Mon
Aug 22 2011 1:54pm

Hear The Lamentations Of The Audience: Conan The Barbarian

My late father was a massive Conan nerd; he had boxes and boxes of Conan comics, would hold court endlessly about how awesome Conan was to anyone who didn’t get out of the way fast enough, and took me to both of the movies in the 80s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. (He was deeply impressed that I knew who James Earl Jones in the first, and Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones in the second, were already at the age of like 6). Until the very end, nothing was more sure to bring a smile to dad’s face than the line, “You killed my snake.” I hate to think how terribly disappointed the old boy would have been by the new Conan the Barbarian. It’s really not good. At all.

I do hope you’ll pardon the melodrama of dragging my dad into this, but my mind drifted quite a bit during the movie. Conan the Barbarian makes very little sense, when it bothers to make any sense at all. We should also be perfectly clear about the fact that I was not expecting some grand masterpiece of cinema in Conan. What I was looking for was a movie about a big man with big muscles and a big sword, who over the course of a simple story — “Here bad guy. Kill bad guy. Save world. Crush enemies. Hear lamentations of their women” — kills many people in relatively creative ways, culminating with a large-ish confrontation against the primary villain, which ends in said villain’s death. These are not high standards. This new Conan movie delivers on some of these requirements — Conan is big, has big muscles and a big sword, and he kills people, but not very many, and we don’t always know who they are and why they’re being killed. Almost my entire understanding of the plot came from checking IMDB and Wikipedia to see if anyone else had had more luck figuring out what was going on, because I can’t remember many movies I’ve ever seen that were as lazily written and badly edited as this one.

That caused my mind to wander quite a bit. Aside from reminiscing about my dad, I also noticed that the evil sorceress played by Rose McGowan looked like the product of an illicit night of passion between the Predator and John Travolta in Battlefield Earth, and spent a good few minutes pondering all the attendant ramifications. I also had a rather lengthy conversation — that, considering the emptiness of the theater, disturbed no one — with my friend about whether grunting barbarically six or more times meant that the sword-swinging extras got points toward their SAG card. Then, in the finale, when the villain’s stronghold starts collapsing for no apparent reason, my disgusted question, “Where’d he find this stronghold, Craigslist?” led to a spirited hypothetical discussion — anything to not watch the movie, at that point — about the internet in ancient times.

To be (kind of) fair, the movie starts out promisingly enough. Morgan Freeman narrates, which at least used to be cool, and we see Conan’s mother give birth to him via battlefield C-section, which at least is ridiculous enough to foretell an over-the-top barbaric romp. We jump ahead to Conan as a young teenager, going out into the woods for a rite-of-passage barbarian manliness test; this sequence is the one legitimately awesome sequence in the movie, as Conan is set upon by a people even more barbaric than he is, and he fights multiple armed men single-handed, killing them impressively, bringing back their heads to his alarmed and impressed father (Ron Perlman).

At that point I was fully on board. That scene rocked — one would not be amiss, indeed, in classifying it as “metal” — though that momentum is soon squandered by the arrival of a group of marauders who ransack Conan’s village and either kills or takes everyone hostage. There’s a seemingly interminable sequence that leads up to Conan’s father having to take his own life to save Conan’s, and the bad guys acquiring the final piece of a mythic mask that enables the wearer to rule the world, except it doesn’t, because they need the blood of an Asheronian necromancer to seal the deal. We then jump ahead to grown-up Conan (Jason Momoa) and his buddies rampaging and freeing a bunch of slaves, some of whom are female, attractive, grateful, and bare-breasted, with whom Conan and retinue party. Randomly, one of the guys who killed Conan’s father — whose nose young Conan cut off, rendering his appearance memorable — walks through the frame, and Conan launches some scheme to deliberately get himself arrested, which didn’t make any sense, but led to some cool violence. This marks the last event in the movie that has any kind of decipherable motivation, as everything that follows is a melange of coincidence, bizarre acts in the name of narrative expedience, and things that could only happen if the parties involved did not care in the slightest. The only saving grace is some cool violence and a solid lead performance by Jason Momoa, who was cooler as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, but it’s not fair at all to compare this with that. Game of Thrones was written by writers. Still, Momoa is a more than capable leading man given the qualifications of large muscles and a way with a sword.

The rest of the cast, I’m sure, would rather fly under the radar and let their paychecks clear, which is fine by me. None of them are embarrassingly bad. Director Marcus Nispel, though, has a bit to answer for. He shot the whole movie knowing it would be converted to 3D in post-production, and made no effort whatsoever to make that work. If you look at 3D movies, the ones that kind of work, you notice that everything in the field of vision is in focus. When you flatten them out for 2D, you’ll find that they resemble the deep focus in classic Hollywood movies. They need to be that way so that one object can look closer than another object. Instead, the lazy, unthinking way that Conan is shot makes the 3D look like a kindergartener cut up a few parts of each image and Elmer’s glued them together so blurry stuff is on top of in-focus stuff and it is impossible to see what the hell is supposed to be happening on the screen. At least the first three-quarters of the movie were bright enough that the audience can see that nothing they’re seeing makes any visual sense.

Conan the Barbarian, fortunately, is not a picture anyone was expecting to be any good. As beloved as the original was — and even my dear old dad would admit this — it was no classic piece of cinema. This remake, which bears scant resemblance to its predecessor, or Robert E. Howard, is roughly equivalent in quality to Conan the Destroyer, but without the kitsch factor. Jason Momoa is a legit leading man in an action movie, though, and his muscles are quite impressive. If he’d killed more people, or if the story made just a hair more sense, the remake would be much better than it is. It’s an unfortunate fact in pictures like this, though, that there’s a very sudden and steep drop between “agreeably dumb ultraviolent action movie” and “offensively stupid assault on the senses.”

Finally, I cannot say this strongly enough: DO NOT SEE THIS IN 3D. It was shot in 2D. See it in 2D. It’ll look like a normal badly directed action movie in 2D. So see it in 2D if you absolutely must, and if you’ve got something better to do, even if you’re on the fence about whether that other thing is better, do the other thing. But do not make the mistake that I did. It won’t make the movie good, but it’ll make it less bad, and sometimes that’s the best we can do. 


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

15 comments
Sky Thibedeau
1. SkylarkThibedeau
You'd have thought that the failure of 'Clash of the Titans' would have shown there was no market for incoherant 3d Sword and Sorcery movies. Story does matter especially since the population of REH/Conan fanboyz is half that of Firefly and Stargate so there is no built in audience.
Kadere
2. Kadere
I was not expecting a great film, in fact I was expecting exactly what I got: a slightly bloodier version of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

I think the main problem with this movie for me was that it forgot completely that it was about a barbarian, and that it was rated R. The whole movie really just wanted to be PG-13. It wanted to be just another action-adventure film in late August. And all it said to me was how far back we've stepped since the first Conan.

In Arnold's Conan, Conan has about one page of dialogue the entire film, while Jason has probably 20 pages, and yet not for one second were we unsure of who Conan was, how intellegant, how barbaric, or what he was after. Jason's Conan instead was thinking up grand ways to get in close to bad guys, he was coming up with plans and plots, he knew how to build a canapult, he was nice to women, he was against slavery despite NEVER HAVING BEEN A SLAVE. Jason's was moral, and forthwrite, he fought evil because he knew it was evil, he ran around with a crew of guys like Sinbad the sailor. The most barbaric thing Conan does in this version is cut off a few guys heads as a child.

In Arnold's version almost every woman was topless at some point in the film. Arnold's Conan was not witty, and didn't have any banter with Valeria, and yet we totally understood why these two were together. They were both outcasts, thieves, and hot. Yet Jason's Conan has to come to love Tamara before he can sleep with her in one of the most poorly lit sex scenes ever conseved. Arnold's was given women to rape when he was a slave, but Jason instead frees a hundred topless women in the first 15 minutes and doesn't sleep with a SINGLE ONE. This version of Conan was chaste. It was as though they'd cut off his testicles or at least put a chastity belt on him. Arnold's Conan was barbariac and we saw and understood that, but Jason's was just another version of the PG-13 action adventure hero we got in Prince of Persia, King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. etc.

The villian in this version was played brilliantly by Stephen Lang, and had many of the same motives as James Earl Jones' villian, yet Lang was crazy without being cruel. Jones' villian had given up on his quest for the riddle of steel, and with a look you could see how little he valued human life. He wasn't trying to bring back his dead wife, he had no morals what-so-ever, and that's what made him dangerous. Lang's isn't dangerous, he's just crazy. I like Lang as an actor, but he over plays this villians hand. In the weirdest, and yet actually most truley Conan, scene of the movie it's clear that his daughter wants to sleep with him. They have this weird incestious thing going on, but it's played as though they're outside the norm, yet Arnold's version would have played it AS the norm. Lang had all the villianous characteristics without any of the bite of Jones. When Arnold killed Jones in the original it wasn't in some conviluted way, he just cut his head off. Jones couldn't control his mind because Conan was too simple, and then Arnold hacked off his head without a word. Jason's doesn't kill Lang as simply. I won't give away what he does but it's conviluted, impersonal, totally hookie, and shows how unsavage and unbarbaric Jason's Conan is.

Also, side note complaint. I didn't understand what happened to the sand guys who were attacking Conan. Conan fought them but he could only cut through sand and then they'd just reform. Conan didn't come up with a master plan to defeat them, they simply just stopped coming so Jason could face off against Lang. I don't understand what happened there.

The entire movie felt like it was playing out to a constructed plot. We had to have the father dying scene, we had to have the jumping off the cliff scene, the talking over the fire scene, the meeting his men scene, the training with his dad scene, the being chased by the witch in the catacomb scene, the sea monster scene, the girl getting kidnapped scene, the priest saying he values life before dying scene, etc. Every scene of this movie can be found in every other action adventure film made in the last 20 years. It was a write by numbers plot full of every dumb cliche you could think of in a action adventure wanna be It Happened One Night vehicle movie.

All of that said though, I thought the art direction was fantastic! I loved, loved, LOVED the skull cave. That was the best skull cave I've seen since Peter Pan. All the cities and temples looked great. The world looked like a real fantasy world, and I appreciated that. The shot of Conan going beneath the broken arch was another great set piece, I thought.

And yes, I didn't see it in 3D cause I'm not that stupid, and just like with Fright Night (a FAR superiour film, I thought) there was nothing here to see in 3D.
JoMax Christensen
3. angrylizard
I don't understand why Hollywood thinks Conan needs to start at his childhood. I've never read a story by REH about Conan that started with his childhood. Conan was already a barbarian, reaver, killer, and thief. He didn't look to the past or future, Conan was always a creature living one moment to the next.

I wish they would have just either used one of REH's stories, fleshed it out for the screeen, or just threw Conan into the mix of some eldritch plot already afoot. Instead, we got a spin on the Arnold version, with a whimsical brute seeking revenge. At least the Arnold version was a brooding barbarian.
Kadere
4. JoeNotCharles
Kadere: You have some pretty strong opinions about Arnold's Conan, but it's important to remember that most of those things are the exact opposite of the Conan of the stories. Conan of the stories did not grow up a slave, was against slavery because the idea of enslaving others was repugnant to him, was clever and witty and I don't recall him ever raping anyone.
Peter Tijger
5. Peter-Tijger
Like expected.......what a waste.
It will probably be a direct to dvd treatment for this side of the world....but even more terrible movies make it to our theatres while really good movies are overlooked, so anything could happen really.

But I know enough, no going to the theatre. A blasphemy on Conan....grrrr.
Kadere
6. Kid_greg
I'm a life-long fan of Conan and Robert E. Howard and while I was disappointed in the movie its not as bad as all that.
I loved the shout-outs to original stories; Conan being born on a battlefield -yeah, I know Howard never told that story just refranced it, but its a story I wish he'd have told. I like young Conan fighting the Picts with their war-paint and pantherish growls -Pictish, per Howard, deities were animal spirts along with old forgotten gods. The visuals were very much in tune with the spirt of Howard's stories. Conan looked like Conan, maybe a better looking Conan, but he had the stare down.
I too had my problems with the whole revenge for daddy thing, but its kinda hard to do much a full-length movie on just a Conan adventure or two. And keep in mind, these are just Pulp fiction stories to begin with.
But where I was disappointed, was it was all the fantasy movie cliches; the village massacred, with the lone survivor, a boy who grows up intent on vengence and the ancient relic of power that was sought by the evil warlord. (which in this case didn't seem to have all that much power when he finally put it on). I understood the need to do something other than a straight-up adaption from of a Howard Conan story. But, that being the case, there is enough talent out there that could have dones something that would have been both true to Howard's creation and original too.
Richard Fife
7. R.Fife
I am with @4. This movie is actually truer to the REH Conan that a lot of other Conan material out there.

And, in fact, I am frankly startled by all this negativity. Am I truly the only person who loved this film? What happened to the society that ate 300 up like it was candy?

Conan is a barbarian in name only, and in fact the Cimmerian people as a whole are as well. In REH mythology, they are the last true descendants of the Atlantians, and amazingly noble. They are only "Barbarians" because they don't live in fancy ass cities.

As to the plot: I did not find it confusing or convoluted at all. Conan wants revenge, but has lived a life where it is a back-burner thing. He does his ranging as a thief and pirate, reaver and slayer, but is not evil. And then, one day like any other for him, he sees a figure from his past and conspires to meet him by getting arrested. He then finds out who and where the "nameless raider" is, and sets off after him. In proper plot convenience for any story, said villain is now only a step away and closing in on realizing his goal (which is not just to resurrect his wife, but to use her knowledge of evil sorcery to enslave the world? Noble villain motive, what?) Conan then gets the girl Zym needs, uses her to bait Zym away from his guards to try and kill him, deals with a small army of sand men (each one he killed was a new one, not the same one constantly respawning. The witch musta just ran out or grew tired of constantly remaking them, so that is when Zym gets to step in.)

He fights but loses to Zym, shrugs off the poison like the man-god Conan is, tries to send the girl off to safety so he can hunt Zym on his own terms, but ends up sexing her (cause women cannot resist the real Conan, he has no need to rape), and then she gets captured because Zym obviously has trackers and his witch-daughter. Conan then inflitrates the base, kills the last of the old "generals" in the monster-fight, then raids the skull cave and saves the day.

What is bad about this? Cookie cutter? By numbers? Why not say Lord of the Rings or Narnia is a "by the numbers" fantasy. When working with Conan, if you are going to stay true to the REH feeling, you are going to come off a little cliche. What this movie does, though, is not make it too glaringly painful with good acting (I stand by that, I loved every single acting job in this movie) and a refreshing call back to REH's Conan that isn't just a brooding musclehead who is only questionably good.

I think the biggest problem this movie had was expectations. People expected either another Clash of the Titans or Prince of Persia because of the horrible trailers that mis-represented what Conan was going to be. I was actually not going to see this movie until I saw the "fan made" trailer using leaked footage that showed this was not going to be a PG-13 feel good whatever.

There are, of course, the other fans who have only ever experienced any Conan in the form of the 1980s movies and just wanted more Arnold type tounge-in-cheek or over-the-top Sword and Sorcery. This movie is neither of those things. It does take itself seriously, at least in its own special way. But you know what, so did the original REH Conan. It does have blood, sex, magic, and monsters. And yes, the plot may have been "formulaic", but that is because I wasn't going to this movie to see a new Conan plot. I was going to this movie to see Conan do what Conan does with updated special effects and actual actors instead of just a raid on a body-builders gym.

So, my advice to anyone reading this that hasn't watched the movie: go see it without expectations, and see it in 2d (because 3d is evil, like Set). Go to see a macho fantasy fulfillment get the good lines, the women, and kick ass. Go see this for the same reason you went and saw 300 and try to forget the expectations of recent Fantasy/Mythology movies that are pretenders at best.

And try as you might to forget Arnold. He did a great job for the Conan he gave us, but just as Jack Nicholson was an amazing Joker, that does not mean the role is now forever sealed. We learned this with Heath Ledger. Learn it with Jason Momoa. He is, in my opinion, the truer Conan.

This is Conan. He does not need an over-the-top corny "Lamentations" line. He lives, love, slays, and he is content. (I loved that line, by the way.)
Danny Bowes
8. DannyBowes
I'm glad someone was able to derive enjoyment from this picture, at least.
Danny Bowes
9. DannyBowes
I'm glad someone was able to derive enjoyment from this picture, at least.
Bill Stusser
10. billiam
I'm with you R.Fife, I too liked this movie. As an REH fan my entire life I was expecting this movie to be a total train wreck, but was pleasantly surprised. This Conan was so much truer to REH's Conan than the Conan of the movies from the 80s.

The thing that most people who don't know the real (REH's) Conan don't get is that he is not some dumb brute. It is the combination of brains and warrior prowess that made Conan the bad ass that he is. Dumb brutes don't rise up through the ranks of the most powerful army in the world to become a general and eventually a king of what is essentially the Roman empire.

Also, Mamoa was better than I thought he would be and my only complaint is that I wish he would have worn blue contacts.

My biggest complaint? The fact that they pronounced Acheron as Asheron. I always assumed it was a hard C sound as in the greek words chimera or Charon.

I don't know at this point why anyone would go see a movie in 3D when it is also available in 2D. 3D is just a waste of money.
Kadere
12. Baramos
"but not very many"

What are you talking about?! He killed like a hundred dudes in this movie. Your other criticisms are fine but saying this movie didn't have a huge bodycount is crazy. Every scene except the first had at least a dozen guys killed, and the first had him kill six and bring their heads back.

Anyway, I see this movie as a pretty much striaght-up remake of The Scorpion King. Giant muscle bound hero, vaguely Middle-Eastern setting, lots of dudes killed, villain is a warlord and his witch ally who want to conquer the world. It's a shame they felt they had to rip off something that was only halfway decent in the first place.
Adam Whitehead
13. Werthead
You'd have thought that the failure of 'Clash of the Titans' would have shown there was no market for incoherant 3d Sword and Sorcery movies.



Not sure what you mean here. CLASH took over four times its budget, was hugely financially successful, and they are filming the sequel right now.
"I don't like it" does not equate to "The film was a financial failure".
Danny Bowes
14. DannyBowes
@Baramos---I may have outed myself as excessively bloodthirsty there.
Kadere
15. RVCBard
Here's my review:

"Rrraaaar! Grrrrr! WOMAN! Aaaaaaargh! Grrrrrr! Rrrraaaaaar!"
Kadere
16. against
I don't really understand the dislike of the new Conan.

In fact, I liked the new Conan MORE, BECAUSE he was more moralic and because he was more intelligent. The whole film was more INTLLIGENT.

The old Conan films were in some parts only poor, primitive and CHILDISH. Conan is bound on a threadmill as a child and becomes a muscle-man after 20 years, with an all-body-fitted workout with the perfect proportions? This is just ridiculous!

Lets compare:

1. Conan and women:
-old Conan: f**** prostitutes. Thats enough for me to say. But furthermore, he just DOESN'T KNOW how to GET IT ON with women. He is just primitive and unplayful. Like a little child.

-new Conan: knows how to get it on. Playful, macho, badboy,.. he lets the women come to HIM. And who says that because there are no orgy scenes there was no fun after the party with the 30 beare breasted women? Men, you have to read between the lines!
I knew he had at least the leader women of them at the moment he smiked at her and didnt take her serious, when the slaves were saved.

And I liked the little romance with the priest woman very much. They were drawn togthr because of their difference, and that was very cute.

In the old conan the woman was more than a man, and there was nothing really attractive about her.

There are more things to say, but Im tired and will stop here.

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