Why the ‘Ben Hur’ Remake is Bad for Hollywood
Hollywood has been inundated with reboots and remakes in recent years. It’s a trend that’s proliferated with each successive blockbuster season, and the effects can be seen everywhere. Disney is raking in cash for live-action reworks of beloved animated films. Sony is bringing back the Ghostbusters for their first new movie in 27 years. Even classic Westerns like The Magnificent Seven are getting ushered into the modern age with reboot efforts. And just that group has sparked a fair share of controversy on its own, leading us to the most ill-advised project of the bunch: Ben Hur.
[Update, 7/25/16: Added new trailer (see below).]
Before we can even begin to dive into the remake, we first need to talk about the original. Ben Hur first released in 1959, and completely changed the game for the action genre. It hauled in 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Score, while featuring one of the most iconic scenes in cinema in its climactic, heart-pounding chariot race. For all intents and purposes, it resides within the pantheon of “Greatest Movies of All Time.” So why in the name of all that is holy is it being brought back from the grave for a reboot?
Thematically, reboots aren’t inherently bad. It can be exciting to see an old story told in a new way using modern technology, and often it can work beautifully when done the right way. The main goal of a reboot effort should always be to provide something that the original film either didn’t or couldn’t do. Sadly, that’s also frequently not the case in Hollywood. Studios are focused on the bottom line, and as such, their reboot motivations revolve around potential at the box office.
That leaves us with two possible reasons for reviving an old movie: financial or creative. Creatively, the original Ben Hur was an Oscar-winning masterpiece, still used in film classes today to teach structure within the action genre, eliminating the latter of those two reasons. Financially, it also doesn’t even crack Box Office Mojo’s Top 100 grossing movies (adjusted for inflation), ruling out the former as well. This leaves the only possible logic for a new Ben Hur as something along the lines of “this was a thing people liked or something, let’s do it again.” And while that’s frustrating in and of itself, it gets worse. So. Much. Worse.
The most infuriating part of all this isn’t simply that a piece of classic cinema is being retooled for a cash-grab (even if that is infuriating on its own). No, it’s the fact that Paramount isn’t even trying to pretend they’re making a good movie. Timur Bekmambetov of Wanted fame is in charge as director, while the screenwriting team includes a man who’s never actually written a feature film before, and the showrunner for 2005’s ill-fated Barbershop TV series. Casting-wise, it stars Morgan Freeman in dreadlocks and, past that, is decidedly thin on A-list talent. It’s a creative team thrown together on a shoestring budget to cut costs and put out a cheap, poorly-made blockbuster.
Ben Hur is just the beginning of what’s to come too. IMDb has a running list of upcoming reboots, both rumored and confirmed, and it’s a nightmarish hellscape of regurgitated ideas for movies that deserve to be left alone. All Quiet on the Western Front, the harrowing true-to-life 1930 film about the horrors of World War I, is getting a 2016 rework directed by a person most known for his work on Dante’s Peak. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the most-imitated classic film in history, is currently in line for its own reboot, with the latest rumors pointing to Goosebumps director Rob Letterman as the man at the helm.
The rabbit hole only goes deeper the more you scroll through IMDb’s list. We see rumors surrounding movies like Little Shop of Horrors, Highlander, The Birds, Akira, and tons more. All in all, it paints a grim picture for the future of Hollywood, showing us an industry that’s become so fixated on the moneymaking potential of nostalgic reboots, that soon, all we’ll be left with are the same movies from half a century ago. It’s one thing to cite arguments akin to “this reboot will ruin my childhood,” which for the most part are patently ridiculous. But when it comes to classic cinema, some things are meant to be left alone.
This circles us back to Ben Hur. The original 1959 version has been left alone for 50-plus years for a reason. Taking a classic film and sullying its legacy with a cash-grab blockbuster represents peak reboot fever. That fever will only continue to get worse if movies like Ben Hur make enough money to justify their existence. Just keep that in mind as more and more of these continue to get rolled out every summer, and if you make the right decision, perhaps we won’t have to deal with this problem for much longer.
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