Oliver Stone's Alexander cost an estimated $150 million to make, and there's no question that every penny made it to the screen, just as there's little doubt that 1963's Cleopatra looks like the sort of movie that could bust a major studio like 20th Century Fox. Alexander has the weight of a historical epic, in the worst possible sense: Gigantic sets are cluttered with ornate period bric-a-brac, massive armies spread across the Eurasian landscape like crawling glaciers, and the dialogue is saturated with portent, as if the famous players were aware that their every utterance would be noted for posterity. With all of these elements in place, only inspired directorial flourishes could keep the film from freezing into a museum piece, but by summoning his inner classicist, Stone has made an excruciating disaster for the ages.
An epic of this scale should open with a bang, but Alexander lies down and plays dead immediately by having Christmas ham Anthony Hopkins, as an aging Ptolemy, monologue endlessly about dead Macedonian ruler Alexander The Great and his complicated legacy. Refusing to cut to the chase, Stone indulges in a long sequence on Alexander's childhood in 4th century B.C., when his loyalties were divided between his scheming, devoted mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and his father King Philip, a once-great general whom Val Kilmer plays like Jim Morrison at his most drunkenly belligerent. After assuming the throne at 20, the bleached-out Alexander (Colin Farrell) leads his armies on a quest to conquer the known world and beyond, starting with the mighty Persian Empire and ending well east into India. Over eight years of battle, Alexander spread Greek culture to the "barbarians," but his achievements have their share of eyebrow-raising distractions, including his marriage to a Bactrian princess (Rosario Dawson) and his homosexual dalliances, particularly with his close friend Hephaestion (Jared Leto).
Alexander's Oedipal and homoerotic overtones require a delicate touch, but Stone doesn't do well with suggestion: Jolie's over-the-top Olympias, always flanked by slithering snakes, looks like she wants to devour her son, and Alexander's male playmates are limited to eyeliner stares and bear hugs. As Alexander's armies cut a wide swath across Persia and beyond, his mission to civilize and "liberate" the region's people carries an undeniable contemporary resonance, and Stone has clearly given a lot of thought to how such aggression will be considered in the annals of history. At times, the film seems like a George W. Bush apologia, at others a condemnation, but Stone's ambivalence seems more confused than complex, and it's hard to get a handle on the film's slippery point of view. But mostly, all sympathies fall to Alexander's soldiers, who labor for a seeming eternity in their gruesome march to the east, then finally beg their leader to bring them home to their wives and families. Many viewers will recognize the feeling.