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Blu-ray Review: 'Alexander: The Ultimate Cut'

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The Film:

Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” has had a long and bizarre history. Upon the release of the original Theatrical Cut back in 2004, it was heavily slammed by critics as a “ponderous, talky, and emotionally distant biopic.” Later on, Stone revisited the film on several occasions, offering up different cuts in an attempt to get closer to his original vision. First, There was a “Director’s Cut” that clocked in at 157 minutes, removing eight minutes of footage to fine-tune the original cut. This was followed by the “Final Cut” that ran for 214 minutes, getting the film much closer to the epic he had in mind from the start. Now he has come up with yet another version, this time deemed the “Ultimate Cut,” which runs for 206 minutes. This time around, he has removed eight minutes of footage that he thought might be confusing for audiences who were not too familiar with the life of Alexander, while also rearranging the structure of certain scenes in an attempt to make it flow better.

While I’ve never seen the Director’s Cut or the Final Cut, I have seen the Theatrical and Ultimate Cuts. In fact, I still recall seeing the first version when it was in theaters ten years ago. My thoughts at the time were that it wasn’t particularly bad, but given the fact that I didn’t remember much from it, it couldn’t have been particularly good either. It’s intriguing to watch a different version of a film that a director has been trying to perfect over the past ten years. Whether it was the harsh reviews that spurned Stone on or the desire to bring to life what he originally intended, it has become somewhat of an obsession of his that has led to a very unique opportunity for cinema fans.

However, before I get too ahead of myself, let’s take a look at what Stone’s massive opus is about. The story is told in flashback from the point of view of Old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), a former soldier in Alexander’s army, who now rules as Pharaoh of Egypt. In this new cut, we are almost immediately taken to one of the biggest battles Alexander (Colin Farrell) ever fought, which happened to be one of the key battles for control of the Persian Empire. From here, the film jumps about, showing us his further campaigns in Asia while also going back and covering his relationship with his “father,” King Philip (Val Kilmer), and mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie). As Alexander pushes further and further East, dissention begins to stir in some of his men who believe they should turn back, but the young king is unwilling to give up on his dream of going all the way to the end of the world.

After making my way through this nearly three and a half hour cut of the film, I’m forced to conclude that the consensus that was formed for the original version still holds true for Stone’s latest attempt as well. There are indeed long stretches of the film that are simply too verbose, which can be very damaging when the dialogue is doing nothing to help enrich the story or characters. As far as the differences in this version, one fatal error that Stone has made is making the first big battle the first time we meet Alexander, so without knowing much about his character at all (besides what Old Ptolemy has mentioned), we are forced to sit through an overly-long and monotonous battle sequence which the audience has no stake in. In the original cut, the battle was about 40-45 minutes into the film, giving us time to get to know Alexander a little bit before he faces one of the biggest challenges of his life. Without having that character development first, we’re simply watching two armies clash in a desert.

One of the major issues facing the original cut and this cut is the jarring time shifts that go on throughout the film. Every few minutes we’re forced to jump backwards and forward, ten years, nine years, 40 years, 30 years, over and over again. This ends up being very disorienting as you try to follow along with the story. Stone has stated that he wanted to have the past and present told in a parallel fashion, but it probably would have worked better with a simple chronological structure, one that still maintains the flashback from Old Ptolemy, but one that allows for the story to be told in a straightforward, less disruptive manner.

Perhaps the main reason that Stone’s telling of this extraordinary man’s life just doesn’t work is that it lacks a true focus on what kind of man he was. We know he conquered much of the known world, and we know that this was a physically and emotionally trying campaign, but as far as the man himself, we don’t learn much about him. Because of this, Stone’s epic is mostly bland and unengaging. When combined with the scattershot focus on Alexander’s life, it’s unlikely that any cut or arrangement of these scenes would result in a decent look at his accomplishments. It’s a somewhat sad conclusion given that this was apparently a passion project for Stone, but without such a fundamentally important element, the result comes as no surprise.

Video/Audio:

This set presents both the Ultimate and Theatrical Cuts of the film in 2.4:1, 1080p High Definition transfers of beautiful quality. The opening title sequence (approximately the first 30 seconds of the film) appears to be a little blurry, but afterward, the picture is crystal clear throughout the entire runtime, allowing the amazing photography of the film to shine brightly. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is presented at perfect levels, giving you all elements of the soundtrack in an easy to hear manner. Overall, there’s nothing noticeably wrong in either area, resulting in a great experience from both.

Special Features:

  • Art Book with Concept Drawings, Storyboards, and Behind the Scenes Photos
  • Correspondence Memos Between Oliver Stone and the Cast and Crew

The Ultimate Cut

  • Commentary by Oliver Stone
  • The Real Alexander and the World He Made
  • Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s Alexander

Theatrical Cut

  • Commentary by Oliver Stone and Robin Lane Fox
  • Resurrecting Alexander
  • Perfect is the Enemy of Good
  • The Death of Alexander
  • Vangelis Scores Alexander

Starting with the commentary tracks, the Ultimate Cut commentary by Stone is quite intriguing. He discusses the changes made to the film, the reasons behind them, and the history behind the different cuts, making it very much worth listening too. The commentary on the Theatrical Cut is more history based, featuring Stone and a historian discussing the life of Alexander, so if you’re interested in learning more about the young king, then you may find it worth the time. Along the same lines is the featurette “The Real Alexander and the World He Made,” which also tells you a lot more about him.

By far the most fascinating inclusions on these two discs are the featurettes “Fight Against Time,” Resurrecting Alexander,” “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” and “The Death of Alexander,” all filmed by Oliver Stone’s son, Sean Stone. Combined, this is nearly three hours of behind the scenes footage that shows us the making of the film. It’s a great glimpse at how this epic came together and the struggles they had to go through to get it made, so these featurettes are most definitely worth watching. Last and least, there is a very short featurette featuring an interview with Vangelis about scoring the film. He doesn’t have anything interesting to say about it, so it’s one that you can easily skip.

Conclusion:

This new set featuring the Ultimate and Theatrical Cuts of Oliver Stone’s film presents them in great quality and comes with some fantastic special features, but it’s doubtful that this latest version of “Alexander” is going to change anyone’s mind as to the quality of the film itself. The same issues that plagued the original are still present, plus a few new problems in the form of structuring. There is certainly a fantastic story to be told about Alexander the Great, but unfortunately Stone’s scattershot biopic just doesn’t get the job done.

Score: 3/5

Available on Blu-ray starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection, Stalingrad, The Monuments Men, Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill, Grand Piano, Her, Orange is the New Black: Season One, I, Frankenstein, Final Exam, Evilspeak, Star Trek: Enterprise - Season Four, The Legend of Hercules, Dead Shadows, Sorcerer, Copperhead, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle

Now playing in theaters: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.

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