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Christians sometimes cringe while watching so-called “Christian movies”: Despite their earnest messages, many such films rely on cheesy scripts, pointed cultural critiques, and unrealistic, bow-tied endings. At the other extreme, big-money, “biblical epic” blockbusters such as Noah and Exodus look much cooler, but are selling their own twisted messages.
The new Ben-Hur is neither. Like William Wyler’s 1959 Academy Award–winning classic Ben-Hur, the 2016 reboot by director Timur Bekmambetov is a big-budget production ($90 million) with flashy, action-filled scenes. Both movies are based on Lew Wallace’s best-selling 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which spawned various other film adaptations that never measured up to the 1959 motion picture. That’s why producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (The Bible) said they at first “questioned the wisdom” of remaking a beloved classic. The husband-and-wife team concluded it was a right choice, though, when they discovered that their own teenage children had never heard of Ben-Hur. Downey describes the modern remake of Ben-Hur as “a Trojan horse” of movies—an entertaining action-thriller that will draw a diverse audience but has Jesus at its core.
For the young’uns who have never watched Charlton Heston bounce in a chariot, here’s the synopsis: Judah Ben-Hur (British actor Jack Huston) is a Jerusalem prince who grows up racing horses with his best buddy and adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, also British). In one day, Judah loses everything—title, family, home—after Messala, now a Roman commander, betrays him. Messala condemns Judah to the cruel Roman slave galleys, but Judah eventually escapes by surviving a shipwreck. He then meets Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy Nubian who trains Judah to become a champion charioteer so he can seek revenge on Messala.
The 12-minute chariot race scene alone makes Ben-Hur worth watching in 3-D, though some sequences are not so appropriate for little kids: The race is fast-paced, gruesome, and deadly, a storm of sand and dust, mangled bodies, and broken horses (the movie is rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing images).
From riches to rags, rags to fame, Judah remains enslaved to bitterness and bloodthirstiness for his ex-brother. When his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), by then a follower of Jesus, points out that only his hate has kept him alive, Judah bursts out, “What else do I have?” He doesn’t come to terms with his spiritual chains until he stands before a nearly crucified Jesus and hears him utter, “My life—I give it of my own free will.”
Ben-Hur has certain flaws. Some might consider it nitpicking, but it bothered me that Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro, who did a lot of yoga and adopted a “cleansing” diet for the role) is a gorgeous Brazilian. Did the filmmakers not read Isaiah 53, which says Jesus had “no beauty that we should desire him”?
But the movie’s biggest weakness is its final scenes. The film does a fine job following the downfall of Judah from gregarious, carefree prince to embittered, battle-weary slave but fails to show that same attention to Judah’s redemption process. The conclusion feels rushed, as though a 20-minute section is crunched into a two-minute scene. That’s frustrating, because Hollywood already has enough films accurately depicting hatred and sin, but not enough decent films that flesh out what sanctification looks like.
Still, Ben-Hur does what all good movies should: It tells a relatable story that’s entertaining yet thought-provoking. Ben-Hur probably won’t convert the audience, but nobody will walk away bored.