The Big Question about the new version of “Ben-Hur,” hitting theaters on Friday, Aug. 19, is, “Should Catholics go see it?”
The answer: YES!
It is an intense and entertaining period-piece drama with engaging characters and enough thrills and action to make it a fun summer blockbuster with – and here’s a shocker – an uplifting, positive ending.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: to properly enjoy this film do not spend the entire time you are watching it, making mental comparisons to the blockbuster 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston as a Jewish nobleman wrongly accused, who becomes a galley slave and eventually returns to seek retribution in a chariot race against his rival and one-time friend (Stephen Boyd).
This is a new “Ben-Hur” for a new generation, and I promise the enjoyment will be seeing it with fresh eyes rather than weighing it down with memories from the past.
Now this can bring up another big questions such as “Why remake Ben-Hur?”
This query has many answers and I’m sure I don’t know them all, but there is an important one I do know, and it’s a bit of insight into Hollywood. When a studio makes a movie it is a very, very expensive gamble. Some movies make hundreds of millions of dollars, while many films don’t even earn back their budget, not to mention how much it costs to advertise them, distribute them … you get the idea. Part of the problem is the advertising. How can filmmakers get their movie to stand out and actually get people into movie theaters when there are so many choices?
Producers have realized that one way to improve the odds for their movie is to take a story that already has a following, a built-in audience of fans, or some kind of brand name that will encourage people to see it on the big screen. The name for this kind of content even has an industry name, “branded entertainment.” That is why we are seeing so many re-makes, sequels, and movies based on everything from books to board games. It’s the reason why almost every other film is from a comic book.
Therefore, it is no surprise that a studio like MGM would bring out “Ben-Hur,” one of its most famous, older titles for a new audience. Unfortunately, it is also no surprise that this causes people to compare the new one to the original.
Just to call out the elephant in the room, I’ve read other reviews and more than half of their comments are all about the comparisons.
This is a mistake. Let this movie stand on its own!
Here is what I did and what I highly recommend (understanding that the movie is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images, not for language or sex). Ask yourself, would this be an entertaining summer movie? Here is my checklist:
- Does it have interesting, engaging characters? CHECK
It’s the story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”), who is falsely accused and betrayed by his brother and best friend, Messala (Toby Kebbell) thereby losing everything he loves. That’s good tension, I’m in!
- Does it have a good story? CHECK
Ben-Hur struggles against all odds to survive in order to win his freedom, save his family, and get revenge. Well, those are pretty high stakes.
- Does it have strong drama or intense action? DOUBLE CHECK, it has BOTH!
Rivalry, intrigue, betrayal and revenge are all part of the drama and murder, war, sea battles, and chariot racing are part of the action. Definitely not boring!
- ADDED BONUS – it has AN UPLIFTING ENDING and a HOPEFUL MORAL MESSAGE.
Yep, this period piece, action drama actually has a positive theme that makes you feel good about life at the end.
*NOTE: This is far more than I can say for the films that where number 1 and 2 at Box Office last weekend. “Suicide Squad” features a paper-thin plot where the government tries to use bad guys to fight badder guys – so I guess, it’s message is fight evil with evil. Then, “Sausage Party” mocks all religion and ends with animated food items engaging in a XXX-rated free-for-all. If that sounds confusing, stupid and disgusting, you pretty much summed up the whole movie.
That being said, if these films can be big earners at the box office, then we should definitely celebrate “Ben-Hur,” which is a much better movie, is legitimately GREAT fun, and has far better values!
Will it become another immortal classic like the original? I leave that for you to judge.
But see “Ben-Hur.” It is a thrill ride with a timeless yet timely message, and it definitely hits all the check marks for good blockbuster entertainment!
Image: Courtesy Paramount/MGM