I can't think of a modern historical epic that's been received with more ire than Oliver Stone's 'Alexander.' Even before the film hit theaters, it was heralded as an inevitable flop of disastrous proportions. When it finally debuted here in the US, critics declared it "unwatchable" and it failed to catch on with moviegoers as well, earning a paltry $34 million against its $155 million dollar budget.
'The film itself tells the sweeping tale of Alexander the Great (356 BC - 323 BC), one of the most renowned military commanders in the history of ancient Greece. As a boy (Connor Paolo), Alexander struggles to navigate the relationship between his father, the lecherous King Philip (Val Kilmer), and his mother, a barbarian sorceress named Olympias (Angelina Jolie). As a young man (Colin Farrell), he finds himself torn between his loyalties and a throne that's suddenly thrust upon him. Finally, as a fair and just ruler (still portrayed by Farrell), he embarks on a dangerous militaristic campaign across the Asian continent that takes him into strange, Persian territories populated with hordes of new subjects.
Added into the mix are copious subplots that often make 'Alexander' feel more like a historical documentary than a dramatic epic. The king is personally tutored by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), conquers the majority of the world then-known to the Greeks, inspires a soldier named Ptolemy (portrayed in separate eras by Elliot Cowan and Anthony Hopkins) to greatness, takes a foreign wife named Roxanne (Rosario Dawson), and slowly loses his grasp of the men who swore to fight by his side (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jared Leto among them). In short, the story follows Alexander as he changes warfare and the world, sparking philosophy, tactics, and ideologies that continue to echo through time, even into our modern age.
Although 'Alexander' has been recut two times now -- once for a Director's Cut (seven minutes shorter than the 175 minute theatrical version) and once for this "Revisited" cut (which is substantially longer at 214 minutes) -- it seems that regardless of Stone's efforts to reinterpret his own material, his film just can't escape its poor reputation and lackluster critical response (it currently rates 16% on Rotten Tomatoes). Listening to Stone's Director's Introduction and Commentary, you can almost hear the defeat in his voice -- he's genuinely baffled by the negative outcry against his labor of love.
It's unfortunate too, because despite all the negative buzz, 'Alexander' isn't an awful film across the board. Yes, it has a long list of well-documented flaws, ranging from the merely superficial (Jolie's age, Farrell's blonde hair and the film's seemingly random assortment of accents) to the more fundamental (dense plotting, heavy-handed performances, and an inconsistent overall tone), but if you're able to look past these issues, there's a surprisingly stirring wartime drama underneath that examines a complex man who falls victim to his own pride.
The military campaigns are tense, easy to follow, and brilliantly filmed -- the blood and violence are mere window dressings in an exploration of influence, intelligence, and Alexander's surprising humanity. Likewise, the political scenes are nicely acted, eerily poignant, and reminiscent of historical maneuvers and political power plays exhibited throughout the 20th century. Through Stone's eyes, Alexander is a man ahead of his time -- as such, I always feel real sympathy and compassion for the conqueror despite his eventual mistakes and stubbornness.
Although this "Revisited" cut of 'Alexander' fails to resolve any of the film's more fundamental issues, I personally found it more rewarding than the original as it adds further heft to the earlier film's stronger points. Stone has resurrected an enormous amount of material that allows for further development of key characters (particuarly Ptolemy and Olympias), increased violence and gore (take one look at the battle in India), more complex and controversial relationships between key characters (especially Alexander's relationships with Roxanne, Olympias, and Philip), and a more honest examination of the homosexual overtones simply hinted at in the other two cuts of the film. Stone also uses this opportunity to completely restructure his nonlinear narrative resulting in stronger dominant themes and more nuanced subtleties.
Detractors will almost surely describe this cut as "more of the same," and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to those who didn't find anything to enjoy the first time around. Still, for my money, 'Alexander' remains one of the most remarkable "flawed films" I've ever seen. Watching this new cut, even though I could still pinpoint the things that go wrong on a scene by scene basis, I found myself moved by the time the credits roll. It's not for everyone, but those who are able to put their own biases and the film's bad reputation aside may be surprised to find a lot to love in this ugly duckling.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'Alexander Revisited' showcases a confident, stable picture that's arguably reference quality. Color reproduction is simply gorgeous and features nicely saturated fleshtones and accurate primaries. The film's palette remains vibrant whether it's rendering intentionally over-exposed exterior shots or dim, fire-lit interior scenes. Even when Stone pulls or pushes color from a shot, the stability of the image and tonal quality of the hues remains intact.
Contrast is also dead on throughout the film with solid whites and deep blacks. The illusion of depth is breathtaking at times -- look no further than a shot at the end of disc one where Alexander stands atop a snowy mountain in a crimson cloak. Simply beautiful. Even more importantly, the dimension of the image doesn't fall victim to crushing issues or obscured delineation. In fact, even the darkest rooms contain fluid shadows that fall across objects rather than blotting them out.
Fine detail is aloso remarkably sharp -- pores and hair stand out without feeling enhanced, textures are earthy and believable, and background elements show off the exacting attention to detail of the set designers. The transfer has a moderate veneer of grain overtop the image that retains the filmic quality of the print while remaining unobtrusive. As expected of a recent film, the print is in excellent shape and I only caught glimpses of minor nicks here and there (generally in the newly inserted footage).
There are a handful of insignificant blemishes in 'Alexander Revisited,' but they collectively appear on screen for less than thirty seconds and fail to make a dent in the film's overall video rating. Specifically, there are three bursts of light pixelation (look for a quick shot during the final battle when Alexander regroups and charges), three undersaturated cutaway shots (watch Jared Leto as he stands near the death bed in the third act), and two interior shots in which extras appear unnaturally flushed (watch the faces in the courtyard when Cleitus criticizes Alexander).
Even so, this is a breathtaking transfer that will easily please fans and should wow even those who despise the film itself. It provides an instantly noticeable upgrade over every version that's appeared on DVD and should make this double-dip easier to stomach for those who might have been on the fence.
(Note that the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions of 'Alexander Revisited' include identical VC-1 transfers.)
Though not as strong as the video, this HD DVD edition of 'Alexander Revisited' features an intricate, pulse-pounding Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (640 kbps) that's surprisingly solid. Dialogue is crisp, well prioritized, and is rarely drowned out by the enormity of the on-screen chaos (excluding moments when a loss in audible clarity is clearly the director's intention). Voices settle comfortably across the front channels and trickle into the rear speakers to help create convincing environmental acoustics. The surrounds are active with ambient noise throughout the production (even in the quietest of scenes) and I was able to easily immerse myself in the film without any audible distractions.
Likewise, the track's dynamic range is particularly impressive, showcasing frequent natural bass rumbles and stable treble tones. Channel movement is unbelievably clean at times and directionality is downright astounding. The battle scenes are the centerpieces of this track and each one delivers a unique and resonant audio experience. Just listen to the climactic battle on disc two in which Alexander leads his forces against an Indian army using elephant riders -- their footfalls shook my home theater, the shouts of the armies swarmed the soundscape in waves, and the hisses of arrows whizzed behind my head. Best of all, the blaring war cries of the elephants shot back and across the soundfield, leaving me with literal chills as they trailed off and echoed through the virtual jungle.
Still, as strong as this track is, I can only imagine how much better this mix might have been if it had been presented with a high-end PCM or TrueHD track. Warner Brothers seems to be stuck in a rut when it comes to technical audio quality -- I personally think they should be getting as much flak as Universal received earlier this summer (when the video transfers on their HD DVD catalog titles weren't as stunning as they should've been). High definition allows for staggering audio upgrades, and studios should be making the most of this whenever they're given the chance.
(Note that the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the HD DVD and the standard Dolby Digital track on the Blu-ray versions of this release feature the same audio bitrate, and I could not detect a distinguishable difference between the two.)
'Alexander Revisited' in high-def includes most of the extras that appeared on each of the film's previous releases on DVD -- in fact, the only "missing" supplements are the commentaries that were recorded for the theatrical and director's cuts of the film. Since exclusive commentaries have been recorded specifically for this high-def edition, it's a non-issue.
First up is an "Introduction by Director Oliver Stone" that sets the tone. The director makes it clear that he sees 'Alexander' as "a flawed film" and he even goes so far as to predict that this cut of the film will polarize fans and non-fans even more. It's a candid intro that certainly isn't the typical "here ya go" from the director -- I appreciate that Stone uses this as an opportunity to address and explain the existence of three cuts of his film.
He also lovingly explains his inclusion of an intermission (and the subsequent division of the film onto two discs) on the Revisited cut as a throwback to the golden age of cinema. Format loyalists who have posted rants about this specific topic can lower their knives -- 'Alexander Revisited' is being presented on multiple discs simply because Oliver Stone wanted it that way.
Next comes a trio of well-made, in-depth docs by Sean Stone (the director's son) that appeared on the 2-disc "Director's Cut" DVD. Together they comprise an hour-and-a-half documentary that examines the sometimes strained production of 'Alexander.' "Resurrecting Alexander" (27 minutes) explores the preparation, planning, and execution of the set design, costuming, effects (special and practical), and cinematography of the film. "Perfect is the Enemy of Good" (29 minutes) is a sobering look at the director's notorious attention to detail and the tireless research that helped build a startlingly accurate reproduction of Alexander's ancient culture. "The Death of Alexander" (31 minutes) looks at the problems, delays, and tribulations of the shoot. In all three docs, Stone's son portrays a stark and honest look at his father and the problematic production.
"Vangelis Scores Alexander" (4 minutes) provides a look at the composer creating the film's music in real time as finalized footage plays in his studio. Sadly, this featurette is a bit heavy on talk and (like others of its kind) fails to deliver a compellingly thorough look into the art of score composition. Still, it's worth the brief time it takes to watch.
Last but not least, this release includes the film's "Theatrical Trailer" and "Teaser Trailer."
(Note that although Stone's introduction is presented in full high-def, all of the other video features listed above are presented in 480i/p widescreen.)
Oliver Stone's 'Alexander' is certainly not a perfect film, but I've never found it the total trainwreck its reputed to be. Especially in this extended "Revisited" edition, the film packs an impressive punch as it recreates an enormous amount of history with stunning battle scenes and interesting characters. As an HD DVD presentation, this one's almost sure to wow, thanks to a demo-worthy video transfer, a convincing audio mix, and more than ten worth hours of candid supplemental material (most of which is exclusive to this high definition release).
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.