If the Golden Age of Hollywood included such treasures as Citizen Kane (1941); Casablanca (1942) and the birth of film noir, and the Silver Age had the rise of the modern western and epics like The Ten Commandments (1956); Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), then surely we are now living in its Coal Age, because as natural minerals go, it’s all about recycling, and Hollywood has of late adopted a very ecological approach to filmmaking: Reuse, repeat, recycle. It wants the world to be a better place for it. Also, coal is black.
I say this because it’s true. Just this morning I sat through two-and-a-half minutes of Morgan Freeman in a frightful wig, guiding a young Judah Ben-Hur towards vengeful salvation. That is right, my dear reader. Ben-Hur, the first film to win eleven Academy Awards in 1960, is being remade. And by the looks of the trailer, they aren’t reusing any of the impressive sets that adorned the original picture. Perhaps the head of Paramount overlooked that little detail in his Ways to Recycle memo. Why would they reuse them, though, when all the sets can now be manufactured on a dime in a computer memory bank and look one-fifth as convincing?
They’ve also cast Jack Huston, a relative unknown, to play Judah (Charlton Heston, by comparison, had already starred in The Greatest Show On Earth, Pony Express, The Naked Jungle, The Ten Commandments and Touch Of Evil before strapping on his Ben-Hur sandals). Like last year’s remake of Point Break, it’s worth noting that shoving unknown male actors into high octane action parts will do no good for their careers and ours, as lifelong fans of the movies. Paramount would’ve honestly been better off casting Tom Cruise; at least his religious background would have provided some kind of dramatic friction.
Okay, so what did I take away from the trailer of the new Ben-Hur? It’s set in Ancient Rome. There’s a character called Messala (hey, Stephen Boyd played a Messala!). There are battleships filled with slave rowers; I have a feeling Judah will be one of them. There are sword-and-shield skirmishes. There is, as was with the original, a mighty chariot race, but this time horses and men alike are thrown yards into the air; Hollywood could only afford to roll a few stuntmen under the chariots in 1959. Morgan Freeman looks ridiculous in his get-up. And Jack Huston magically transforms from scraggly vagabond into a Jason Statham-like war hero just by trimming his matted hair. Oh yes, there’s also a shit tonne of CGI.
Now, I ask: How is this an improvement? Wait, scratch that. Why is Ben-Hur being remade? Why do films get remade in the first place?
To remake, by power of definition, is to also make better. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) deserves to be remade. Ben-Hur does not. To remake Ben-Hur is to remake Intolerance (1916), Casablanca and The Godfather (1972). It is a feat doomed to fail, because such movies are timeless and in no need of refurbishment, not least by a team of computer animators who have yet to figure out the equation that makes computer-generated imagery as real, concrete and tangible as actual practical sets.
It will still be a while before Ben-Hur reaches our cinemas, but I am already guarded. I fear the worst, because CGI and historical epics don’t go together. How can they? One tells the story of events that occurred centuries before the industrial revolution. The other employs techniques that are twenty years-old. There is an abyss of about two thousand years in which no CGI was ever used to tell someone a story. Now Hollywood can’t seem to tell us two lines without it.
I am not against CGI. I am against the gratuity of CGI. When it is used adroitly, as in The Lord Of The Rings movies and Gravity (2013), it enhances the drama and elevates its realism. But so many movies now rely entirely on it to deliver the goods. It is a cheap, easy solution. It cuts costs and makes production quicker. But it is almost always flat, distracting, and poorly conceived. Add to that a completely unnecessary remake of a classic and you’ve got yourself a Hollywood that seems devoid of all originality and commitment.
In a few years we may very well see remakes of Citizen Kane and The Godfather. That would be about the time to abandon ship.