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.

All Rights Reserved. Use of any elements of this post subject to approval by the author.

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One Sentence Book Review: “Unashamed” by Lecrae Moore

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore

Review

Lecrae had a hard life, but makes fulfilling, worldview-rich rap music now.

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.

Book Review: “We the Underpeople” by Cordwainer Smith

wtu-smith“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” It’s a maxim that I hammered into my own head for quite a while. Yet, as an author (Eric Flint) said at a convention I was at some time ago, “People don’t buy books based on the covers, but they do look at them based on the cover.” I bought We the Underpeople because the cover of the next collection of Cordwainer Smith’s writings looked so interesting to me I figured I had to have them both. (The cover has a dragon eating a space ship! What could go wrong!?)

I finally got around to reading the first collection, which has a bunch of Smith’s short stories as well as the novel Norstrilia in it. I gotta say it blew me away. The introduction certainly set me up with high expectations–this unknown author with a pseudonym that made it even harder to determine blew up the science fiction scene when one of his stories was published in a sci-fi magazine some time ago.

Well, the stories blew me away too. Here is a collection of stories unified around a central timeline that has breadth and scope that is sometimes hard to comprehend. As a reader, you’re thrown into a world with a huge amount of terminology, names, and histories that are unknown and mostly used unapologetically until you figure out what they mean. It’s a bit like reading Dune the first time (how’s that for a recommendation?). The world Smith created spans thousands and thousands of years, and the stories take you across a portion of that time.

Humanity has sought to eliminate sorrow and hardship, but in doing so have created the “Underpeople”–human-like creations made from synthesis with animals. These underpeople basically serve as slaves for the “real people.” Thus, there are some elements of social justice found throughout the stories. There is also a strong sense of dystopia as the way hardship is eliminated is through brainwashing, reconditioning, and the radical loss of human freedom. There are also elements of religion found scattered throughout, with subtle references to Christianity melded into a kind of retelling of Joan of Arc, among other stories. One central theme in the novel that is included in this collection, Norstrilia, is the theme of forgiveness and the power that it can bring in one’s life.

All of these elements are set to an amazing lyrical style of writing which weaves poems and songs and even descriptions of artwork into the stories in meaningful ways. Smith’s writing style makes the words seem to flow from the page in a rhythm, even when it is written into paragraph form. Smith’s background in psychological warfare (I’m not making this up, folks) also comes through in a number of–sometimes disturbing–ways.

We the Underpeople is an absolutely incredible read that I would recommend to any and all fans of science fiction. The epic scope, beautiful style, and wonderful stories contained herein are well, well worth the price of entry. I’m pleased to say I’ve discovered a master writer I didn’t even know about. Thanks for putting a dragon on the cover of the second book, Baen books! Time to read the next collection.

The Good

+Lyrical, poetical style of writing
+Wonderfully rich world with sense of vastness
+Complex, intricately detailed plots
+Stunning scope

The Bad

-Not enough character development in some of the stories

Grade: A “A surprising, inventive collection of thought-provoking science fiction.”

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!

SDG.

Microview: “Daystar” by Kathy Tyers

daystar-tyersDaystar concludes the Firebird series (see my review of the Trilogy here). There will be SPOILERS in this microview.

For better or for worse, Daystar can fairly accurately be called a science fiction retelling of the biblical Gospels.

For better: as someone who is, I think, fairly familiar with the Gospels, this re-telling brought forward aspects of the Gospels themselves which are often overlooked. Moreover, the science fiction perspective is never compromised for the sake of trying to make a point. Instead, Daystar fits perfectly well into the universe Tyers has built up in the previous books and feels like an epic culmination of all that has come before.

For worse: the fact that the story does emulate in many ways the story of Jesus means that some readers may be turned off by it.

One other minor problem with the book is that the action at times is not sustained. I am not saying I need action 100% of the time, but there are large swathes of just conversations in this book that may have been better broken up with some more action.

The best part of the book is that, as I noted before, the source material and science fiction aspects are never compromised simply for the sake of trying to make something fit. The narrative is powerful and stands on its own, rather than relying on background knowledge to fill it in. That said, the background knowledge is helpful and leads to some interesting comparisons of parallels. These comparisons and other worldview issues are brought up throughout the book as questions of human nature, freedom and determinism, materialism, and more are all brought up and considered. These different questions are considered from different philosophical backgrounds as well, with the view of the Collegium being a mind-working combination of Platonism, Gnosticism, and materialism.

But again, these themes never are forced upon the readers. They always feel like a natural outworking of the narrative itself. And that narrative is extremely solid. The world Tyers has built feels genuine and massive, yet she ably focuses in on one facet of it and how one cog can turn the entire machine.

Set in context of the whole series, Daystar simply is phenomenal. All told, Kathy Tyers has really given readers a treat. I can’t help but think what an achievement this is as a conclusion to a series. It is an excellent work.

The Good

+Awesome re-exploration of the concept of Messiah
+Good action
+Broad but interesting cast of characters
+World feels genuinely massive and with ancient roots
+Great re-envisioning of parables
+Intriguing worldview questions

The Bad

-Fairly explicit emulation of Christian story will turn off some readers
-Not enough action at some points

The Verdict

Grade: A

A constantly intriguing look at an alternate universe Messiah, Daystar wraps up the Firebird series remarkably well. I think it will go down in my memory as one of my favorite books. See my other site for a look at many of the worldview themes in the book.

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!

Enter [Science] Fictional Messiah- “Wind and Shadow” and “Daystar” by Kathy Tyers– I reflect on a number of worldview issues that Tyers brings up in the concluding parts of the Firebird saga.

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!

Microview– Read more microviews to discover more materials to experience! (Scroll down for more)

Source

Kathy Tyers, Daystar (Colorado Springs, CO: Marcher Lord Press [Now Enclave], 2012).

SDG.

Microview: “Eternity Falls” by Kirk Outerbridge

efalls-outerbridgeEternity Falls by Kirk Outerbridge is a cyberpunk thriller with quite a bit of depth and insight. There will be some minor SPOILERS in this microview.

Rick Macey is a PI contracted to help find out whether there was something untoward in the death of a woman who’d received the Miracle Treatment–something which should have made it impossible for her to have died of natural causes. In the process of the investigation, he finds himself thrust into a struggle of deep import both in his personal life and to the world at large.

Alongside Sheila Dunn, a prominent executive for the company that makes the Miracle Treatment, he dives into a stirring adventure that will leave readers wonderfully breathless. There are themes of religious extremism and violence, mystery, questions about human nature, and action throughout.

A prominent theme throughout the book is that of faith (or lack thereof). Macey himself struggles with his own deconversion in a world in which belief in deity seems absurd. When confronted with someone else who is a firm believer, the book takes another surprising turn and the moral and theological questions it raises are remarkably interesting. There were several moments I was at the edge of my seat, wondering which direction Macey might go on questions that are of real life import for persons of faith.

Outerbridge writes great action scenes as well, and a climactic conflict is particularly page-turning. Not all authors do possess a  gift for making fights interesting, but Outerbridge succeeds here in a big way.

Two downsides in the book are worth mentioning. First, there are a few moments in which gender stereotypes are unfortunately perpetuated. Macey, at one point, complains inwardly about “how quickly their [women’s] feelings got hurt…” (87). Moments like this are few and far between, and may simply be blamed on a kind of stereotype in Macey’s own head rather than something Outerbridge puts forward, but they are still unfortunate. Second, the technology, at times, is not sufficiently explained. Of course with anything sci-fi, there will be suspension of disbelief, but too often it seems that something is “hacked” into or somehow disabled without any description of just how this might have been accomplished. This problem is made more evident by the times Outerbridge does offer such descriptions, because they are quite good and mesh well with the expectations for cyberpunk.

Overall, Outerbridge seems to have hit gold with Eternity Falls, and this reader, for one, will seek out his other works.

The Good

+ Great genre mix of cyberpunk, action, and detective drama
+ Fantastic action
+ Genuinely insightful moral discussions…
+ …paired with great reflections on faith

The Bad

– Some gender stereotypes perpetuated
– Some of the technology could have used more description

The Verdict

Grade: A

Kirk Outerbridge’s Eternity Falls is a unquestionably fun romp on a journey of mystery, faith, and exploration of the human psyche.

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!

Microview– Read more microviews to discover more materials to experience! (Scroll down for more)

Source

Kirk Outerbridge, Eternity Falls (Colorado Springs, CO: Enclave, 2009).

SDG.

 

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 “The Survivors” and “Who Watches the Watchers”

Tea good. House good. Worf pleased.

Tea good. House good. Worf pleased.

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.

“The Survivors”

Plot

A settlement of 11,000 people is destroyed but for one household. The crew of the Enterprise attempts to figure out why they were spared, while being chased around the system by an angry ship. Meanwhile, Troi experiences mental trauma as a song continues to play. Picard eventually figures out the ship (and song) are caused by the man on the surface who is an extremely powerful being. That being reveals himself, heals Troi, and admits to killing off an entire species because of what they did to the colony. Picard concludes the being is to be left alone.

Commentary

This is one of the more memorable episodes so far in TNG. It starts off very slowly, but eventually the seeds of mystery planted in the beginning come to fruition. The plot keeps viewers guessing throughout, but not in a way that is ever obvious. Yes, it’s clear that the evil ship has a connection to the couple, but viewers have to reason alongside Picard in order to try to figure it out. It’s a mystery which keeps viewers guessing until the end. It is unfortunate that the episode feels so slow. It’s not bad at all, but the whole thing just lacks the kind of pacing that the greatest episodes of TNG are able to muster.

Worf’s “I like gall” line was great, but his “Good tea. Nice house.” one-off was better. He’s a great character so far for these one-liners, but I can’t wait to see him develop more as a character.

Picard’s moralizing is interesting, and leads to a number of questions: why could not such a being be punished?; how could this be seen in any way as justice (as Picard possibly implies)?; is there a punishment which could be meted out upon a such a being? These and other questions spring to mind, but “The Survivors” leaves them unanswered at the end, allowing viewers to muse upon them as the Enterprise flies off to another adventure. It doesn’t feel unsatisfying; rather, it calls for reflection in the way that the best episodes of TNG do.

Overall, a very solid episode marred by a fairly slow pace.

Grade: B+ “It’s not a thriller, but it stays interesting–and mysterious–throughout.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B+ “It was slow to get started but ultimately the plot was quite compelling.”

“Who Watches the Watchers”

Plot

A Starfleet anthropology site is seen by the locals when a hologram projector fails, leading to the belief that Picard is deity. Troi is a captive and her life is in danger as the locals attempt to please their re-discovered belief in the “Overseer.” Ultimately, Picard reasons one of the proto-Vulcans into unbelief and convinces the rest that he is not a deity. They part ways, but have learned more about the broader universe.

Commentary

There is much to love in “Who watches…” First, I haven’t commented on the music in the series yet, but this episode had some pretty solid tracks. At some points they got overbearing/repetitive, but it is the first episode I actually noticed the music in, and it was a good thing overall. Second, the concept of Starfleet having little observation posts all over the place is compelling and interesting, and I remember my childhood wonder at the fact that they’d be there in the midst of discovering. Third, the overall plot is pretty solid.

Unfortunately, the episode isn’t all great. The main difficulty is the constant theme of “religion is for idiots.” On a blog with the title “Eclectic Theist” it should be no surprise that I think this is bunk. Picard emphasized that getting beyond belief in deity was a major intellectual accomplishment, and I would agree that it is–when one is not believing rationally in the actual God. However, apart from the fact that it is very reasonable to believe in God, the whole episode seemingly relies upon the history of religions school which is largely bunk. That is, it seems to portray simplistic primitive religion (which the people of the planet are retreating towards) as an evolutionary step on a movement beyond totemism and finally into “enlightened” atheism.

Now this history-of-religions is actually false, but it also makes for an episode which continues to operate on a kind of moralistic anti-theistic level which is just grating on the nerves. We can debate the finer points throughout, but that is for a different place (see linked posts). My point regarding this as an episode is that it simply destroys much of the appeal of the plot to have religion reduced to such simplicities that people instantly “devolve” into “primitive” religion when confronted with technology, and that this would seem just obviously true. It’s a weak plot point and, again, rams down our throat the notion that it is true throughout, despite having little empirical evidence and even a great amount of counter-evidence (see, for example, this book).

Okay, I promise I’m getting off the high horse now. The episode has a solid premise and some genuine entertainment value. It’s just brought down by the points mentioned above, along with the difficulty of believing that the situation would in any way develop as it did. To think that a person could move from unbelief to casually choosing to attempt to murder others to please an alleged deity is tough to swallow (and speaks to the what I mentioned above). It makes for one of the episodes where you wonder about what could have been rather than what is actually presented.

Grade: B- “A memorable episode brought down by shoved-in-your-face moralizing.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B- “It was a good story, but there were too many unbelievable plot 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!

Sigmund Freud, Totemism, and the origin religion- Who cares about facts?– I discuss some difficulties with the alleged origin and development of religion from totemism to ever-increasing complexity of practice. This belief is commonly associated with Freud, but is there evidence for it?

SDG.

The Fresh Morning: The Run

I don’t like to sleep in. I love the feeling of waking up to the birds chirping outside the window, smelling the freshness of Spring and Summer, and going out for a quick run.

There is something relaxing and even spiritual about running with the morning sun shining and the shining of dew on the grass all around. As I weave my way through the local community, I wave at people and they wave back. Sometimes, we even greet one another as it is someone I have seen more than once.

It’s about the experience: feet pounding on the ground, body striving to go, breath getting harder as I push myself to increasing speeds. But it is about more than that: a way to get out and see nature in the morning, to experience the community, and to recognize that I am part of a larger picture of reality that goes beyond the confines of my normal route to work and back.

I think there is something deeply spiritual to this activity. It is hard to describe and nearly ineffable, but it might be sensed, it is experienced. By placing myself in the context of a larger world, I acknowledge that the world is not centered around myself. There is a feel, a beat to the community as cars move in patterns, people go outside to get their papers, birds chirp in the trees, and squirrels seek ever-more acorns. As part of this world, I realize that it goes beyond myself. I realize that I have become part of…

The Fresh Morning: The Run.