"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 175-minute theatrical cut of the film, not the jumbled and inferior 167-minute Director's Cut also available on DVD.)
For a movie that disappointed at the box office, Alexander has already had quite a varied and complicated life on DVD. The film was initially released on disc in Hong Kong in either a 2-disc standard version or a 3-disc Limited Edition (reviewed here). Several months later it came out in the U.S. in two new editions, the separately released Theatrical Cut and Director's Cut.
Somewhere in between came a Collector's Edition box set from a studio called Cinema Service in Korea, containing the theatrical cut, a modest selection of bonus features, and certainly the best-looking packaging of any release of the movie so far. The handsome box folds out to reveal two discs, a photo book, and a set of movie-themed postcards. The discs themselves also have easily the coolest menus, designed like a map of the ancient world with Ancient Greek text that changes to English when you highlight each selection.
The Collector's Edition discs are hard-coded for Region 3 NTSC playback and will require compatible equipment to operate.
The Hong Kong DVD had disappointing video quality that the eventual Region 1 release rectified. Unfortunately, the Korean disc is clearly sourced from the same color transfer as that used in Hong Kong. The 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced picture is duller and has a yellow tinge in comparison to the U.S. release. It is also softer and has less clarity in the fine details of the image, as well as some minor edge ringing.
The Korean disc is superior to its Hong Kong counterpart, however, in that it seems to be slightly less filtered and "dupey". Also, the entire movie is contained on one disc, which means that the incompetent authoring mistakes that caused the Hong Kong disc to cut out mid-sentence and drop a few lines of dialogue at the side break are not a problem here.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is, as far as I can tell, identical to that on the U.S. release. The track 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.
Optional English and Korean subtitles have been provided.
Bonus features on the Korean disc are a mix of those found in Hong Kong and the U.S. The audio commentary on Disc 1, for example, is the same track with Oliver Stone and historical advisor Robin Lane Fox found on the R1 Theatrical Cut release. The two men were recorded separately, and in fact Stone's remarks all seem to be culled from his solo commentary for the R1 Director's Cut disc. Fox's comments are interspersed sporadically, primarily during scenes that are exclusive to the theatrical cut. 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. Stone delivers a subdued, intelligent conversation about his motives and intentions, and Fox fills in some of the historical background that the film glosses over.
Supplements on Disc 2 are mainly duplicated from the Kong Kong release. We have a 12-minute Making of Alexander featurette in non-anamorphic letterbox; this is standard Electronic Press Kit material, featuring the usual interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. Nothing too exciting or informative is found in it. Following that are 15 minutes of B-Roll behind-the-scenes footage (described on the menu as "Another Side of the Scenes") without narration. We then have 11 separate Interviews with the major cast and crew of the movie, each running between 1 to 6 minutes. Colin Farrell mumbles too much and appears to be drunk (big surprise). Some of these interviews are repeated from the Making-of piece, and each one is intercut with lengthy clips from the movie, not always in any way related to the subject of the interview. There are too many clips that go on too long, and the several of the clips are repeated over and over from one interview to the next. I recommend that you keep your hand on the fast-forward button.
Finishing the disc are some trailers and TV spots, as well as notes on the Life of Alexander the Great (unfortunately only in Korean text).
No ROM supplements have been included.
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.
It should go without saying that this "Collector's Edition" release will only interest those who actually liked the film and would be tempted to buy a nicely-packaged collectible edition. 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. The weak video transfer on this Korean DVD prevents it from being considered a definitive copy of the film's theatrical cut. The Region 1 DVDs have better picture quality and a more generous selection of bonus features, and will serve most viewers well enough, while the Korean set's main selling point is its nice packaging.
Alexander (Region 3 Limited Edition – Hong Kong)
Alexander – Director's Cut (Region 1)
Alexander Revisited - The Final Cut (Region 1)
World Trade Center (HD DVD)