Alexander: The Director's Cut Review
Whilst some may argue that he’s made epics before – consider the running times of JFK, Nixon or Any Given Sunday - Alexander marks a pointed change in direction for Oliver Stone. Previously he’d never ventured back in time beyond the childhood of Richard Nixon, but here we start out in 283 BC and then go back even further. Indeed, this is Stone helming a “proper” epic in the manner of Spartacus or The Fall of the Roman Empire; a tale which encompasses Alexander the Great’s life through childhood to his eventual death from poisoning at the age of 33.
Of course Stone has made biopics before and as such it's perhaps best to approach Alexander from this angle. For a more detailed and lucid account of the film’s handling of Alexander’s life than I could manage please see Kevin O’Reilly’s cinema review, though essentially its focus is in two areas: his military campaigns and his relationships with his parents. Both of these are then split into two – Persia and India; his mother and his father – and so the film has its four corners. The problem is that these then stand alone in a picture of almost three hours and Alexander can’t help but appear a little arid as a result. Previously Stone had been able to draw on pop culture and personal experience as a means of plugging the gaps in his sixties and seventies set efforts, but here there’s no such nuance or sense of place. Rather the various trappings of the epic form become apparent and it’s hard not to be distracted by the heavy mascara, abundance of snakes and casting of Brian Blessed.
More to the point, it’s not only the narrative which gets lost in Alexander’s expansiveness, but Stone also. The best examples of his work have always tackled a big theme through comparatively small means – consider the Vietnam war as seen through the eyes of a single autobiographical recruit in Platoon, or James Woods’ journalist covering early eighties Salvador in the film of the same name – but here the film proves too big an undertaking for him to do likewise. There is a sense of the overkill of Natural Born Killers, albeit of a different nature, in the Vangelis score, the extended battle scenes and overripe décor, yet there’s no real dynamic behind it resulting in an empty rather than overwhelming experience. Indeed, Alexander is that rare beast: an Oliver Stone film which doesn’t force out of you a strong opinion; instead of either love or hate, the reaction is more likely to be that of indifference.
Sadly the cast are unable to do much to save proceedings. Colin Farrell comes across as simply lukewarm in the lead role, just as Richard Burton has been when playing the same role in Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great. Elsewhere we get the usual concoction of international players, the majority of whom offer bizarre accents (Angelina Jolie being oddly reminiscent of Ingrid Pitt) or sink into anonymity. The only ones to truly standout are those who appear decidedly at odds in such surroundings, most notably Jared Leto. (But then he rarely seems to fit his choices and always looks as though he’d be better to Freddie Prinze Jr.-type flicks.) That said, everyone struggles with the unwieldy dialogue scenes; it would appear that Stone (one of three credited writers) wishes to infuse everything with a sense of the epic, though these interminable passages appear more elongated than expansive. Only Val Kilmer, perhaps because he is mostly free from such moments, escapes with any true dignity – indeed, he seems to recognise the inherent over the top nature of these kind of movies and so spends his time modelling himself on Ernest Borgnine’s performance from The Vikings (with Kirk Douglas’ missing eye as a bonus).
Of course, it goes without saying that Stone is incapable of making a truly uninteresting film, and Alexander does prove rewarding in some areas. Compare it to Troy, another interesting failure, and its comparative earthiness becomes apparent. Certainly, Brad Pitt and Eric Bana would look severely out of place here, whilst Wolfgang Peterson’s effort appears ridiculously glossy when put next to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s brooding, yet beautiful palette. Indeed, even when it ceases to fully engage, there’s still the terrific splendour of the Indian scenes to marvel at or the red-tinged conclusion to the final battle scene which looks as though it has come straight from some seventies piece of Euro horror.
As a final note, it is also worth mentioning that the version of Alexander which appears here is Stone’s newly assembled director’s cut. Made as a reaction to film’s poor box office showings in America and, specifically, the “Alexander the Gay” jibes it attracted, this new version excises approximately eight minutes of footage and tones down the bisexuality. We still get furtive glances and Farrell’s big kiss, though the film no longer justifies the “major landmark in mainstream gay cinema” comment it received on its UK cinema release from Sight and Sound.
This particular release of Alexander is a Region 0 two-disc set from Thailand presented in the PAL format. Unfortunately, its transfer offers little to boast about meaning it’s unlikely to attract those customers unwilling to wait for its UK release. Rather than being presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the image has been cropped down to 1.85:1 and though anamorphic, this hasn’t been flagged meaning that those viewing on a 4:3 telly or certain PC players will find the picture unduly stretched. As for the good points, the cinematography is admittedly shown off to good effect, though of course it’s diminished – as are the battle scenes – courtesy of this incorrect ratio.
The soundtrack fares perhaps slightly better with a DD5.1 English mix alongside a DD5.1 Thai option. Whilst the rear channels are utilised as much as those at the front, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it is somehow lacking in dynamism. The battle scenes in particular come across as far more lightweight than should be expected, and just to double check I inserted my R2 copy of Any Given Sunday into my player straight after watching the film and noticed that the various American football sequences contained therein (scenes which are perhaps the closest Stone has previously gotten to the epic battles here) were far more expansive in their presentation. That said, even if the sound were more impressive, viewers would still have to contend with the out of synch dialogue. A problem throughout the film, it must be said that at times this is barely noticeable - however, at others it is so ridiculously disjointed as to appear almost comical.
As for the special features, some of the choices found here are a little bizarre to say the least. The first is entitled ‘Behind the Scenes’ and amounts to 15 snippets from Alexander (often barely a minute in length and collectively providing a “best of” of the film – though the point of this escapes me); brief EPK type interviews with Stone, the leading cast members, Vangelis and producers Moritz Borman and Jon Kilik; and finally 11 minutes of B-roll footage which unwinds without context or commentary and as such proves a little overlong.
The remaining extras are equally lightweight and consist of the theatrical trailer, a TV spot and a two-minute piece Stone recorded for the Thai premiere in which he’s praises the country and its people. Maybe this latter piece will mean something to Thai customers, but any importers will find it decidedly facile, not to mention sycophantic.
Optional Thai subtitles are available for these special features where applicable.