The verdict is in on the remake of “Ben Hur” — it isn’t a hit. According to the Box Office Mojo website, after weeks in more than 3,000 theaters it has grossed around $25 million domestically. That sounds good until you consider the film cost more than $100 million to make and was heavily promoted with advertising that was expected to help bring in many more millions of dollars.
The film is better than its detractors claim, and the producers — two committed Christians — should be commended for pouring so much of their energy and talents into such a worthy project. So why did it fail? If I knew the answer to that question I would be writing this from the top floor of the black tower at Universal Studios. Some have suggested the new “Ben Hur” was too religious. The subtitle of the book is “A Tale of the Christ,” so that criticism doesn’t hold much water.
Others have suggested that people are too loyal to the Charlton Heston blockbuster version. I’m one of those who love the 1959 version of “Ben Hur,” but I realize I’m also kind of a cultural outlier, with tastes in film and TV that can run from “The Song of Bernadette” to “Breaking Bad.” “Ben Hur” starring Heston and Stephen Boyd was Good Friday tradition in our family. We would go to Good Friday liturgy, the stations and veneration of the cross, and then head home to watch “Ben Hur” and share a meal of linguini and clams during intermission.
The original “Ben Hur” (which wasn’t really the original because there had been a successful silent film version by MGM decades earlier) still holds up. Still, it is unfair to compare Charlton Heston’s 1959 performance with silent screen idol Ramon Navarro in the 1925 film, just as it is not helpful to contrast actor Jack Huston in the new “Ben Hur” with Heston.
The story has a great arc. There are two major action sequences (a huge naval battle and the epic chariot race) that have always called out to filmmakers like a couple of Greek sirens. The modern computer generated imaging (CGI) available to the producers of the new movie were spectacular, and had an almost video game appeal built into them. But then I thought, “Maybe that was a key to the film’s underperformance at the box office.”
As good as CGI has become — and it will only become better with every tick of the technology clock — there is something in the 1959 film that the new version just cannot give: reality. It’s kind of funny to be speaking of reality when we are considering a film where we have American, Irish and English actors portraying Jews, Romans and Arabs, but that’s Hollywood for you.
Though the epic sea battle created by a new generation of CGI artists in the latest “Ben Hur” outdistances itself from all other versions, when it comes to the chariot race (in whatever cinematic version of the story you want to look at) the CGI in the 2016 version detracts from the experience.
CGI lends a sense of the “unreal” to any film it exists in. In a science fiction movie that’s a bonus. But when we are looking at what our suspension of disbelief is telling us is first century Roman-dominated Palestine, that lack of “reality” becomes a problem. This is no more acutely obvious than in the new film’s chariot race. It is rapid and intense, but, in the end, just unreal enough to take the audience out of the “reality” of it.
There are no trick shots, other than mat-shots, in the 1959 chariot race. It’s real horses racing on a real track and, in many shots, even “real” actors driving the chariots. All these years later, the sequence remains captivating and an inspiration to modern day filmmakers. In this sense, the new version of “Ben Hur,” good as it may be, suffers from its own CGI success.
Some have also suggested that the failure of the 2016 “Ben Hur” may harken to the end of the biblically-themed epic or religiously-centered movies in general. It will … until the next religiously-themed or biblical epic film becomes a hit.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.