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.


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