quest. Casual viewers have little to fear, though, as these changes aren’t so heavily telegraphed that someone unfamiliar with the classic would be lost.
What the casual viewer is more likely to enjoy are the action sequences, which aren’t mind-blowing in their execution, but do offer rich interpretations of the tale’s more spectacular events. Tar and fire play a prominent role in the below-decks naval warfare scene so as to cause a frantic tension, and the iconic chariot race has many new twists and turns that keep the spectacle engaging even though the outcome is predetermined. Occasionally the camera gets a bit too shaky for the frantic pacing and the CGI effects leave something to be desired, but overall the film comes out looking pretty good.
That isn’t to say, though, that the new Ben-Hur is without its issues. The aforementioned shaky camerawork finds its way into scenes of casual conversation, adding a disorienting effect to shots that would have fared much better were the camera not handheld. The screenplay is rife with exposition that is too on the nose, at times blatantly insulting the ability of the audience to follow the plotting. And, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: Jesus. He is a much more prominent figure in this telling of the story—presumably to appeal to faith-based audiences who might not otherwise have sprung for their theater ticket—but aside from Judah’s climactic turn from vengefulness to peace, the messiah doesn’t have a whole lot of relevance to the central narrative. At the very least, though, the film deserves credit for casting the character as a figure of peaceful resistance and forgiveness, rather than as a monolithic figure of righteousness and martyrdom.
Measuring the 2016 version of Ben-Hur against the legacy of the 1959 original is an exercise in futility, but this new version understands that well enough to avoid the conversation as much as possible—or at the very least make perfectly clear that this is an entirely different adaptation than the one it will inevitably be compared to. It has problems that hinder its own inherent greatness, but what good there is should not be overshadowed by unjust comparisons to an unattainable standard. As far as dumb ideas for remakes are concerned, this one turned out just fine.