"His failure towers over other men's successes."
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.)
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 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.
Optional English and Korean subtitles have been provided.
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.
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.