There was, to begin with, Braveheart. That film's depiction of violent, manly battles in an undifferentiated Olden Days setting begat Gladiator, and between the two of them, the five Oscars each of them won (overlapping only on Best Picture - they didn't even win the same Sound award), and the huge amount of money Gladiator made along the way, the pair managed to resurrect the old-fashioned historical action epic for the 21st Century. Add in Peter Jackson's massive box office juggernaut of The Lord of the Rings, and the surprise is not that a genre left for dead in the 1960s was revived, but there weren't more of the things (they never became quite the self-perpetuating machine of Ancient World epics in the 1960s, when they helped to kill the Hollywood system as it existed then, but they have still not died off, only slowed to reliable drip of one every year or two).

We arrive now at a particularly time-stamped version of the trend, from 2004. It was the year that the splashy failure of Oliver Stone's Alexander reminded everybody of why they'd stopped making the things in the first place. But before that could happen, the historical epic about men with swords battling other men with swords, in battle scenes that look very much like the battle scenes in a lot of other movies, had a major international hit with Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, a men's shampoo ad in the form of an adaptation of The Iliad that would have had to work a hell of a lot harder to miss the point of The Iliad any more thoroughly. It is, to begin with, a "realistic" version of the founding work of Western literature, one of the reasons it so clearly identifies itself as a product of the mid-'00s (and later, of course; 2014 pops in to say hi, and to make sure everybody is excited about seeing Exodus: Gods and Kings), right down to the way that "realism" badly needs those scare quotes. It's not just telling a heavily mythological story with all the myth ripped out artlessly; it's treating the plot and characters with a thoughtless presentism that front-loads modern attitudes into a framework that is flawlessly designed to express the mores and concerns of a society whose values were very, very different than ours. It's one thing for Troy to be a blunt-force indictment of the George W. Bush administration and its gallop towards war in Iraq; that's the kind of interpretation of classic texts through modern prisms that has been going on for centuries, with Homer's epics serving as particularly fertile fodder for such exercises. It's quite another for it to re-imagine most of its characters into such psychologically contemporary figures that the plot, hinging on ancient notions of duty, honor, and value, can barely function in the wake of it.

And so, instead of the rage of Achilles, Peleus's son, driven by the love of glory and prideful in his semi-divinity we get the sullen moping of Achilles, anachronistically obsessed with political justice and played by a disastrously out-of-his-depths Brad Pitt as a mournful, introspective sort who hates war passionately, and hates himself for being good at it. That's a fine character for a movie about a bloody, pointless war. It is not, however, a fine character for a movie about ancient Greece, and Pitt's woeful performance is merely the point of the spear, leading the way for the rest of a movie that cannot pretend, except in the solitary performance of Peter O'Toole as Priam, that it takes place in a pre-modern era. The things people say, and the way they say them, the relationships between characters, the general sensitivity and weepy psychoanalysing that courses through every performance and character, these are not the stuff of heightened historical fiction. They are the stuff of a drama about people in 2004, who happen to be wearing old-fashioned costumes and wandering around on sets that evoke something that's close enough to the ancient world that it probably doesn't matter where or when in the ancient world, specifically.

But then, the point of Troy is not to bring history to life, but to bring battles to life, which it does with impersonal efficiency. Wolfgang Petersen is not the greatest of all directors, but he was rarely if ever so mirthlessly functional in his shepherding of a movie through its paces. To have seen any of the LOTR movies is to have seen the best of Troy's action, and even that's an unfair comparison; unfair to LOTR, anyway. Between the instant-tanner hue of Roger Pratt's cinematography (taking the concept of the Bronze Age just a little too far) and the patent inauthenticity of the CGI armies, the film's action looks chintzy and far more slapdash and cheap than I am certain must have been the case. But that's what happens when you blankly copy everything without knowing why: other than their colors, the battles couldn't possibly evoke Braveheart more than they do in the rhythm of the cutting or the framing of shots, and even James Horner's score openly pilfers from his music in that film, in exactly the same places (sometimes, when he is bored, he steals a little bit from his Willow score instead). Except that, where Mel Gibson's filmmaking was driven by God knows what demons that pushed him to craft his film with an energy that vibrates right off the screen; Petersen's was driven by the observation that he could copy Gibson. Or Peter Jackson, or Ridley Scott, or pick it.

As a result, Troy has only the most desultory action, filmed with a good sense of size but none at all of drama: perversely, when we can see Greek boats filling the entire anamorphic frame, it ceases to be impressive, because there's no scale or comparison. It just becomes graphically arbitrary lines and colors at a certain point, and Troy makes a habit of finding that point and squatting there, unmoving, until it has exhausted its supply of effects animators for the time being.

Even so, the action is always, always better than the human drama, which presents a team of actors ranging from the sublimely talented to the barely adequate, all mashed down to the same level of banality by a litany of lines that strive for heroic grandeur but also want to have modernist crackly and crispness. That's a terrible thing to attempt. And mixed with the film's obviously unacceptable desire to marry contemporary morality to a story that has absolutely nothing contemporary about it, we end up with a bunch of people who feel like kids in overly expensive costumes play-acting at Greek Warriors. Thrill to a watery Orlando Bloom as Paris and Diane Kruger breathily puffing out all her lines as Helen! Delight in Sean Bean getting a rare non-villainous, non-dead part as an unnecessarily solemn and signally un-clever Odysseus! Be baffled by Brendan Gleeson's curiously pathetic Menelaus! Gape in amazement at Brian Cox's chomping down on the set with his monumentally overripe, campy Agamemnon - actually, so that last one is pretty okay. Given the film's petulant insistence on making all this a grubby little political parable about imperialists going to war on false pretenses, and its absurd hatchet job of the mythological Agamemnon as a result, the choices Cox made are very nearly the best ones. It's not a legitimately good performance, like the one O'Toole is giving, but it's fun and feisty and lively, a description that applies to very little in this movie.

Pitt and Eric Bana, who plays Hector, the hero of Troy opposite the Greek hero Achilles, certainly are neither feisty nor lively; in the two central roles, the significantly unmatched actors seem hellbent on racing towards the bottom, to determine which can more openly telegraph how sad and lonely and pensive he is. Not a great fit for a movie based on Greek myth, not a great fit for a movie selling itself on the rollicking scope of its CGI battle scenes either. It's simultaneously too airless and serious with all its glowering about history and memory, and too ridiculous with its over-the-top everything visually. It is tacky crap, and tacky crap that frequently vanishes up its own ass.

And yet! It is merely, in that respect, hearkening back to the old '60s sword & sandal films, which are today defensible mostly only on the level of spirited kitsch. Those were expensive effects showcases too, and they suffered from most of the same flaws as Troy: stiff acting, impossible dialogue, elaborate sets that only ever look like elaborate sets, costumes that are far too clean. So hooray for the explosion of CGI in the 2000s: it made it possible to re-make the mistakes that blew up an industry two generations earlier. So much for remembering history.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2004
-Michael Moore's essay film Fahrenheit 9/11 exemplifies the bitterly divided political landscape, and taps it for a stunning amount of money
-Quentin Tarantino releases the second half of his ambitious tribute to the international history of exploitation cinema, Kill Bill
-The mostly forgotten Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow blazes new ground in computer-created sets for "live-action" films

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2004
-Sembene Ousmane's brilliant Moolaadé addresses the bleak issue of female genital mutilation with sparkling visual wit and rage
-Jean-Luc Godard has the closest thing he'll ever have to a late-period popular hit, Notre musique
-The child-driven domestic drama Nobody Knows makes a major director out of Koreeda Hirokazu