Action Adventure

'Ben-Hur' Blu-ray Review: Although epic in scope, this remake is ultimately undone by its hastiness to cross the finish line

December 14, 2016Ben MK

The chariot race in 1959's Ben-Hur is and forever will be one of the most iconic sequences in the history of cinema. At the same time, however, it's easy to forget that there's a whole three-and-a-half-hour film structured around it — something that ends up being both a blessing and a curse for director Timur Bekmambetov's big-budget, Gladiator-style remake of the Charlton Heston classic.

The story begins in 33 A.D. Rome, at the starting gates of the climactic chariot race that pits Hebrew prince-turned-galley-slave Judah Ben-Hur (Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston) against his adoptive, Roman-born brother — now a centurion serving under Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) himself — Messala Severus (Fantastic Four's Toby Kebbell). But alas, this is only a brief taste of the action-packed spectacle to come, as the narrative quickly jumps backwards eight years, to a time when the relationship between Judah and Messala was very different.

Once brothers devoted to the well-being of one another, Judah and Messala see their bond begin to fracture after Messala departs Jerusalem to enlist in the Roman army. Eager to redeem his grandfather's tarnished name, Messala works his way up the ranks and returns to Jerusalem three years later; but this time, he has a favor to ask of Judah: to provide him with the names of those religious zealots who threaten to destabilize Rome's growing empire. When Judah refuses, and when a zealot makes an attempt on Pilate's life, Messala turns on his former family.

Writers Keith R. Clarke and 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley do a good job contemporizing Ben-Hur's narrative and setting up the characters, as well as laying the dramatic groundwork for the brothers' epic confrontation. However, the impact of their hard work is lessened by the film's concluding scenes, which cram in miracles and 180-degree attitude reversals — not to mention Jesus' arrest and crucifixion — into a matter of minutes, a consequence of the fact that this new Ben-Hur is a full hour-and-a-half shorter than the 57-year-old movie that inspired it.

Ben-Hur crosses the finish line onto Blu-ray with a strong and steady 1080p transfer. And while the film itself may not live up to the high expectations set forth by its predecessor, the picture quality on display here certainly does, with a color palette consisting primarily of earth tones accented by robust hues of crimson, gold and blue, bolstered by an eye-pleasing level of detail in everything from the robes and armor of the period costume design to the authentic looking Roman and Italian sets that comprise the lavish production design. Likewise, the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound mix delivers a convincing listening experience, whether it's quieter character moments or the epic sounds of thrashing waves, galloping horses, barbaric battles and cheering spectators.

Paramount's two-disc Blu-ray release includes an iTunes/UltraViolet digital copy, a DVD and the following Blu-ray extras:

  • Ben-Hur: The Legacy (10:37) - A look at the long-lasting legacy of Ben-Hur, from Lew Wallace's original 1880 novel, to the Broadway play, to the 1920s silent film and the 1959 epic, and, finally, 2016's modern retelling.
  • The Epic Cast (12:10) - The cast and the filmmakers speak about the casting of Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell as Messala, Morgan Freeman as Ilderim, Ayelet Zurer as Naomi, Sophie Black D'Elia as Tirzah, Nazanin Boniadi as Esther and Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus.
  • A Tale For Our Times (15:25) - A piece about what director Timur Bekmambetov brings to the movie, the cinematography, filming in Rome and Italy, and the production and costume design.
  • The Chariot Race (10:37) - A look at the making of the 2016 version of the chariot race, from the construction of the chariot arena and the design of the chariots, to the horses, the camera work and the visual effects.
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes (10:23) - Seven scenes ("Discussion," "Permission," "Goodbye," "Reunion," "Judah Spies on Messala," "Help Yourself" and "Life Worse Than Death").
  • Music Videos (13:22) - Three music videos ("'The Only Way Out' by Andra Day," "'Ceasefire' by For King and Country" and "'Back to You' by Mary Mary") and two brief making-of featurettes ("Behind the Scenes of 'The Only Way Out'" and "Behind the Scenes of 'Ceasefire'").

Ben-Hur is available from Paramount Home Entertainment as of December 13th, 2016. The Blu-ray features English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 5.1 Descriptive Audio tracks. The film is presented with English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. The total runtime is 2 Hrs. 5 Mins.

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this Blu-ray review were adapted from my original review of the theatrical release, published on August 19th, 2016.

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