Oliver Stone returns to the world of fiction in this swords and sandals epic centered around the life and accomplishments of Alexander the Great.Stone has run an impressive streak of films so far that, when they've been bad, have at least been ambitiously bad. If U Turn was what Stone wanted to see when he was a teenager then Alexander is what happens when that teenager grows up and decides to see what it would look like to burn $155 million if effigy. It looks like an incredibly uncomfortable Colin Ferrell sporting a back alley blonde dye job, and that's just for starters.
This film, ostensibly about the life and times of Alexander the Great, is a perplexing experience. It's dull, then rouses itself with a few amazing images, poorly acted in the mains, but in the margins there are performances that redeem some of the more eccentric choices of the film. Silly moments have Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mother doing her impersonation of Natasha Fatale, then a second later Ferrell is staring at a lion with frame-skip activated. Better scenes have Alexander's pretty boy slave, Bagoas (Francisco Bosch), who has a wonderful tenderness in all of his scenes, and rises at least one endless party scene above the other boring dreck. Then there are those occasionally staggering images, like Alexander taking one final charge in a good old fashioned round of horse versus elephant (which ends as well as you can expect) ending in a blood soaked jungle.
Stone shows that he has the chops to bind both character and image in the highs, but blends them with roughly five other plots and characters that add nothing to the film. Rosario Dawson plays one of Alexander's many lovers and is basically there to remind you that Jolie is somewhere just off-screen vamping it up against some fruit doing more interesting, if confusing and terrible, things. Anthony Hopkins narrates for what feels like forever while staring at the sky as I long for a quick inter-title or two because I can read faster than he can nobly intone. Val Kilmer is Alexander's grumpy papa then gets stabbed, and Jared Leto plays yet another one of Alexander's paramours who makes googly eyes at Alexander in such a way that it reminds me of one of my favorite Onion articles about a different kind of romance.
The sad thing is, despite the nearly two hours all this extra stuff fills up, I understand the point Stone is trying to make. Alexander is a common Stone protagonist, caught up in paranoia and rage while striving for an imperfect ideal that falters because of his inability to be satisfied. The larger idea Stone is going for here, no matter how badly handled it is through Hopkins' narration, is that becoming a god in history is as much luck as it is skill and manic determination.
But the idea is lost in those perplexing performances and endless exposition. Stone instead takes the unusual visual storytelling steps of having all but two of the big battles happen off-screen while Alexander stares at a pond in the rain. Not exactly riveting stuff, and not helped by Stone's many weird image montages like when papa grumpers is stabbed and Stone cuts to...a map. No explanation just blood then map.
There's so much more, but pointing out every weird decision in this 3 1/2 hour film would be both a chore and leave you with nothing else to comment on Kyle. One last thought before you ravish history with your mighty pen, what did Stone think he was going to accomplish with the intermission? The length certainly calls for one, but it's barely long enough to pee unless you can urinate so fast you achieve escape velocity.I didn't know much about Alexander the Great before watching this movie. I still don't, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Some things I did learn that I never would have expected: Alexander was a blond-haired Irishman. Who knew? Also, it is, apparently, possible for a great director to make a Jared Leto movie worse than Jared Leto's music. Alexander is a labyrinth of surprises.
Part of the reason the movie is such a legendary failure is that Stone and company remain fully dedicated to the idea that they're presenting an epic story about a larger-than-life figure even as they unfold scene after scene of mundane and confusing drivel. One of the things that will forever fascinate me about Alexander is how, with 3 full hours at his disposal, Oliver Stone fails to create something that even resembles a cohesive story. We get various moments of formative or historical importance, but they aren't connected in a way that helps us situate them in a larger context. Nixon had a similar problem, but we're more familiar with him as a historical figure — with Alexander, we're at pains just to understand where his army is or strategically what's going on.
This would be ok if Stone effectively focused on Alexander as a flawed, ambitious, paranoid character as you've mentioned — but instead we get disconnected scenes half-heartedly pointing to certain obligatory elements of his life. “Here you will see that Alexander had a progressive attitude toward his subjects.” “Here you see that Alexander conquered out of a wish to unify.” “Here you see how Alexander had a genius grasp of warfare strategy on the battlefield.” Except we don't. It's like being at a grade school history fair.
My favorite thing to do while watching Alexander is play a game called “what was Oliver Stone thinking when cutting together this scene?” I refuse to believe, three versions of the film later, that he didn't on some level understand what a massive failure he came back from principal photography with. I hate Natural Born Killers, but not for one minute do I think the movie turned out as anything less than exactly what he envisioned. Nixon shows some brilliance captured in a sloppy, second-rate package.
But Alexander — Alexander is the most complete version of utter and total failure we have from the man. And you don't create a Director's Cut AND a Final Revisited This Is The One Watch This One I Promise Cut of a movie so completely and thoroughly panned the first time around without knowing on some level — and refusing to acknowledge — that you have wasted more than half the budget for all three Lord of the Rings movies combined.
So, where's the controversy?
A couple of bigoted groups did not like the fact that Stone showed men healthily enjoying each other on screen. Quite a few historians didn't jive with this either. Stone himself took umbrage and said that the films failure was because people were too put off by a film that actually showed bi- and homosexual people doing their thing. All the controversy is stupid, but I have to note that with Stone's concern it's not so much people were put off and point that a year later Brokeback Mountain crushed the box office and swept up awards. It's not that people were put off, they just expect the movie to be good.
The “people couldn't take Alexander's smoldering googly-eyed stares at Jared Leto” excuse is even flimsier considering that the movie takes his homosexuality about as seriously as a grade-school romance. By the time it was over, I would have been surprised if Stone was so bold as to have the two hold hands. If there's any justifiable controversy here, it's that he seemed to think it was bold to show a a strong emotional connection while simultaneously neutering the men sexually. This is the guy who made Salvador and Platoon?
How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?
It was yet another historical epic involving swords and gods, be they Christian, Roman, Greek, or whatever. The revitalized Titans series seems to have killed this off for the moment but Alexander was a film following an established trend instead of hitting the pulse on a new one.
That's fine, but is it any good?
No, but with a few footnotes I'd like to add. It's a weird case because a worse director with the same level of ambition but a lessened budget might have made something so bad it's good. This is the kind of film that might have been good if Stone was able to sit on it for several years, running through at least a couple of screenplay polishes, and then taking his time with the story. Since these things are all impossible with Stone the quality follows suit.