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A Failure of Biblical Proportions

Why ‘Ben-Hur’ tanked at the box office, and otherwise

Paramount
Paramount

“You’ve done enough. Now pray.”

That’s a harsh bit of wisdom shared early in the new remake of Ben-Hur. It’d be unworthy of mention but for uncannily doubling as advice to the filmmakers themselves: You’ve released the movie. Now pray. Ben-Hur hasn’t been doing so well. Since opening Friday, it’s taken in $11.4 million domestically — far less than what Suicide Squad, a supposed box office misfire (but not really), earned this weekend, and that movie is in its third week. Blockbuster season-wise, Suicide Squad is old news. It’s dominating anyway. Come to think of it, Ben-Hur’s $11.4 mil is even less than what the faith-based surprise hit War Room made when it killed Straight Outta Compton’s winning streak last year, over Labor Day weekend. And War Room was made for $3 million. That’s literally 3 percent of what Ben-Hur, also a faith-based movie, cost to make. It’s an even smaller fraction of the budget of other recent biblical epic-fails, movies like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

That’s embarrassing news for somebody. Not for you or me, or Jesus for that matter. But somebody. So far as the rest of us are concerned, it’s static. It’s been a summer full of flops and box office records. By now, we’re desensitized. And yet the conversation about a movie like Ben-Hur still hinges almost entirely on money, a dry subject on a wet day.

That’s a problem, one almost bad enough to make you wish Jared Leto were in the movie. Ben-Hur is a riches-to-rags revenge story about a guy who loses, of all things, his money, and as if by a fate preordained, all there is to say about the movie itself is that it’s losing some guys a bunch of money. That’s partially the filmmakers’ fault. Timur Bekmambetov, the director, has given us a Ben-Hur that’s doggedly indistinct, a blandly televisual readaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. There’s little to say about it as a piece of filmmaking, and there’s not much to say for the script, which, despite the occasional side-eye at the ruthlessness of occupiers, is dutifully free of any incendiary or political or even spiritual subtext. There’s even nothing to drool over: no fun or distinctive costumes or sets to reblog on Tumblr, no #OnePerfectShot panoramas, no stars, no star-making beach bodies. Morgan Freeman notwithstanding, the cast, led by Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, is almost entirely composed of unmemorable semi-knowns. And the supposed high points of the story — the climactic chariot race or Jesus offering a forlorn Ben-Hur water to drink — don’t bear mentioning.

This new version may be a biblical epic, but it’s one made in the spirit of the smaller, faith-based movies of today. It’s as tasteful as it is dull, pared down and simple, an epic premised on its own aesthetic chastity. Compare this to the ravishing excesses of the Ben-Hur of 1959 (the famous version) for a fuller sense of what’s missing. Compare it, point by point, to the golden glisten of Charlton Heston or to the awesome sweep of its immersive 65mm images.

Don’t actually do that — it isn’t fair — but glean the lessons of the comparison, regardless. Ben-Hur (1959) is a movie from the era of both biblical epics (The Robe, Quo Vadis?) and sword-and-sandal extravaganzas (Spartacus, even Cleopatra). One genre derives from the Bible and the other from every bit of political history surrounding it, but both are indebted to studio power and, relatedly, studio magic. The 1959 Ben-Hur is a faith-based feature, to be sure, but it’s a Hollywood spectacle above all: its aim is to be larger than life, and its images marvel at their own power to induce our sympathetic amazement. What better way to light up the faithful than with pure entertainment?

Today, awe at the power of big-budget spectacle is the apparent station of superhero movies and science fiction — not biblical epics. That’s possibly because, for the secular among us, the new biblical epics simply aren’t as enticing as the current strain of sword-and-dagger movies, on the one hand — your Gladiators, your 300s — and your typical special-effects marvel, on the other. Questions of faith have crept into spectacles as far-flung from biblical epics as 2012, Interstellar, and Man of Steel; more importantly, those films and others have occasionally wrought penetrating, provocative images out of that faith. There is not a single shot in this new Ben-Hur, nor Ridley Scott’s Exodus before it, as lively or moving as Zack Snyder’s depictions of Superman in flight or Christopher Nolan’s creep into a black hole. There wasn’t a lack of opportunity: Scott’s film ostensibly had 10 plagues to work with, and Ben-Hur has that famous chariot race.

The fact is, the older era of Bible-based epic was premised on cinematic priorities that have lately been dispersed amongst every kind of blockbuster. Those older movies were about faith: in God, yes, but also in movies. There’s little to match that now. The new Ben-Hur is proof. It’s a movie that has inspired talk about everything except what made it a movie — because unlike its namesakes, it barely tries to be a movie. Very rarely does it try to impress us, or overwhelm us, shock us, move us. That’s too bad for us. And it’s too bad for movies.