What is the new Ben-Hur film trying to be?
Is it a revenge tale? A action movie? A love story? A tale of Christ? Or maybe a mixture of all these things?
I've watched the trailer several times trying to grasp what will make this movie stand out from the rest of the usual summer schlock that is coming out later this year, and I can say I've found nothing. The trailer itself is edited in a way that so many other bad trailers are, it really doesn't stand out and is quite forgettable (like most trailers these days, but, oh well).
However, I'm not going to pass judgement on the film before it's even out. Like some remakes (but definitely not all), it could recapture the spirit of the film that came before it, namely the 1959 version. As a huge fan of the 1959 film, I know what a daunting task the people who are making this film are undertaking. The book and the film are both highly regarded as two of the best works of art ever, and when I heard they were doing a remake for the film I was curious to see why. Sadly, a lot of remakes and sequels nowadays are just studios trying to capitalize off of a popular franchise, not giving a single thought to the actual quality of the film (*cough*Transformers*cough*). I looked up what the director of the film had to say about his film and this is what I found.
Forgiveness, Not Revenge
The main plot of the 1959 version is centered around revenge and its destructive tendencies. One of the best lines in the film is when Judah says, "God forgive me for seeking vengeance, but my path is set." However, after the death of Messala, Judah's thirst for justice is never quenched. His mother and sister are still deathly ill, and the past glories of his estate and namesake are just dust in the wind. It's only through the power of Christ, the mysterious paradox claiming to love your enemies, that Judah is overwhelmed with grace and is able to carry on with his life. For the new Ben-Hur, director Timur Bekmambetov has this to say when referencing the theme of revenge in the book.
"He wrote a story about a brother killing brother with a huge idea of forgiveness. It’s the only way we have to survive if we learn how to forgive each other. And the 1959 movie is a movie about revenge and power, which is a much more commercial concept. I totally understand. But I hope that we can find a connection with the audience."
It sounds like Bekmambetov is aiming at a more forgiving cast of characters in this film. I can only think that Judah's suffering will be greatly reduced the closer we get to the death of Messala, if Messala even dies in this film. Maybe the two characters will reconcile in a more forgiving way than they did in the 1959 version.
No Clear-cut Bad Guy
Messala and the Roman Empire in the 1959 version were both pretty evil. Almost every involvement with them in the movie is casting them as the oppressive conquers trying to break the Jews sense of resolve. Messala betrays his best friend and sentences his family to prison; he destroys a man's entire life with just a few orders. Another terrible thing about Messala is that he knows he's evil. Once Judah returns, Messala taunts him and tries to kill him in the arena, only then to taunt Judah again while Messala is on his deathbed. Bekmambetov says things will be different between the two characters in his film.
"The whole movie they love each other, and they are just forced by circumstances. There is no good brother and bad brother like there was in the 1959 version. We love them both, we understand them both."
This quote mystifies me since the trailer paints the new Messala in a pretty damning light. Then again, it's a terrible trailer, so the characters might be quite different than their 1959 counterparts. I am very interested to see what a understandable Messala would be like. Of course this means the writing would be the spot-on, so I hope John Ridley knows what he's doing.
Unique Shooting Style
One of the things that makes the 1959 version so amazing is its scope. Everything about that movie is epic. Just look at this poster:
The sets were enormous, there were thousands of extras, the time between cuts was long, the acting was dramatic, and that chariot scene... You can't beat that.
One of the things that bothered me and a lot of other people was the fear that this movie would use CGI to the extreme, replacing those amazing set-pieces in the 1959 version with odd-looking special effects. Upon viewing the trailer, I'm still skeptical about some of those classic scenes, but it looks like they're integrating practical effects and real locations into the movie.
"There is not one slow-motion shot in the movie. There are no tricky visual effect shots and flashy cuts. It’s not about being beautifully beautiful or stagey images, it’s like a drama."
It sounds like Bekmambetov is adopting the dramatic style that the 1959 version had when the characters were conversing with each other while simultaneously cutting back on the grand and lavish sets. He seems like he's really focusing on the characters and doesn't want anything to distract from that. But of course there are big action sequences in the film, most notably the chariot race. He talks about it next:
"And it’s crazy, because you’re asking them to be very fast like Formula One. You remember the images with the camera inside the Formula One? It’s very, very shaky and vibrating, and you cannot understand what’s happening because it’s so fast and so shaky. And also, there’s always stuff and debris smashing into your face because of the horses in front of you and the horses behind you, and you’re like in a stream of these creatures. It’s an interesting experience."
He goes on to elaborate on how much work went into filming that scene.
"And it will be a very unusual experience for the audience, I hope. And it’s crazy, it’s not CG. Everything is real: the horses and the actors, and the chariots, and even the size of the chariots is original."
It sounds like a lot of work went into filming such an iconic scene, and it's good to know that Bekmambetov is putting in so much effort.
Living Up To Its Name
The main challenge this movie faces is not doing better what the 1959 version did. It's finding the ground to stand on equal footing with the book and the 1959 version. A remake isn't about making a photocopy of the original and using CGI to do it. That's what terrible remakes consist of. I think remaking a film is telling a story in a new light or in a different way. It's about making a new experience with a different audience using characters and stories that people know. If Bekmambetov and his crew can pull that off successfully, the new Ben-Hur film will find its identity. Or it could turn into a madhouse.
Hopefully this has given you a better glimpse into what the new Ben-Hur film will be like. I admit it's mighty ambitious and the director and crew seem to know what they're doing. I for one know that it won't surpass the glory of the 1959 version in my book, but it'll be interesting to compare the two once it releases in August.