Where were you when you first saw the poster for the 2016 Ben-Hur remake? It had to be a memorable time, a surreal moment of realization, however indifferent, that Hollywood had lost its damn mind.
I think I was walking through the movie theater, and if memory serves I pulled a muscle in my neck doing a double take. Was that… Jack Huston? As Mr. Hur? Surely not, unless, was this new Ben-Hur set to be a gritty, low-budget indie remake of the 1959 William Wyler epic? Maybe that was the case. It’s really the only explanation for the lead role being occupied by an actor (and an impressive one, make no mistake) recognizable to less than 10% of the population, mostly as a supporting character he played on an HBO series that ended two years ago. Yeah, this Ben-Hur was surely going to be a bare-bones character study.
But that poster sure didn’t indicate as much.
Of course, nobody really thought this Ben-Hur was going to be a low-budget indie rehash of a massive biblical tale. It was definitely going to be an empty, soulless remake made for a King’s ransom that would wind up tying a big ungainly bow on one of the most mediocre summer movie seasons in recent memory. I had no interest in seeing this thing, and I could not for the life of me imagine anyone I knew, even remotely through friends of friends of acquaintances, who would waste their time seeing a product so obviously inferior to the original.
So yeah, I didn’t see Ben-Hur 2.0, but I didn’t need to to know it was a horrible idea and undoubtedly a thankless endeavor. Sometimes expectations turn into reality without having to fully experience said reality. Huston in the lead role was weird enough, but then there was Morgan Freeman – not really Se7en or Shawshank Morgan Freeman, more like High Crimes or Transcendence “I-Need-A-New-Beach-House” Morgan Freeman – in gray dreadlocks. Beyond that, there was not one marketable name attached to the project. The director? Timur Bekmambetov, of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Wanted fame. Again, the lack of marketable names isn’t an issue… when you’re making a small film.
What. The. Hell.
Look, all of these people deserve the best. They’ve made a name for themselves in Hollywood, more than what most can accomplish in their lives, and they’ve all turned in some good work. Huston has legit potential in the right role – he was haunting in Boardwalk Empire – and Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman. Even Bekmambetov’s breakout feature, Night Watch, is good stuff. But how on earth or any other celestial body in the galaxy could any of these people, not to mention the studios (Paramount and MGM shelled out hella cash for this thing) think this was going to be a success? It’s one of the more baffling decisions on which tinseltown has followed through, and the end result is now one of the definitive cautionary tales of big-studio misfires in cinematic history.
Ben-Hur brought in just a little over $11 million last weekend. In it’s first weekend. The budget JUST FOR MAKING THE THING was $100 million, and untold dozens of millions followed that on the marketing side. When all is said and done, this turd is expected to lose $100 million at the box office. Reviews weren’t the absolute worst, plenty of movies register under 29% (cough, Suicide Squad, cough), but this was more about the conception, the execution, and the very reason (or lack thereof) for its existence; and in the end the reviews didn’t help quell what so many millions of us already knew.
Heads will roll on this one. I’m sure more than one suit in So Cal has lost hours upon hours of sleep these last few days, but if they had the foresight so many millions of moviegoers had in the weeks and months leading up to this colossal failure last weekend, this all could have been avoided. Remaking Ben-Hur is a profoundly terrible idea in and of itself. What’s more, remaking a film beloved by so many with a cut-rate cast and a budget that appears to have gone mostly to craft services, then dumping it in the purgatory that is late August, is one of the most confounding series of events, so much so that trying to cobble together some Mad Libs style remake pitch and throwing “release date darts” at a calendar would end up making more sense.
To be fair (sorta), studio execs might have hoped for international box office and the “Christian Right” to recoup the budget. But that’s, quite frankly, an insult to Christians on rights or lefts or anywhere else, and a big “F You” to foreign audiences. You think these people couldn’t tell what a piece of shit this movie was going to be from the outset? It was more obvious than Rudy Giuliani’s upcoming November ballot.
When all is said and done, though, Ben-Hur won’t change things in Hollywood. They’ll still churn out ill-conceived remakes and sequels to movies nobody wants, and they will lose money too. Someone will probably get fired for thinking they were good ideas, even though at least a dozen people surrounding the poor bastard who’s now cleaning out his or her office should have sensed the impending disaster. Then again, perhaps – and this is such a stretch I can barely type it out – Ben-Hur will wind up being such a colossal failure, things will change.
What if this debacle has made some studio execs tuck that spec script for a Lawrence of Arabia reboot back in the bottom drawer of their desk, lock the drawer, and throw the key out of the open window of their Tesla as they speed down the 101? Maybe some cigar-chomping suit called McG and told him “let’s hold off on that Casablanca reimagining for the time being.” The head of Paramount might think twice when he hears Max Landis’s idea for a “millennial’s take” on Network.
The hydrogen-filled zeppelin that is Ben-Hur might have actually saved the world from Brett Ratner’s The Godfather.
But it’s doubtful.