Alexander: An epic failure

Dec. 1, 2004, midnight | By John Silberholz | 19 years, 6 months ago

Sword-and-sandal epics reached a new low with the release of Oliver Stone's latest movie, Alexander. Though the film accurately depicts the imperialistic Macedonian king's life, the director obviously forgot a few basics, like developing the plot and keeping the audience awake.

From beginning to end, the film reeks of philosophy. Everywhere viewers turn, some character is droning on about gods or leadership or love, leaving the viewer to wonder if this is a movie or a graduate school lecture.

On certain rare occasions, however, the movie digresses to the plot, which leaps from event to event like a Mexican jumping bean on steroids. In Macedonia one moment and the middle of Asia the next, the flick has little coherence, using subheads like "Eight years later" or "Babylon, Persia, June 323 B.C." to skip over important parts of the storyline, few of which are ever explained.

The movie begins as the narrator Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), a wartime compatriot of Alexander (Colin Farrell), embarks on a lengthy philosophical look at the king's life. Many minutes and several sleeping movie viewers later, Stone deems it safe to venture into (gasp!) the real plot. Alexander's snake-loving mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) is professing her undying love for and devotion to her only son when her perpetually drunk husband Philip (Val Kilmer) barges into the room, nearly raping his wife as young Alexander looks on.

The plot leaps onward, showing flashes of Alexander's life eight and 16 years later. Alexander crosses his father at a party, causing inebriated Philip to proclaim him "no son of mine" and to banish him from the empire. However, the drama built up in this scene evaporates as the incident is barely mentioned again--suddenly Alexander is the king, has an army of 40,000 men (a disproportionate number of whom are missing one eye and speak with a British accent, despite their Macedonian heritage), and is facing an enormous Persian army. This nonlinear plotline leaves viewers scratching their heads, which they continue to do for another hour until Alexander's rise to power is finally explained.

Only in battle scenes like the one that ensues does the film succeed in interesting its audience in the tale of Alexander. In a fight reminiscent complete with pre-battle speeches, armored foot soldiers, and massive odds against the protagonists, Alexander faces the Persians at Gaugamela. Blood flows freely as Stone showcases his creativity in depicting a battle, killing off soldiers with saber-equipped chariots and with volleys of arrows, sword slashes, spear throws, slingshots and just about any other method imaginable. Alexander proves himself a brave leader, spearheading his attacks and both losing and drawing blood right and left.

However, despite this great military leadership, the movie sends mixed messages about Alexander, which makes it hard for viewers to decide how they feel towards the film's protagonist. After all, the leader is far from lovable when he later orders the deaths of seven alleged conspirators, and then kills off the aged father of one of them for fear that the old man will be angry that his son was tortured and executed. And, of course, one can't really love Alexander later still for killing his troops just because they begged to return home after years of service, for marrying a beautiful Persian named Roxanne while he has two boyfriends or for following in his father's footsteps and becoming an alcoholic. Instead of creating a single image of a great king and sticking by it, Stone has simply muddied the waters, leaving a question mark about Alexander's sometimes-unstable character instead of a definitive statement.

As the movie grinds to a close after nearly three soporific hours, viewers receive as a conclusion what they've been getting all along--a boring Ptolemaic philosophy lesson instead of real action.

All that can be said in defense of this movie is that it is historically accurate. Though this lip service to history left the film looking more like a documentary than an epic film, nobody will debate the facts presented--Stone got it right (down to direct quotes from historical texts).

If you're a history buff desiring a closer look at a powerful leader or just a really patient action film lover who's willing to sit through 150 minutes of filler for 30 minutes of sanguine and all-too-realistic action, then go ahead and watch Alexander. For the rest of us, there's got to be something better we could be doing on our Saturday afternoon than watching this shameful attempt at a historical epic.

Alexander(173 minutes) is rated R for violence and some sexuality/nudity

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John Silberholz. The Chips PRODMAN (and editoral board member), John enjoys basketball, tennis and biking, looks forward to yet another year on Chips. Among other things, he enjoys climbing trees (even though he has a weird tendancy of falling off of them), biking like crazy, playing basketball, … More »

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