"His failure towers over other men's successes."
It's a disturbing trend, but every year certain movies become fashionable to disparage, regardless of whether they are actually any good or not. Bandwagons are formed and critics are compelled to jump on for fear of losing the public's trust. What credibility will you have once you're labeled as the guy who didn't badmouth Beyond the Sea, or The Brown Bunny, or Alexander? Are the movies really that bad? Does it matter? Their awfulness soon achieves a sort of mythic proportion, and through the power of suggestion myth becomes reality. Audiences are turned away, scoffing at the very notion that anyone could want to see a movie they "know" to be bad, and those that actually buy a ticket do so in anticipation of picking apart every little flaw so that they can tell their friends, "Yes, I really did see that piece of trash, and just let me tell you how terrible it was".
It always starts with negative industry buzz. A production goes over budget or over schedule. Audience reaction to the first trailer isn't as excited as hoped. Details of the script leak out and a false controversy is created to justify an impression that the movie's going to bomb. And then it does. Oliver Stone's epic recreation of the life of Alexander the Great thus became one of the biggest financial disappointments of 2004, less than a quarter of its $150 million budget earned back at the U.S. box office. The critics, having braced themselves in advance by writing positively scathing diatribes against it, sat back and smugly declared, "I told you so". Even Roger Ebert, whose initial review of the movie, though negative overall, was more balanced than most in assessing its strengths and weaknesses, jumped on that bandwagon to declare it the #1 Worst Picture of the Year in his annual wrap-up. The worst picture of the year? In a year that gave us Catwoman, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, The Stepford Wives, and Little Black Book, we're supposed to believe that Alexander was the worst that came out in 2004? Could Mr. Ebert possibly be overcompensating for getting caught with his pants down as the only critic in the world who said nice things about Gigli the year before?
Oh, how much fun it is to watch the mighty fall. Oliver Stone has two directing Oscars on his shelf and once was a powerful force in Hollywood, but boy do people just hate him. They hate his politics, they hate his arrogant attitude, they hate his deliberately bombastic movies, and they pounce like tigers at the first opportunity to declare him washed up. Alexander was exactly that opportunity. A labor of love that the filmmaker spent years developing and quite a lot of money bringing to the screen, the project nonetheless seemed an incongruous fit for Stone, having no connection at all with his pet obsessions of American politics or the Vietnam war. Once word spread of some questionable casting decisions and a rumor that the movie would feature hours of footage of Colin Farrell having gay sex with little boys, that was all it took to drive the nails in the coffin.
But just how bad a movie is Alexander? Frankly, it's actually pretty good. Honestly, it is. Of all people, Oliver Stone may have seemed out of his element making a sword & sandal movie like this, but in fact turned out to be perfectly suited to this tale of violent warfare and political intrigue.
It's true, Stone makes mistakes. Colin Farrell, though trying really hard not to look too much out of his depth, is clearly miscast as Alexander. Angelina Jolie, in real life only one year his senior, plays Farrell's mother; while most of her time in the movie is spent with a child actor playing the young Alexander, she does share a few scenes with Farrell and apparently everyone was afraid to put on enough old age makeup to sell the effect. Whatever accent Jolie thought she was delivering is also a mystery for the ages. Her mad gypsy snake charmer performance is kind of fun but not entirely appropriate. Farrell barely tries to hide his Irish brogue at all, but you've got to give Stone credit for consistency is having the young Alexander speak in the same Irish lilt. This being an American film about ancient Greece, naturally everyone else in the picture speaks with a British accent. Stone also makes a very odd structural decision to skip past the most important event in Alexander's life, his ascendancy to the throne, and flash back to it much later in the film. This is frustrating at first, and feels like the print is missing a reel, but does pay off in interesting ways by directly comparing the beginning of his reign to the end.
And then there's "the gay thing". Yes, the movie attempts to address the historical fact that in ancient Greece it was common and acceptable for men to sleep together as well as with women. Stone tries not to shy away from this, but at the same time is afraid to go all the way with it. The result is a bit wishy-washy, consisting mostly of speeches about the difference between men lying with men in lust or "in knowledge", and a lot of longing glances and a few hugs between Alexander and his best friend Hephaistion, the only one who truly understands him. Notorious lothario Farrell looks uncomfortable in these scenes, and Stone seems to be a lot more interested directing the only sex scene in the movie, a fully heterosexual romp with a topless Rosario Dawson. It's a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't scenario for Stone, to be sure; if he ignores this side of the character, he'd be accused of intellectual fraud, while showing too much of it would bring charges of lurid exploitation or promoting a "homosexual agenda". He tries to have it both ways but obviously failed, as word of the movie's rampant gayness scared off plenty of viewers regardless of how it's actually depicted in the film.
But there are so many good things too. The movie is beautifully photographed with a vivid clarity that puts to shame the overly filtered stylization of most films about the era. Unlike a Gladiator or Troy, the movie utilizes a palette of more colors than just brown. The wardrobe and production design are suitably lavish for an epic of this scope, and the picture is filled with many startling images. A close-up of the Persian king's face in the midst of battle is so dynamically composed that it lingers long after, and Stone dreams up a truly wondrous vision of ancient Babylon. The score by Vangelis, a mixture of orchestral and electronic music, was deemed inappropriate by some, but has an evocative, majestic sweep.
And the battles, my lord the battles. Huge, epic, brutal, primal, chaotic, dazzling. Stone orchestrates the ancient warfare magnificently, favoring a real cast of thousands over digital recreations of such. They are bloody and gorgeous. When the Greek army invades India and encounters elephants for the first time, gigantic monsters they'd heard about only in legend and half believed couldn't possibly be real, the abject terror in the ensuing mayhem is palpable.
Even at three hours in length, the film doesn't feel padded or dull. It tells a fascinating story about a very complicated individual plagued by demons yet driven to greatness, who rose from bastard child of Macedonia to ruler of almost the entire known world in his short lifetime. Alexander dreamed of uniting the whole world under one rule for the betterment of all, and through sheer force of personality almost did it. No one else could have achieved what he did, evidenced by the fact that after his death the empire fell promptly apart and split into various factions that never reunited. As his legend grew, Alexander the Great became more myth than man, and Stone's film tries to show both sides. The movie is flawed, certainly, but it's a worthy, literate historical epic, made with an order of magnitude more intelligence, more passion, and more vision than that mediocre piece of hackwork Gladiator that won a bunch of Oscars a few years before. These days it seems that if a movie isn't immediately perceived as perfect in every way, it's dismissed out of hand as worthless garbage and forgotten. The world needs more room for imperfect but interesting movies. Alexander is exactly that.
(Note: The above comments were written for and apply primarily to the theatrical cut of the film.)
The Director's Cut DVD:
The original theatrical cut of Alexander was first unveiled on DVD in Asia a few months ahead of the domestic release (see this review of the Hong Kong DVD). Now viewers in Region 1 have their choice of separate editions for the 175-minute Theatrical Cut or a new 167-minute Director's Cut. Yes, that's right, the Director's Cut is shorter than the theatrical cut. For the new version, Oliver Stone has excised approximately 17 minutes from the old version and reinstated 9 minutes of new footage. More importantly, he's also shuffled around the order of many of the existing scenes. The packaging declares this new version is "Newly inspired, faster paced, more action packed!" Unfortunately, in his attempt to make the movie more palatable to audiences with short attention spans and homophobic tendencies, Stone has done the movie a great disservice.
The Director's Cut of the film is, quite simply, a mess. It wouldn't have been so bad if Stone had simply added new footage on top of the old cut. Most of the new scenes, though generally superfluous, don't harm the movie at all. The problem is that removing many bits of important character development that were deemed "too gay" by audiences has deprived other remaining scenes of their proper context. The quasi love story between Alexander and Hephaistion is still a big part of the movie, but now the scenes they have together actually seem more melodramatic than before. Rather than the intended effect of toning down that aspect of the movie, Stone has unintentionally made it more histrionic and "gay" than it previously was.
Even more damaging are the major structural changes that Stone has imposed on the film. The original theatrical cut featured a curious but somehow effective decision to skip past an important part of Alexander's young life and flash back to it later. This confused some viewers, but rather than straighten it out the director has decided instead to do a lot more of the same. I suppose he was trying to make the movie more Oliver Stone-ian. The result is that the movie now jumps backwards and forwards through Alexander's life all the time. We're constantly inundated with on-screen text identifying certain scenes as taking place "10 Years Earlier", "9 Years Earlier", "1 Year Later", and "9 Years Earlier" again (which, if we're trying to keep track, means that it's 1 year after the last "9 Years Earlier"). Stone may have assumed that making the film a lot less linear overall would get audiences used to the flashback structure, but all he's succeeded in doing is making the movie more confusing and dramatically inert.
The intent of the restructuring is to draw blunt parallels between Alexander's young life and the events that happen to him later, but the story was more elegant and effective before. The new ordering of scenes rarely makes much dramatic or tonal sense, and the choppiness very much harms Colin Farrell's already fragile performance, making his shifts in tone from scene to scene seem less like a continuous progression and more like an actor who can't get a grip on his character.
As for the new cut being "faster paced" and "more action packed", that is pure marketing hyperbole. I detected no change at all to the action footage in the movie. Skipping past some of the early scenes in Alexander's life allows us to jump right into the first major battle a lot sooner, but without the proper foundation establishing the character that scene doesn't feel earned. We also aren't given enough time to get used to Farrell playing the older version of the character. The movie is shorter, but it is certainly not faster paced. In fact, the continual jumps back and forth in time quickly become tedious.
After the savaging he received from both critics and audiences, I can't blame Oliver Stone for wanting to impose some drastic changes on the movie. The old cut certainly could have used some prudent trimming and tightening. However, I think Stone has made a series of bad decisions that may have seemed to make sense intellectually but just don't work dramatically. The Director's Cut is inferior to the Theatrical Cut.
The theatrical print of Alexander that I saw was gorgeous and vivid, but the Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong reviewed previously barely did the movie's photography any justice. The Region 1 release from Warner Bros. is fortunately a significant improvement.
The 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced video has fantastic colors and excellent contrasts. The picture looks a lot less filtered than the import and has no distracting edge enhancement. The image is a little soft in the fine details but the colors and contrasts are so well defined that it nevertheless feels very crisp overall. Also unlike the Hong Kong release, the entire movie fits on one disc here, yet has only minor and generally insignificant digital compression issues (the movie's shorter running time and lack of DTS track leave more room for the video). This is a fine-looking disc that serves the beautiful cinematography well.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is extremely loud and dynamic, with particularly impressive use of the surround channels during the battle scenes. The score also has a nicely enveloping sweep. Bass is a little rumbly but does not extend as deep as hoped, and the audio mix never quite achieves the clarity of the best reference-quality soundtracks, but it's quite satisfying anyway.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles have been provided, along with English Closed Captioning.
The separate Theatrical Cut and Director's Cut DVD releases each contain unique and exclusive commentary tracks. The Theatrical Cut includes a track from Oliver Stone and historical advisor Robin Lane Fox, while the Director's Cut features a solo audio commentary by Stone. I would guess that the Director's Cut commentary was recorded second, because Stone jumps right into it without any introduction. Despite recording two lengthy tracks for the movie, Stone has quite a lot to say and talks nearly continuously from the Warner Bros logo at the beginning through all of the end credits. Topics under discussion include the historical research done for the film, why Stone wanted to tackle this subject in the first place, how he attempted to reconcile the myth of Alexander the Great with the life of the real man, and the dramatic license he took that deviates from historical fact. He also points out all of the changes he made for the Director's Cut and attempts to justify his decisions. This is a subdued, intelligent conversation about his motives and intentions, and about the only topic not directly addressed is the movie's box office and critical failure.
Disc 2 contains an approximately 90 minute-long documentary by Oliver Stone's son Sean, who followed him around on location. The piece is broken into three half-hour sections: Resurrecting Alexander, Perfect is the Enemy of Good, and The Death of Alexander. The first section focuses on ancient combat, visual effects, set design, and cinematography. The second is about the attention to historical detail and director Stone's technical perfectionism. The last piece covers complications that arose during the film shoot (Colin Farrell broke his wrist and ankle, and several rolls of important and expensive footage were almost destroyed due to mishandling). At first I was apprehensive about watching this feature, because the younger Stone had also directed a pretentious and annoying documentary titled Fight Against Time that was included on the Hong Kong DVD. I feared that this would be more of the same, if not in fact just a retitled version of it. Fortunately, the documentary here is all new and much better in both style and content. This is a thorough, well-structured, and fascinating diary of the film's production.
A 4-minute featurette called Vangelis Scores Alexander covers exactly what the title says. The composer doesn't have much memorable to say. A theatrical teaser and trailer, both in anamorphic widescreen, finish off the DVD-video content.
DVD-Rom content includes a link to the official Alexander web site and 3D QuickTime explorations of some of the movie's sets.
Reviled upon its initial release, Oliver Stone's Alexander is neither the masterpiece that the director wanted it to be nor the disaster that critics and audiences called it. It is a good, worthy, and interesting though flawed historical epic. Hopefully it will be given some shot at re-evaluation on home video.
My recommendation for the DVD was a tough judgement call to make. I liked the movie more than most, but this seems to be a film that polarizes many viewers, so it's hard to recommend enthusiastically. Also, of the two versions of the movie being released on DVD simultaneously, I was wholly unimpressed with the new Director's Cut and greatly prefer the Theatrical Cut. Warner Bros. has done fans of the movie a disservice by not releasing both versions together in one comprehensive special edition.
I'm going to rate this a qualified recommendation for those genuinely interested. Viewers skeptical of the movie based on all the bad things they've heard about it may want to stick with a rental, and those of the "Worst Movie Ever!!!" mentality can save their money for something else. If you didn't like the movie the first time around, the Director's Cut is definitely not going to bring you around.
Alexander (Region 3 Limited Edition - Hong Kong)
Alexander (Region 3 Collector's Edition - Korea)
Alexander Revisited - The Final Cut (Region 1)
World Trade Center (HD DVD)