The UnPopular Opinion: Alexander
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
At the beginning of the 2000s, there was a fad in Hollywood to make massive historical epics like they used to in the golden age of Hollywood. Prompted by Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR, Hollywood gave us epic after epic. These movies were met with varying levels of acclaim but the fad soon fizzled out in favor of the next big genre to exploit. Amongst the epics, there were few movies as divisive as Oliver Stone's ALEXANDER. Stone himself has gone back no less than three additional times to edit his epic about the life of Alexander The Great with significant changes made to each version. Eschewing any of the later director's cuts, I want to assert that the original cut of ALEXANDER is one of the better historical epics of all time.
Made on a $155 million budget, ALEXANDER would go on to gross $34 million domestically. While that sounds like a massive failure, the film would gross $133 million internationally. The dramatic difference between the two grosses is not uncommon with many films these days, but it also mimics the critical reception of the movie. While U.S. critics lambasted Stone's film, the international film community was much more positive. Stone himself asserts that it had to do with the intelligence of American movie critics as well as the inability to accept homoerotic undertones included in the story. The often controversial filmmaker may not have been entirely right about either assertion, but he was also not wrong. There are some quibbles to be had with how ALEXANDER was executed, but overall it is a great film.
Much like what happened with Ridley Scott's KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, the critical focus on the film was put heavily on the inclusions and exclusions from the actual history books about the featured characters. Even condensing the massive scope of Alexander's life into a three hour film represented a challenge. To make his film, Stone used time compression and flashbacks to better tell the story he wanted. This, of course, means that there will have to be some elements excised from the narrative. ALEXANDER was never intended to be an all-encompassing biography of the military icon but instead an overview of his life, his achievements, and his failures.
From an acting standpoint, ALEXANDER boasts a very impressive cast. Colin Farrell, just at the outset of his leading man career, brings a layered approach to portraying the title character whose sexualized relationships with both his mother, Olympias, and his friend Hephaistion. Criticism of Alexander's sexuality caused protests before the film's release, but Stone handles the subject with something he is rarely credited with: subtlety. Yes, Angelina Jolie is a very sexual actress, especially a decade ago, and Jared Leto remains as popular a sex object now as he did then. Hell, even Val Kilmer looks pretty damn good in this movie. The real prize goes to Rosario Dawson whose sexual aura is more powerful here than in almost any other film she has been in.
The shortcoming many have associated with ALEXANDER is that the trailers make it look like GLADIATOR whereas the format and tone of the finished film is much different. With a consistent voice-over from Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, ALEXANDER is very similar to the historical re-enactment documentaries that have become common on networks like History and National Geographic Channel. It is a bit off-putting at first but soon begins to grow on you and gives ALEXANDER a unique feel compared to similar films. The constant time shifts in the film also appear to be a point of contention for many, but again, the compression of the sprawling life and career is a necessary evil or the movie would have been five times as long. Stone could have elected to focus on just a segment of Alexander's life, but would that really have been a movie worth seeing?
From an editing standpoint, ALEXANDER is one of the best directing jobs Stone has turned in over the last twenty years. Gone are the overlaid images and projections that were featured in NATURAL BORN KILLERS and JFK. Stone embraces the genre while still putting his own stamp on it, giving us something simultaneously familiar and unique. The score by Vangelis is an unheralded classic while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives the film a clean look that captures every beautiful aspect of the global shooting locations in Morocco and Thailand.
Oliver Stone is a filmmaker whose career has had massive ups and downs. From his heydey in the 1980s and early 1990s, his career has become exceptionally uneven with films that vary from excellent to mediocre at best. Still, his work is unique enough to have earned him a permanent place in movie history. With that caveat, ALEXANDER deserves to be remembered with the upper echelon of his films and his best in the last 20 years.
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