I just came from the theater having seen "Ben-Hur" tonight, and I found it to be much better than the reviews (the film has a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this review). Read on to find out why this film is not that bad.
First things first, if you're not familiar with "Ben-Hur", this is a movie that is based on a historical fiction novel that incorporates the crucifixion of Jesus into its tale. The main story is a completely fictitious tale that focuses on a pair of brothers, one a Jewish prince, the other an adopted brother who joins the Roman Imperial army. The plot circles around the dramatic sibling rivalry that unfolds between these two family members, and the various episodes that the family goes through as a result of events related to that rivalry. None of that story has any biblical basis whatsoever-- but peppered throughout the story the family has run ins with Jesus, and ultimately he is crucified about the same time as the climax of the film, and (tiny spoiler coming up here.......) the crucifixion ultimately inspires reconciliation amongst the two brothers.
Again, this is all based on a novel. The story is what it is, and is drawn from a work of fiction that was quite popular as a book before it ever became a popular film. That book was first made into a silent film in the 1920's, and then was turned into the classic Charlton Heston movie in 1956, for which the latter won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Having said all that, this 2016 film is the latest attempt at bringing the book to the silver screen, and I myself found it to do its job quite well. One can make what they will of whether or not they like the book or the plot of the movie--there's certainly much that could be said about that. The book's subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and so it obviously is written for and marketed to a Christian audience, and the overall message is overtly Christian oriented. Obviously one's faith perspective will therefore influence what one makes of this film, and even if one is a Christian there's nevertheless room for criticism of whether one may or may not like the plot of the film.
I personally am reviewing the movie less for whether or not I liked its message or its plot, and more so as to whether it was a well made film. Based purely on that criteria, I'm giving this movie 8/10 stars. I've seen the Charlton Heston version some years ago, and I liked it okay--but not being familiar with the story at the time, I found that movie a bit hard to follow. The 1956 version was great for its time, but compared to modern movies it pales in comparison in the storytelling department. This 2016 remake does much better in that regard, and I found the story easy to keep up with--and it also arguably does a better job of expressing its religious message, since the tiny bits of the film that feature Jesus early on in the script are more overt in this movie than the Charlton Heston film.
I also found the film to be well made overall, with good acting and extremely well done special effects and appropriate costume design.
Now, let's talk about the chariot race. The truth of the matter is that the 1956 version of this film was significant just as much because of the chariot race as anything to do with its religious message. Sure, "Ben-Hur" is an overtly Christian movie--but nothing like the chariot race scene had ever been done in film making at that point. That scene set the standard for modern movie making for a generation to come. So how does the suspense and drama of the 2016 film stand up to the 1956 chariot race? Well, obviously we live in a different day and age today, and as such the effects of the race could easily be reduced to just another dramatic CGI effects scene akin to a great many movies even in the ancient genre--"300" and "Noah" come to mind.
Still, I found the chariot race scene to be very well done, and done in a way that was both period appropriate but also made for modern audiences. Indeed, there's a bit of gore involved here-- albeit "gore" may not be the right word. The scene is far from a Tarantino movie, but there's definitely some intense moments in the course of the race, with several wrecks and both humans and animals left for dead along the way. But, in my view, it told the story it had to tell quite well.
All in all, I'm giving this movie 8/10 stars. Just as was the case with the Heston version of this movie, I think that there are better stories out there and better movies to watch, even in the intentionally Christian genre. Still, this is far from a bad movie. It's well made, has good acting, and the religious element certainly is presented in a way that exhibits a redemptive theology as opposed to the more negative portrayal of Christian theology that films sometimes embrace. Indeed, I would have to say that I found this to be the more enjoyable of the two films--Heston's chariot race notwithstanding. I'd say most people can find something to appreciate here unless you're just overtly against all things Christianity. And even then, you still should see this movie, or the 1956 version, simply due to its place in popular culture over the course of the last 100 years or so.
So, yeah. Very good movie. 8/10 stars.
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