Movie Review: “Ben Hur” (2016 version)

ben-hur-2016Let’s get this out of the way: this is not the same “Ben Hur” as was found in the wonderful version acted by Charlton Heston. In many key plot points and even some of the shared ideas, this is a different movie. I am reviewing this as a massive fan of the book (which I read annually) and the 1959 film. I went in with fairly low expectations, particularly regarding the poor early reviews. There will be some SPOILERS in the review that follows.

The plot summary that follows reveals some of the key changes from the previous film(s) and the book:

The basics of the plot are that Ben Hur is a Jewish prince whose adopted brother is a Roman, Messala. Messala goes to become a Roman soldier while Judah Ben Hur remains back in Jerusalem. When Messala returns, he wants Judah to help him track down zealot dissidents. Judah refuses, and when one of the dissidents attacks the new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Messala takes the whole Hur family into custody, sending Judah to the galleys as a slave. Judah escapes after a battle at sea and with the help of Sheik Ilderim, challenges Messala at a chariot race. He defeats his rival, disabling Messala for life. However, when he sees Jesus crucified and hears him call out forgiveness, Judah realizes his error and returns to Messala to ask for, give, and receive forgiveness. The two reunite and continue to live as brothers going forward.

Again, these are the plot basics and I don’t even touch there on the wonderful character of Esther or some of the other sub plots that occur in the film. For those familiar with the other versions, some of these plot points will be surprising. For me as a viewer, it was refreshing to see them not stick 100% to previously told versions. Some of these changes were for the better. Frankly, to show Messala and Judah reunite as brothers (though the adoptive brother spin was a bit much) at the end shows the forgiveness that is so central to the novel in a much better way.

However, some of the other changes were more difficult to swallow. For example, excising the story of Judah saving a Roman consul wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–it helps keep the pace going. But it also meant that there was little explanation for just how Judah became such a good chariot racer. Yes, he knew about horses before, but it is clear from the portrayal of conversations with Ilderim that he is a novice at chariot racing. How, then, does he suddenly defeat some of the best in the whole region of Judea? The film answers the question through tutelage from Ilderim, but it could have much more tidily and believably answered it by having Judah and Messala race chariots at the beginning of the film where they are portrayed racing on horseback. If he already knew about racing chariots, it would be much more believable. Small details like this are the main complaints I have with the plot. Overall, I think it did a great job capturing the spirit of the novel.

One of the other complaints with the film is the extensive use of CGI in some key scenes. Yes, the naval combat in the 1959 version has some dated elements, but it was awe inspiring to behold. Here, we have what is clearly an extended use of computer graphics rather than the epic way it has been filmed before. The chariot race was still pretty magnificent, but taking out the menacing teeth on Messala’s chariot and, again, using CGI to help flip the chariots around more cheapened it slightly. It was good; but not as good as the earlier version.

I liked that Esther had such a prominent role throughout the film, acting as a woman of faith and integrity throughout. Moreover, they showed women in the garden when Jesus was arrested, which almost certainly was the case given the number of female followers Jesus had. I also, as mentioned, enjoyed the strengthening of the Messala-Judah relationship. It helped show the them of forgiveness in a much more intentional way than was otherwise the case.

Frankly, it is this last aspect that I enjoyed most about the film- the wise use of various scenes to strengthen the worldview themes of the story in ways that didn’t bog down the film. It was so well-paced that I never felt bored or that something could have or should have been much shorter.

Overall, is it as good as the version with Charlton Heston? No. In my opinion, nothing could be that good. It’s my favorite movie ever. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. It has enough differences to make it interesting, and it is done so smartly that it warrants repeated viewings. As I said I went in with low expectations, and those were lowered by early reviews. However, I enjoyed it quite a bit and felt it was a worthy reimagining of the story. I recommend it highly.

The Good

+Uses many actors I haven’t seen anywhere else
+Wonderful themes poignantly told
+Very well-paced
+Capably retells the tale in a fresh way
+Good portrayal of women

The Bad

-Little explanation for how Ben Hur became so good at a chariot race
-Longtime fans of other versions may be disappointed by key omissions
-Over-reliance on CGI for some of the more epic scenes

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace– The post introducing this entire series on “Ben Hur.” It has links to all the posts in the series.

Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic– I look at the 1959 epic film from a worldview perspective. How does the movie reflect the deeply Christian worldview of the book?

SDG.

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Star Trek: TNG Season 7 “Lower Decks” and “Thine Own Self”

lower-decksI’m going through “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and reviewing every episode, complete with commentary and a grade from A-F. I’ve also included a score and comment from my wife, who has never seen the show before. There are SPOILERS for each episode below.

“Lower Decks”

Synopsis

The episode follows the story of a human ensign Sam Lavelle who is being considered for a new tactical slot alongside Bajoran ensign Sito Jaxa. As Riker and Troi look at evaluations and think on who might be the best fit, a civilian named Ben who works at Ten Forward learns and spreads gossip. Nurse Ogawa and a Vulcan, Taurik, begin to see there is more going on than just a crew evaluation. A Cardassian is on board and the Enterprise is working to get him back as a positive influence on Cardassians more generally. Ultimately, Picard sends Sito on the mission, but she is killed in the process. Worf mourns with the junior officers. (Fuller plot summary here.)

Commentary

“Lower Decks” is full of genius. First, the look the episode gives us at characters outside the bridge is phenomenal. Second, they used this perspective to increase the mystery quite well. Third, it builds suspense and mystery. Fourth, the main characters were utilized well.

Throughout this episode, it felt as though you as a viewer were sharing the perspective of those junior officers. It made the episode take on a very different “feel” from many others. Normally, we’d know right away exactly what is happening with the Cardassian on board. Here, however, the narrowed sphere of knowledge the junior officers has is our window into what’s happening, and it makes us have to think about what might be going on in a way that is so rarely the case in TNG.

Another astonishing thing about this episode is that it actually manages to introduce several new characters and develop them enough that I cared about them by the time it was over. Having the main characters interact with them helped, but they did a great job picking a diverse cast that played their roles well. Moreover, killing of Sito–yes, actually!–was a surprising move that made the episode even more emotionally impactful than it would have been otherwise.

Finally, the juxtaposition of poker games about halfway through the episode–that was an awesome scene. Well done all around.

Grade: A+ “A surprisingly deep look at life on the ‘other side’ of the Enterprise.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A “It was fun to have parallel lives, ensign edition.”

“Thine Own Self”

Synopsis

Data is sent to recover radioactive material from an inhabited planet it crashed on, but his memory is overloaded by an accident and he shows up in one of the local villages, with radioactive material in hand. As the locals interact with the radioactive material, they start getting sick. Data and Talur, the local scientist/healer work on trying to heal people while the village people blame Data for the illness. Ultimately, Data solves the problem and puts the cure in the well just before he is “killed.” He is rescued some days later by Riker and Crusher, but doesn’t remember what transpired.

Commentary

A certain kind of terror is evoked by this episode. It’s not the terror of a straight up horror story. Instead, it is the terror of, as a viewer, knowing something is desperately wrong, but realizing that no one can fix it. When we see Data carrying a box labeled “radioactive,” we know something is wrong. But then we learn that he has apparently lost his memories, and then people begin to open up the box and finger the radioactive contents, going so far as to make jewelry out of the contents… and we realize that we can only watch as people get sick.

Talur, the local scientist and healer, is skeptical of any notion that Data might be a demon, but ironically he becomes one, in a way, through the impact of the radioactive material on everyone. Indeed, there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-criticism of anyone who would throw out any notion of faith or spirituality, because Talur’s own skepticism is accompanied by basic misunderstandings of reality, including Aristotelian science.

All of this makes for a fascinating episode, but then we have Data somehow cure everyone, without a single loss. That simple solution takes away the force of the narrative and the impact it could have had. Moreover, Data doesn’t remember what happened or how. That makes the whole episode effectively a wash as far as impact on the world is concerned–though surely Data helped import some new inventions and scientific rigor. But imagine if he remembered how his mistakes had almost killed off an entire village through radiation poisoning! It would give the episode a completely different feeling at the end.

Grade: A- “An introspective episode that didn’t quite take its premise as far as it could have.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A- “It was kind of weird, but had many good moments.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: TNG– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.

One Sentence Book Review: “The Last Full Measure” by Jeff Shaara

The Last Full Measure by Jeff Shaara

Review

It was an engaging, thought-provoking, and historically-deep work on the end of the Civil War.

Links

One Sentence Book Reviews– Read more one sentence book reviews here. I’ve decided to do one for every book I read, which is a lot. I got started on 5/14/16 so this list will grow from there.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Share Your Idea for Star Trek Series- Along with my idea!

q-whoOn Facebook I mentioned how much I’ve been enjoying the “New Frontier” Star Trek series of books. They’re a fascinating look at different parts of the universe that don’t show up in the TV shows or movies. A friend came along and asked what my idea would be for a Star Trek Series (book or television). I decided to write up a brief blog post on it and share my idea with you. I’d love to hear your own ideas in the comments. Here’s my pitch:

I think a series that was set as a struggle against Borg expansion would be utterly fascinating. The Borg remain a kind of open-ended question in the Star Trek Universe. Imagine a series that followed, say, a Defiant Class ship (or maybe a bigger one so they could introduce more characters–but a class designed to combat Borg) as they tried to stamp out Borg incursions in Federation space.

They could also have some kind of modified Warp drive that allowed them to jump around faster and get to hot spots behind the borders or in other places, combating Borg attacks on planets outside the Federation. Some of these planets could be lost, while others would be saved by the crew of the ship.

I’d give them a super nerdy Borg expert–possibly Vulcan–as a science officer, a battle hardened captain (maybe ex-Borg), a first officer with a grudge, at least one Klingon, a Bajoran who has seen a lot of fighting with Cardassians, and more. Medical officer should be pretty unique too–more willing to do things that would combat the Borg.

Ethical dilemmas could be the name of the game–do they do things that would kill more Borg just for the sake of killing them? How do they choose which planets/people to save? etc.

One Sentence Book Review: “Hit Man” by Lawrence Block

Hit Man by Lawrence Block

Review

Grand Master Mystery Writer Lawrence Block delivered a slow-to-start, wry, intensely introspective novel about murder-for-hire.

Links

One Sentence Book Reviews– Read more one sentence book reviews here. I’ve decided to do one for every book I read, which is a lot. I got started on 5/14/16 so this list will grow from there.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Star Trek: TNG Season 7 “Homeward” and “Sub Rosa”

sub-rosa

This isn’t weird or anything.

I’m going through “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and reviewing every episode, complete with commentary and a grade from A-F. I’ve also included a score and comment from my wife, who has never seen the show before. There are SPOILERS for each episode below.

“Homeward”

Synopsis

Worf must work with his adoptive brother, Nikolai Rozhenko, to try to save a primitive people on a planet that is being destroyed. However, Nikolai has other plans than letting them die and instead forces Worf–and the crew of the Enterprise–to help him by simply beaming them on board.  He does so, however, in a carefully prepared holodeck deception such that he can prepare the people for transplanting to a new planet. One of the people discovers what has happened, but commits ritual suicide. Finally the rest of the group is transported to a new planet and Nikolai stays behind to help them adapt to the new planet.

Commentary

I wanted to like this one more than I did, but the plot holes were gaping. How do you transplant a whole people from one place to another–not just one place, but different planets–without major rehabilitation of how they live and breathe and move, etc.? How could the Enterprise really have so many difficulties maintaining the holodeck that it would start breaking down systems? How could Nikolai not be subject to any kind of discipline? I don’t know!

The interplay between Worf and Nikolai was pretty great. Basically all of Worf’s family from any species is amazing drama. It was great to see the brothers interacting and how that played out through the episode. It was really the interplay between these two that carried the episode and made me more willing to ignore the plot holes. Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but at least you get to see more dynamics of Worf’s family. The guy who played Nikolai did a great job selling his character and the backstory for him as well.

It’s not a terrible episode, it’s just very difficult to take the central premise seriously.

Grade: B “Intriguing character dynamics are marred by an unbelievable plot.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B “The premise was interesting, but the plot as many holes as a screen door.” 

“Sub Rosa”

Synopsis

Dr. Crusher returns to her home to bury her grandmother, when she meets her grandmother’s lover. Turns out he is a good age for Beverly as well, and he is extremely charming, so she begins to fall for him too. However, when Picard comes to visit, he asks questions of Crusher’s new lover, Ronin. As Ronin evades Picard’s inquiries, he casts a web around Crusher that tightens ever more, ultimately revealing he is non-corporeal himself. When he is threatened with exposure by Geordi and Data, he attacks, and Beverly vaporizes him.

Commentary

I feel like I experienced this plot elsewhere before. The work I’m thinking of is a Clive Barker novel, Galilee. I admit I only vaguely remember that one, but what I do remember is some kind of dude who seduces all the ladies in a family over time. Of course, this episode was aired four years before the publication of that novel, but I read the novel more recently than I saw this episode, so it felt strange to me. Also, I’m pretty sure this was one of the episodes that my parents ultimately banished my sister and I from watching as it aired back in the day, because it is creepy.

Anyway, this was a strange episode. It is one of those that really does not feel like Star Trek at all. It’s like something from Edgar Allan Poe. What’s interesting is when you search this episode online, you see it popping up on a number of “worst of Trek” lists, but also a few “best of Trek” lists. Clearly this is a divisive episode for the fans.

It’s hard for me to see Crusher falling for Ronin so easily, but maybe he has more powers than the episode said such that he was able to seduce her very quickly. But… ew.

Grade: B- “Uh… What?”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A- “While not a standard Star Trek plot, it was a pretty good story. Penalty for continued use of female characters primarily for romantic subplots.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: TNG– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.

Star Wars: The Expanded Universe Read-Through “Dark Apprentice” by Kevin J. Anderson

sw-da-kjaI have embarked on a quest to read through the Star Wars Expanded Universe once more. Be sure to check the linked text there to see other posts in this series. Here, Luke Skywalker continues his quest to found a new Jedi Academy in Dark Apprentice, the second book of the Jedi Academy trilogy. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Dark Apprentice

There are two huge problems with this book, and they are largely interlinked. The first is that major characters act extremely out of character a number of times. The most telling example of this is when Han finds out Leia has been in an accident and his first reaction is to gamble with Lando Calrissian for who owns the Millennium Falcon. What? That seriously happened!

The second problem is that there is a whole lot of filler in this book. Unlike Jedi Search, which had a tight narrative that kept the action going, Dark Apprentice has heaping helpings of scenes where the characters do little other than wander around. Case in point: Jacen and Jaina Solo get lost and wander all around Coruscant while Chewbacca and C-3PO scurry around trying to figure out what to do. Once more, this also demonstrates characters acting out of character. It is unthinkable that C-3PO would fail to follow protocol so obviously (he’s a protocol droid!) and that Chewbacca would refuse to do all he could (i.e. notify the authorities) to save the children of them an to whom he owes a life-debt. Going back to the example of gambling above, an inordinate amount of time is spent with Lando and Han going back and forth on who owns the Falcon and gambling away time. These two problems are severe, and make Dark Apprentice feel very much like an in-between book, just taking up space rather than moving the narrative forward.

On the other hand, Anderson does a better job in this book of developing more of the side characters. Notable examples are Kyp Durron and Admiral Ackbar, who each get enough development to feel more real than they did before. However, even Durron is shorted time in the spotlight due to the aforementioned filler material.

The plot of Dark Apprentice feels very much like a placeholder as well. Yes, the development of Durron and his seemingly swift fall to the Dark Side was interesting, but it happened so fast that it was difficult to get into it as much as I wanted to. Other than that, little seemed to happen. A few plot twists were thrown in, and the setting up of Ackbar to take a fall in order to try to split the New Republic was the best moment of the novel. These moments of brilliance make the amount of silliness harder to swallow. It’s one thing to have scenes that resonate with the “fun” of the Star Wars universe, but it is another to do so at the cost of the overall plot.

Dark Apprentice is a filler book. It is particularly frustrating to read this one following the excellent Jedi Search. It feels like so much more could have been done with the plot and characters. Unfortunately, there were too many tough-to-swallow moments.

The Good

+Side characters get chances to shine

The Bad

-Out-of-character behavior
-Lots of filler
-Too-swift development of major plot points

Best Droid Moment

C-3PO losing track of the twins and worrying about getting dismantled

Grade: C- “I expected more after the first entry. ‘Dark Apprentice’ has too little going on to make it a suitable follow up to ‘Jedi Search.'”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Reading through Star Wars: Expanded Universe– Here you can read other posts in this series (reviews of other EU books) and make suggestions about what I should include in my reviews.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

There are other posts on science fiction books to be found! Read them here.

SDG.