May 18, 2004

Troy: Epic story takes on mock-epic proportions

I just got back tonight from seeing the new Wolfgang Peterson epic, Troy, starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Peter O'Toole. It's a good story, but a bit of a disappointment as far as its faithfulness to its source. At least Peterson was honest enough to say it was "inspired by" rather than "based upon" The Iliad.

First, the positives. I'm really impressed with how far CGI has come, thanks to the recent Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings battle scenes pushing the envelope. It's impossible to tell where the real set ends and the CG virtual set begins. An early scene of a thousand Greek ships sailing toward Troy was particularly breathtaking. For the most part, the acting was solid; Peter O'Toole in particular was excellent as Priam, king of Troy. On the other hand, although Pitt as Achilles looks good (though perhaps a little too pretty for the greatest warrior in history), his delivery is a little wooden; Orlando Bloom's Paris comes across as a bit of a weenie. Also, the soundtrack is overbearing and gets tedious after a while, as it's just infinite variations on the same theme over and over again.

The problem with Troy is not the dramatic liberties it takes with the story. Achilles dies at the end of the story, instead of the middle. Menelaus dies in combat instead of at home. The seige of Troy is compressed from ten years to around two weeks. These are arguably justifiable changes made for the sake of good storytelling on film rather than papyrus.

Rather, it is the complete eviscerating of the text of any transcendental properties. There's nothing bigger than the characters. Homer's epic starts with Paris deciding a dispute with three goddesses over which is the most beautiful; when he chooses Aphrodite, she rewards him with Helen. In Peterson's version, they run off together after a one-night stand. The gods pervade Homer, but are noticeably absent in this movie. Sure, they get lots of lip service (mostly complaints that they aren't leading the armies) and Achilles knocks the head off a gilt statue of Apollo, but that's about it. Of course, this also means that the back-story of Achilles' invulnerability (and the source of his one weakness) goes out the window too; now he's just really good at killing people.

Moreover, the characters don't fight for any transcendent values. In The Iliad, the Greeks go to war for honour; all of Helen's old suitors had made a pact with Menelaus that they would defend her. In Peterson's adaptation, Agamemnon pays lip service to the honour of Menelaus and Helen, but in reality he is a political opportunist using this scandal as an excuse to extend his empire. (The allusions to the current conflict in Iraq are heavy-handed, by the way.) Achilles fights for no greater principle than his own glory. If he doesn't feel like fighting, he just stays in his tent with a wench or two. He isn't even given the choice between long life and obscurity vs. early death but great fame that he is in The Iliad.

Troy is enjoyable as a sword-and-sandal epic, but don't expect that by seeing it you're going to get any great insight into Homer.