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It’s impossible to watch Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon (2023) and not compare it to Abel Gance’s epic masterpiece Napoléon (1927). By comparison Scott’s film feels heavy and directionless; a behemoth of a blockbuster weighed down by the tired gestures of the Oscar friendly biopic. Gance’s Napoléon lives with a verve and vitality that persists even today almost one-hundred years later. Gance’s Napoléon has the kinetic energy of a work that pushes the limits of its medium; a film that is as much about its subject as it is about discovering what the cinema can be.

Ridley Scott’s film is an epic with nothing to prove. The space that Scott once allowed in his films to immerse the viewer in the tactile world of a narrative has long been supplanted by the stylistic excess of the blockbuster. Scott’s films once looked to recreate the visual majesty and technical innovations of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Today, however, Scott’s films are more akin to the works of a Spielberg.

It’s ironic that Barry Lyndon, the film that so inspired the Scott brothers, was made because Kubrick’s own film about Napoleon fell through. Scott’s Napoleon is as far from Barry Lyndon and his own The Duelists (1977) as Gance’s film is from something like Guardians of the Galaxy. Scott’s Napoleon presents a lifetime of history as a series of rapid vignettes that each encapsulate a single blurb of a wikipedia article. Scott does not recreate the world of the early nineteenth century like Kubrick did, nor does he reinvent the cinema as Gance once did. No, Napoleon‘s only achievement is that it exists within the rubric of the historical blockbuster.

This rubric that imprisons Napoleon is partly of Scott’s own devising. Films like Gladiator (2000) established the formula by which almost every historical drama hopeful for an Academy Award is made. Napoleon is a film made for awards. Despite Scott’s suggestion that the film is better in his longer cut à la Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), Napoleon never amounts to anything more than a trite, wholly derivative spectacle committed to taking itself seriously.