Telling the tale of Alexander the Great’s life, conquest of much of the (to him) known world, and death by 33 would prove a daunting task to any filmmaker. No ordinary film could contain the battles, relationships, and the varied, ancient settings that Alexander encountered in his time. One either must focus on one aspect, or arrange the story-– as Peter Jackson did The Lord of the Rings-- into several lengthy films. Oliver Stone took neither approach with 2004’s Alexander, and the resulting movie proves incoherent and aimless.

Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeto Kalogridis
Production design:Jan Roelfs.

Colin Farrell...Alexander the Great
Anthony Hopkins...Ptolemy
Angelina Jolie...Olympia
Val Kilmer...Philip
Jared Leto...Hephastion
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers...Cassander
Rosario Dawson...Roxane
Connor Paolo...Young Alexander
Christopher Plummer...Aristotle
Jean Le Duc...Fat Eunuch

Alexander surrounds its story with fantastic spectacle and scenery-- which the actors then chew in a manner that would make William Shatner proud. The script, meanwhile, is a muddled mess.

Stone tries to cover huge holes in his story by having Anthony Hopkins narrate. In the end, this approach merely slows down the film, as Hopkins’ Ptolemy tells us nothing really insightful, and it becomes painfully apparent that he’s narrating over critical events that we really should see. The film skips across aspects of Alexander’s career and then, as the movie reaches its conclusion, suddenly flashes back to an important scene from its hero’s early life that we really needed to see sooner. I can’t think of any good narrative purpose the chronological displacement serves, save to get us to the first battle before we fall asleep.

The battle sequences are slow coming, but they make for spectacular viewing. A conflict in India involving armies, horses, and armoured elephants proves the best of a number of excellent sequences. Stone’s film lacks heart, but he recreates historical battles in both their epic grandeur and horrible bloodshed. The film also shows us wonders. With locations in Malta, Thailand, and Morocco, top-notch CGI and matte work, Alexander provides visual spectacle to match any SF film. Ancient Babylon, in particular, exceeded my expectations.

Alexander looks good. The film fails fundamentally, however, because it does not allow the audience to care about any of the characters. We jump from scene to scene, with inadequate understanding of motivation and little exposure to their underlying humanity. Nothing draws us into the lives of the people warring and dying onscreen and, despite a cast of noteworthy actors, we see few good performances.

Hopkins handles his part well, but most of the actors put in atrocious, over-the-top performances that might suit Greek tragedy or Wagnerian opera, but don’t work in film. We’re left with veteran actors who behave as though they believe that shouting equals high drama. Alexander is an hysterical epic. By far, the strangest exhibition comes from Angelina Jolie. While nearly everyone speaks with their native accent-- American or British or Irish (after all, the characters would be speaking ancient Greek and other languages; I don’t have a problem in just having them speak naturally in an historical epic)-- Jolie gives Olympia a bizarre accent that sounds like Bela Lugosi’s great-granddaughter playing a gypsy fortuneteller in a school play. Again, the decision baffles. Surely, her ever-present pet snakes and Machiavellian plotting should be enough to convince us Olympia is the exotic witch Stone apparently believes she was.

This film makes a mess of its male/female relationships, and doesn’t fare any better with its men. Stone has no idea what to do with Alexander’s purported (by some) bisexuality. A filmmaker can ignore this, explore it, or have the actors subtly reference it. Stone chooses the final option, except he seems to have lost all sense of subtlety and, since the film’s great weakness is the failure to explore and develop character, we see just enough to know that Stone wanted to explore the topic, and that he failed to do so.

The film appears to contain some kind of Iraqi war/War on Terror subtext in the early battles with the Persians. References are made to Alexander completing–- and exceeding–- his father’s quest, perhaps going further than he should. He tells his troops they are free men facing an evil despot, a notion which the film then problematizes. The Persian leader superficially resembles Osama bin Laden. I have no idea if Stone intended any of this, but it seems plausible; he’s always been a political director. Of course, any film about a man conquering the world because he believes doing so will improve it will naturally resonate with certain views of America’s turn-of-the-millennium foreign policies.

Alexander looks good, and no doubt Stone had excellent cinematic intentions, but he has spliced together a patchwork of great set pieces, uncertain history, camp performances, and sandal epic that fails as a film.

A variation of this review, by this author, first appeared at bureau42