Author’s Note: This is my 562nd movie review, but the first in this new experimental format. When I review movies I like to talk around the movie: sometimes the underlying themes; the pathos, ethos, and mythos that the movie comprises, and how we relate to it. I may talk about my experience of watching the film; and I try to give important information so that you can judge whether you’d like it (and of course whether I do). I talk very little about the plot itself, feeling that if you want the plot, you can go see the movie.
I have this rule when reviewing movies based on another famous work: judge the movie for the movie and not the book (or play, comic, etc.) that it comes from.
The new movie Troy (which opened last Friday) makes this awfully difficult, because it is based on arguably the most famous story in all of Western Literature: The Iliad (detailing the Trojan War).
However, I swore to do my best to be impartial. It wasn’t easy, as things got off to a rocky start. Several of us were meeting Sunday night for a 9:00 show, and one misunderstanding after another led to my seat given away in the sold-out show. Then the ticket lady didn’t want to switch me to a later theatre, because my ticket was from a machine, and I didn’t have the card on me, and I just felt the night slipping away.
Luckily I got a hold of Aslan, who also had his seat taken away, and he came out and commiserated with me. Nearby was a trendy restaurant with a goddess working there, so we decided to hang until the 10:45 show. The goddess wasn’t there, but there was another employee who filled in nicely in the “how do people get this beautiful?” department.
Thus, a pleasant hour was spent eating chocolate soufflé (sinful), coming up with non-traditional super heroes (more on that another time), and other lively conversation; all while trying not to gawk at the collective proof of God’s desire to put beautiful things on earth.
Somehow the conversation got around to Exes. I expressed the opinion that with some of my previous girl friends, I secretly hoped they went on to someone great, like Wayne Gretzky or Stephen Hawking. Think about it a minute: whoever your Ex dates will forever be in a group with you; the loves of so-and-so. There are a few Exes where I ended up pleading with them: “Please don’t date the guy from prison!”
Anyway, we’re back in the theatre and I’m in a good mood, essential to enjoying a film (Hyperion’s Movie Rule #24). But like I wrote earlier, it was difficult, with all the changes made to the story. To highlight three:
A 10-year war was compacted to 4 days; plus a 12-day funeral break. At first I was outraged that the complexity of watching this utter futility (part of the whole point for making the battle last so long) would be reduced to standard Hollywood fare. However, I let that go.
This is I suppose a personal note, but to me Helen of Troy was not the most beautiful or even beguiling woman of all time. Heck; there were other women in the film more interesting. This may seem like nitpicking, but the mythology of Helen is a rich one. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Faust makes a deal with the Devil, part of which allows him to go back in time to see the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Upon seeing her, Faust exclaims:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies.
Come, Helen, come give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in those lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
That’s a lot to live up to, I know, but if you’re going to put on a giant’s clothes…make sure you’re very tall.
Most importantly, the gods are removed from this story as characters. They’re mentioned often, but it’s just lip service, as they make nary an appearance, other than the odd statue. In one sense, this was extremely disappointing. I’ve always felt that the difference between Shakespearian Tragedy and Greek Tragedy was this: in Shakespeare the characters themselves bring their downfall, through the tragic flaws and their own stupid decisions. Greek characters make their fair share of stupid decisions, but there is fatalism to it all, because it’s already been decided.
This is depicted with the metaphor of the Olympus gods. The gods are always scheming and meddling in the human world, and the people are usually pawns, although they do sometimes rise to fight that fate. In this way the Greeks could explain their worldview, their mythology, and their social outlook.
Maybe it’s because today’s audiences are too educated (or too uneducated) or just too far removed from that time to appreciate the rich layer of meaning the gods would add. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the movie is almost three hours long, and adding a phalanx of characters wouldn’t have helped. All I know is that I missed the extra layer of meaning, and was initially disappointed.
But, about an hour in, I forced myself to forget everything I knew about Homer’s Iliad. I had to forget the story, the characters, and the timeline, even the main thrust of why we have this tale, and just watch this movie.
Once I did this, I was able to enjoy Troy for the spectacle that it was on its own terms, and not anyone else’s.
I have read several reviews since seeing Troy, and I can only surmise that most reviewers aren’t able to separate their knowledge of the Greek classic. This is a really entertaining movie. It’s been compared to Lord of the Rings, which is unfair, and Gladiator; perhaps a more apt side-by-side. Troy is 10 times better than Gladiator ever was.
For one thing, the characters are fleshed out. Forget what you think you know about Paris, Hector, Achilles, Priam, and all the rest: these characters up on screen are alive and vibrant, at times bold and brash, at times nuanced and subtle. There are reasons for the things they do, and for the most part the movie takes the time to let us see.
At the heart of it all is Brad Pitt’s Achilles. Pitt is one of the most maligned actors of this generation, which I think mostly stems from him being so good-looking, and therefore dismissed. Don’t believe it. Achilles here is the lynchpin of this movie. We’re given the mightiest warrior the world has ever seen: a leader, a visionary, a glory-hound; both a great and terrible man. The movie wouldn’t have worked if Achilles was just another jock. Pitt gives us a breathing living legend.
Part of that is the physical prowess, and Achilles looks fantastic, as I’d imagine the greatest warrior ever might. I’ve heard criticism that he’s too hunky, but what’s a warrior supposed to look like: Harry Potter? There’s also this signature move Achilles does in battle. Quite cool.
The rest of the male cast is stellar as well. Hector is brave and noble, Paris is a sniveling punk. Menelaus, Agamemnon, and Odysseus chew up the scenery as well. Peter O’Toole is especially vibrant as old King Priam. (If Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix can garner Oscar nominations for the far inferior Gladiator, I don’t see why Pitt and O’Toole can’t as well.)
The women are a different story. Like I wrote, Helen is basically just there. Julie Christie (as King Priam’s wife Thetis) is wasted, as is Hector’s wife. Rose Byrne as Briseis, the virgin taken captive by the Greeks who falls in love with Achilles is the only one to really hold her own. What can I say? The Greeks cared much more about men then they did about women back then.
Many things are done right. The pacing never feels forced to me. The relatives all look like each other (we’ve seen countless movies where they didn’t even bother). The sets are great looking and never have that Biblical-epic Styrofoam feel.
The computer graphics both help and hurt. The sight of the Greek ships coming to Troy is quite neat (although the landing ends up a bit like Saving Private Achilles, but no matter), as are some of the crowd shots. However, it does serve to remind us that they are graphics, since you could never in a million years find and outfit that many ships or soldiers. For the most part this isn’t misused.
Some of the fight scenes are inspired, and were it not for the superior Return of the King so fresh in my mind, I would say more here. However, all of that is redeemed by the mother of all personal battles, the fight between Hector and Achilles. Because of personal issues (does it even matter?) Achilles comes to the gates of Troy alone, and challenges Hector, who is honor-bound to accept. The fight is spectacular; I can’t remember seeing anything better in that genre of battle. The way Achilles uses his spear and sword will leave you gaping.
I feel like I haven’t given this movie justice (and I haven’t even gotten to the Trojan Horse, which is nifty), so let me wrap up with this: I think that if we had never hear of Achilles, of Hector, of The Illiad, most would be praising Troy as a fantastically entertaining movie. The character development would be lauded, the pacing applauded, the women ogled, and the fights cheered. This would be a huge hit and an early Oscar contender.
But Troy does come from The Iliad, and of course can’t live up to it. Nonetheless; it’s a fine piece of film.
Suspension of Disbelief Index (out of 10): This is much more realistic than the story, but you still can’t take it literally (like when the thousands of soldiers stop to watch a fight; that’s how it went in these things). Nothing supernatural happens, but this isn’t history. 5.
Genre Grade: Historical Epic has to be the genre, even though this never happened, and I give it an A-.
Pantheon Percentile: I think this will be watchable for years to come. I give it an 83, meaning it’s better than 83% of the movies ever made.
Enjoy the film, and beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
May 18, 2004