With religious films ensconced firmly in their own studio-made enclave it’s rare to find a movie with a marketing campaign so eager to please anyone and everyone. Yet Paramount’s epic – in both size and budget – remake of Ben-Hur seeks to do just that. The fourth adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a tonally confused goulash of Gladiator and 300, narratively and stylistically, until its final twenty minutes when the realization hits that audiences didn’t receive that “tale of the Christ.” Director Timur Bekmambetov’s direction never rises above the level of television, though it’s the only thing that is level considering 90% of the film has enough shaky-cam to make Paul Greengrass say “Seriously, stop!”

In the Jerusalem of 33 A.D., two brothers are at odds between religious and political ideologies. Sent to live as a galley slave after his adopted brother Messala’s (Toby Kebbell) betrayal, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) decides to best the man who wronged him by challenging him in a chariot race.

There’s a moment towards the end of the film where the crowd starts dancing with the body of a character presumed dead but actually unconscious. This image perfectly sums up the film: it’s a corpse whose appendages are jiggled by the director and screenwriter in hopes that some movement will distract you from the fact what you’re watching is a bloated carcass rotting in the sun.

Maybe that’s a tad harsh. With, admittedly, no previous versions of the story under my belt, I went off of hearsay and Hail, Caesar references prior to viewing the film. But even without this thorough background knowledge it’s difficult not to notice the grandiosity Bekmambetov confuses for nuance. The locations are sprawling and epic, but everything is slathered in the same washed out color palette. Scenes that should possess emotional resonance or are money shots for a big blockbuster – the boat scene in the trailer – are underacted or shot through small apertures because the budget didn’t allow for shooting wide shots. In the case of the boat battle in particular, this presumably massive battle on the sea has all the action of a Mario-Kart race on a 36″ TV.

Even the runtime is an unnecessary slog, with a rush of exposition presenting the familial dynamics between Judah’s family and Messala – Judah’s mom ain’t having Messala lust after her daughter; Judah’s a good old boy who thinks Messala is too serious – before grinding to a halt as Judah tries to negotiate some type of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk aka chubby Michael Shannon) Pride day. He instead ends up being sent to a ship, getting through the aforementioned battle unscathed with a six-pack and an Aquaman weave. With all that solved relatively quickly, the second half has to be all chariot race, right?

The chariot race sequence is where the Gladiator homage reaches a crescendo, with Morgan Freeman in pure IDGAF mode as Ilderim (this film’s Oliver Reed) training Judah. As with almost all of Ben-Hur’s relationships, Judah and Ilderim have little interaction or anything passing for friendship. There’s no proper explanation given for why Ilderim would take a chance on Judah, short of him being a good horse whisperer. And once the chariot race ends, Freeman’s check clears and he’s out.

The lack of character relationships damns what passes for romance or friendship, let along religious awe. Judah’s reaction to Christ’s crucifixion is only slightly more emotional than his moments with his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), because there’s actual reason for them to be.

Messala and Judah go on and on about having “different gods” while Messala bemoans his grandad’s reputation for killing Caesar (you know how it is!) Suffice it to say, the pair’s romance is more intense than Judah and Esther’s because there are more scenes. The script sees Esther as an impediment, and Boniadi is left to follow and wait for men in equal measure while speaking in an intense whisper or a strangled cry, depending on emotion.

The cast is decent, but the script – attributed to Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley – fails to achieve any pomposity or prestige short of the characters “squint[ing] at the grandeur” of Jesus himself (played by Rodrigo Santoro). No one has any motivation, so one can’t fault the actors for being wooden or over-the-top. Jack Huston, despite starting the film with reasons to cast him as a Disney prince, doesn’t have the authority and analytical intent of a Charlton Heston or a Ramon Novarro. He’s mired in looking concerned mainly, outside of the few scenes where he’s allowed to converse or be sensitive. Toby Kebbell is painted starkly in black and white, vacillating between the two throughout. His betrayal of Judah never has clear reasoning short of a required villain, and his final scenes negate everything that came before. (He does get a moment at the end that’ll make anyone who’s watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail laugh…unintentionally.)

Ben-Hur would have always had problems, but Bekmambetov ruins any conceivable good will with the cinematography – my disregards to Oliver Wood listed as the cinematographer. When the film school 101 techniques of Dutch angles and 360 shots are aced, the camera goes Go-Pro with POV shots on chariots and ships. This would be fine if they were coupled with more wide-shots of action. If you’re at all susceptible to motion sickness, this will not be a film for you. When Esther and Judah are reunited after his absence, their chemistry is absent largely because the damn camera is throwing up in front of them. Dialogue scenes look like they were filmed guerrilla style, with the camera seizing during quiet exchanges.

Everything from the rushed pacing to the last-minute conversion (literally) into religious parable is sub-par, leaving Ben-Hur as a Cliff’s Notes version of the previous adaptations. With so many sword and sandal films out there already having borrowed from those prior versions – and later sword and sandals movies having done better and further cannibalized here – this Ben-Hur stands as a snake eating its tail. Had the camera been steadier I’d have felt better giving it a slightly higher rating. Content-wise it isn’t the worst film of the year, but from a technical standpoint it certainly looks it.

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