'Ben-Hur' is tepid and CGI-heavy

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Ben-Hur' stars Jack Huston as the Jewish prince in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, with Toby Kebbel as Judah's boyhood best friend. The chariot scene is heavy on the CGI effects, which, compared to the 1959 version, seems like cheating.

Philippe Antonello/Paramount Pictures/AP
'Ben-Hur' stars Jack Huston (l.) and Toby Kebbell (r.).

“Ben-Hur,” starring Jack Huston as the Jewish prince in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, is the latest incarnation of Lew Wallace’s classic melodrama – a warhorse, in more ways than one, of print, stage, and screen. I’m not sure we need another version, least of all this tepid 3-D extravaganza.

A general rule of thumb has emerged: Movies in 3-D almost always feature dimensionless people. “Ben-Hur” is a striking example of this rule. Despite all the strain and suffering, it’s difficult to get worked up about anybody.

Despite its gazillion Oscars, I was never the biggest fan of the 1959 William Wyler version starring Charlton Heston, but it did have that great chariot scene. The chariot scene in the new “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov with a lot of sound and fury signifying very little, is heavy on the CGI effects, which, compared to the Wyler version, seems like cheating. Nowadays you can do just about anything with computer-generated graphics, which, paradoxically, takes much of the magic out of the movies. I liked it better when I knew that the horses, the chariots, and the riders were all real all the time.

As Judah Ben-Hur – full names, please – Huston is serviceable, but he’s a finer actor than this costumed kitsch allow him to be. As Judah’s boyhood best friend and adoptive brother, Messala, against whom Judah will eventually square off in the Roman Circus, Toby Kebbell has even less to work with than Huston, and he bears a disconcerting resemblance to motivational guru Tony Robbins. Morgan Freeman lends his pearly tones and gravitas to the role of the Nubian sheikh who trains Judah for the chariot ride. Freeman made his big splash in movies in “Street Smart,” playing a vicious pimp. He’s come a long way, though not always as an actor. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.