Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ben-Hur (2016)

rating: ***

the story: A contemporary of Jesus has a major problem with his adopted brother.

what it's all about: Hard to believe that Ben-Hur, in general, has traditionally been one of America's favorite stories.  A Civil War general wrote the original book, which was one of the most successful books in American history, and Charlton Heston starred in the famous 1959 movie adaptation, which was one of the most successful movies in American history.  Then someone decided to make another movie of it, and that was released in 2016, was not one of the most successful movies in American history.  It was kind of a massive flop.  In hindsight it's really easy to tell why: you may have noticed the massive cultural gap that's developed in the last few decades, that's only gotten wider in recent years.  No doubt Hollywood saw the modest success of religious films like God's Not Dead, and thought they could get another Passion of the Christ blockbuster hit with another Ben-Hur, because after all, the massive success of two previous iterations...But that just wasn't the case.  The God crowd is leery of blockbusters, and the art crowd is leery of God.  So: a massive flop.

Does the movie really deserve it?  Hardly.  I mean, the biggest star in the movie is Morgan Freeman, who puts in a supporting role, which means the lead goes to relative unknown Jack Huston, the latest spinoff of the Huston family that's been featured in Hollywood throughout its history.  This is his big break; he has nothing much to compare his work in Ben-Hur against.  The guy playing his brother has no shot at all of being or becoming a name from a movie like this, and so it's really completely on the movie itself to sell its merits, and you don't realize how often you judge movies on the talent involved rather than on the movie itself until you contend with a movie like this, which seems like it should be a big deal but already doesn't have much to go by.  So there's that.

But again, the story itself, which demonstrably has considerable pedigree.  The most famous element of the story is the showdown between Ben-Hur and his adopted brother in a chariot race.  Critics who bashed the movie claimed the 2016 version doesn't measure up in this regard, that the race looks fake and therefore makes the whole endeavor pointless.  But the thing is, it really is pretty cool.  I have yet to see the 1959 version.  I somehow doubt it really measures up to 2017 standards, much less 2016 (standards always advance in an evolving craft like filmmaking).  The thing is, the chariot race is clearly what inspired the podrace in Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  And the thing is, George Lucas seems to have been inspired by Ben-Hur with the whole Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Think about it.  At one point, Ben-Hur tracks down his mother, whom he was forced to leave behind years ago.  This same element can be found in Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones, when Anakin Skywalker memorably seeks his mother, whom he finds tortured near to death by the Sand People.  The trilogy rounds out with Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin clashes with his metaphorical brother, Obi-Wan Kenobi, just as Ben-Hur must clash with his metaphorical brother.  This is no coincidence.  Hollywood picked up on Lucas's allusion right away; the year after The Phantom Menace was released, the so-called "sword and sandal" genre was memorably resurrected with Gladiator, another ode to the days of the Roman Empire. 

So in a lot of ways, Ben-Hur in 2016 was bringing things full circle, finally giving modern audiences another look at rich source material.  Actually, the God elements are the least convincing of the movie, and seem to have been written with one particular audience in mind anyway.  Depending on your ability to look past them, you don't even have to worry about them.  The rest of the material stands up on its own, even if today it feels more like a curiosity than a vital piece of the culture.

But the thing is, you don't even have to look at it as a Star Wars thing or a God thing, but as a Civil War general's attempt to reconcile, well, the Civil War, and the America that existed at that time, a period of social strife, when slaves were being freed and struggling to find their place in society again.  Slavery is key to the imagery of Ben-Hur in any context; the galley sequences are clearly evocative of slave ships, since they're an image the author conjured out of thin air, as he presented them.  The 2016 movie is actually less about the God elements and more about attempting to unite diverging segments of the population, which makes it all the more ironic that the filmmakers decided to include divisive God elements and not particularly artfully, because they were only going to make the intended results impossible.

But all this still means this movie is fascinating, something worth thinking about, watching to see how well it really succeeds, how well it speaks to the past, present, and future.  It's ambitious, and usually ambitious these days means superheroes or aliens, not a chariot race.  It's certainly a movie I'll be returning to in the years ahead.  I'm still not sure what to think about it myself, whether it succeeds on its own merits or merely the rich thoughts it provokes, and everything it evokes.  I think it's pretty good.  But, I'll have plenty of opportunities to find out for sure.  I think it deserves that much.