Well Cromrades, you knew it was coming, and it is: I have seen Conan the Barbarian, and I have thoughts on it. Many, many thoughts.
This was always going to be a very difficult review to write. I have so much invested in the character of Conan, the work of his creator Robert E. Howard, and any future adaptations that hinge on this film. The reception and gross of this film is vital to the productions of Kull of Atlantis, Dark Agnes, Bran Mak Morn, Vultures, Pigeons from Hell, and who knows how many other Howard creations are in the pipeline. If the film does well, then we might finally get what Howard fans want most in a Robert E. Howard adaptation: Robert E. Howard.
While I’m always aware that I’m a big fan at heart, and it isn’t as if my word can make or break a production. But I am aware that what I say matters, and that I make a difference – the extent of that difference not immediately clear or quantifiable, but definitely present. I’m keenly aware of my responsibility for my words to be said with the utmost care.
As such, I’m going to write both a review and a critique: the review is the general, broad opinion of the film based on my reaction, with no real delving into plot, character or story details. The critique will deal with much more in-depth analysis, which would naturally mean every other aspect of the film. Those wanting to wait until they’ve seen the film to make a judgement would be advised only to read the review, and wait until after viewing for the critique.
As of this moment, I’m still putting the finishing touches on my review, so as a taster, here’s the capsule:
Conan the Barbarian (2011) is better than I was expecting in some respects, and worse than I was anticipating in others. On pure cinematic merits, it is not as successful as the 1982 film or Solomon Kane, but it is not quite as heinous as Conan the Destroyer or Kull the Conqueror either. In terms of adapting Robert E. Howard’s creation, it’s only marginally more faithful than any of its predecessors, just in different respects. Jason Momoa, with the right director, script and story, could be a fine interpretation of Howard’s Conan: there are brief, wonderful moments in the film where I momentarily forgot what film I was watching, and he’s definitely closer to REH than Arnold’s ever was. The basic story is still pathetic, some of the effects are simply atrocious, and there’s no thematic core, philosophy or subtlety to speak of – on the other hand, the natural scenery of Bulgaria is a joy to behold, some of the effects are surprisingly solid, and there’s a pervasive sense of enthusiasm from the cast that can be woefully lacking in these sorts of films. In short, some parts better, some parts worse, but overall, much as how I expected it to end up.
UPDATE: Now for the review itself. Click on, if you dare…
My initial reaction to Conan the Barbarian 2011 was that parts of the film were much less terrible than I was fearing, while others were much worse. Frankly, it’s still a rather terrible film from a pure cinema fan’s perspective (which tends to be the case for a lot of action films, so much so that they’re called “critic proof”) – but is it at least an enjoyably terrible film, and does it have any bright spots? Therein lies the dilemma.
I like starting off with the bad in my reviews, since I like to think the good makes up for it, and leaves a more positive feeling in the end.
First of all
Right from the start, I know exactly what my greatest grievance with the film is, and it’s the direction by Marcus Nispel. Now, I’m not going to say he’s an atrocious director, or incompetent, or an idiot with no sense of basic narrative structure, because frankly, I don’t think it would be very nice. Marcus Nispel is, in fact, something of an auteur: I get the distinct impression that this is exactly the film he wanted to make. All his idiosyncrasies make sense if you think of him in the same terms as you would for Uwe Boll: he’s a man who doesn’t care about things most people take for granted, like “this has to make sense,” or “you have to explain this,” or “you have to have some sense of pace or tempo or rhythm in order to make a satisfying film” – just that the film he makes is the film he wants. The problem with all this is self-evident: the type of film Marcus Nispel wants to make is directly opposed with the kind of film that Conan deserves.
Conan does not deserve a film where the action is interspersed with Bond-esque one-liners, or people making funny squeals and mugging for the camera when they’re kneed in the groin, or an interlude involving a man strapped to a catapult that looks, sounds and feels like a live-action Wile E. Coyote vignette (Holy MITRA, that scene…) Conan does not deserve action scenes that are devoid of visceral power and suffused with the sort of balletic acrobatics more suited to a stage show or Xena: Warrior Princess. Conan does not deserve to live in a world that has no sense of history or majesty, where one beautiful city is like any other, and there’s no idea of scale in the various characters’ travels. As a generic Swords-and-Sorcery film, it’s merely adequate: as a Conan film?
John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian had a lot of faults. Let’s forget for a second that it had next to nothing to do with Howard’s work, or the myriad plot and shooting issues. Milius’ film was directly inspired by the likes of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Eisenstein, Pastrone, Ford – some of the greatest and most influential minds in cinematic history. Sure, it could be disjointed and uneven, but Milius was inspired by the best, and it shows. Some shots in that film are works of art. Marcus Nispel’s Conan was more inspired by Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis – in other words, people of the same generation and mindset as Milius. All those directors were inspired by earlier filmmakers, to the point where they actively homage them in their work – lifting entire scenes from previous works. Nowadays, people are making homages to them – which is essentially a homage to a homage. This results in a work that is as lifelessly derivative and creatively bankrupt as a photograph of a traced drawing of a painting.
Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian suffers from this issue to a profound extent, but instead of being reminded of Kwaidan, Alexander Nevsky or Cabiria, we’re reminded of the blockbusters of yesteryear, and instead of working for the benefit of theme and narrative, they’re in there purely to look cool and take up space. Milius taking visuals from “Hoichi the Earless” was used to emphasise the eastern mysticism pervading the film; borrowing the sword ceremony and armour of the Teutonic Knights of Alexander Nevsky was highlighting the “glamour of the crusade” in Doom’s quest for steel and the cult-like devotion of his men even at that stage of his life; taking the visual of Maciste pushing a wheel served to illustrate the Kafkaesque symbolism of the wheel in regards to mind-numbing repetition reaping rewards as well as being trying. Nispel borrowing the falling sacrificial wheel from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was done because… it was a neat action scene. Nispel lifting the egg-chase from Rapa Nui was done because… it was cool. There is no sense of invention, creativity, or daring about the film: everything that’s good is good because it’s been done – better – elsewhere, and everything that’s bad is because it doesn’t have any place in the film.
Despite Sean Hood’s efforts, very little of his work remains in the film, and I fear he’s going to take the fall for such horrendous lines as “what is your claim – DEATH!” “Now I’m going to kill you with your own father’s sword!” and the transcendent “Farewell my friend.” Some story choices are just bizarre, confusing and self-contradictory: more of those in the critique. All the set-pieces feel like set-pieces, not organic episodes of a whole narrative, but a series of unconnected events happening in succession. None of the characters are fleshed out beyond basic lip service, and many don’t have lines, or even names. They don’t even have closure half the time.
The effects in this film were… uneven. Some of the effects were quite good, while others were just horrendous. The prologue was probably the worst. Utterly dire, effects more worthy of the Asylum than other effects we see in this very film. Khalar’s battleship and its accompanying elephants were quite shockingly poor, and although I can’t be sure, I think they might actually have looped the animation of the pachyderms in one scene. Though the matte paintings were excellent as a general rule, there were some that were not up to that standard: a stack of ruins on the coast, the opening shots of Acheron, a few close-ups of Khor Khalba, and a few others scattered about that were very obvious in comparison to the good effects and natural scenery.
I’m not going to bother talking about the music, because even accounting for the fact that we weren’t going to be blessed with anything approaching Poledouris’ opus from the 1982 film, I’m truly astounded by how unmoving Bates’ score was. It was just… there. Completely perfunctory, uninspired, blase, mundane, adequate. No flair, no power, no drive, no soul. The only part that was remotely interesting was the end credits… and it’s not good when the accompaniment to a list of names is the only part of a film score that has any impact.
Aside from the obvious, I think what I hated most about the film was its treatment of sex and violence. I actually felt insulted by it. First, the violence: if you remove all the blood, it’s the sort of balletic acrobatics you see in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and 300. It’s all jumping about, 360 flips, and inefficient flourishes that would get anyone in an actual fight killed in short order. It isn’t men fighting for their lives, it’s men showing off their agility and flair. It isn’t something with gravitas, power and resonance, it’s something light, bland and irrelevant. This isn’t battle, it’s a dance. The sheer amount of action scenes inevitably mean that the violence is sincerely diluted as a result, to the point where it’s meaningless. Conan doesn’t come across as an incredible warrior laying waste to mighty foes: he comes across as a monster massacring helpless enemies – or he would, if the enemies had any distinguishing elements worth a damn. Despite accusations of Conan glorifying violence, Howard was actually very frank, stark and relentless in his depiction of violence as the cruel and unpleasant experience it is – but the fact that the hero was still alive added the thrill of knowing you are still alive to counterbalance it. For violence to be Howardian, it has to have people simultaneously repulsed and enthralled: I felt neither during this film’s action scenes, and was actually put off by how insincere it was.
The treatment of sex, frankly, disgusted me. This film is unforgiveably chauvinistic in some key scenes, which put off the good will I had in their depiction of Conan’s mother, for all the two minutes she appeared on screen. Given that Howard was nothing short of ahead of his time when it came to not only making strong women, but giving the women who aren’t warriors or leaders a bit more backbone than the fawning whelps of his peers, I’m not happy about this one bit. This film presents Tamara’s independence as impudence rather than perfectly justifiable indignation, and though she eventually gains Conan’s approval through her martial skills, that doesn’t justify one early scene that had me fuming in rage, and will no doubt not be well received by feminist viewers. The slave girls… well, I’ll leave that to the critique, suffice to say that this nonsense might fly in a John Norman story, but shouldn’t be anywhere near a Robert E. Howard one. The film’s one sex scene was, not to put too fine a point on it, about as natural-looking as an ‘80s softcore music video, exacerbated by its hilarious incongruity within the film’s setting. At least it wasn’t offensive, unlike the slave rescue.
As for fidelity to the source material… yeah, you all know by now. If Conan the Barbarian was a rock 100 miles from Robert E. Howard, then this film is about 95 miles away. I should say that the attempts to reconcile the film with Howard are appreciated, much appreciated, but to be frank, it’s too little too late. The infusion of Howardian elements in this film is like using plasters to heal decapitation. Sure, putting a few bandages (sorting out the geography, improving Khalar’s backstory, changing races and nationalities to fit better) might stop some of the blood seeping out and close up some of the wound… but you can’t fix a beheaded corpse. Once the head’s cut off, you can’t save it. All you can do is put on a prosthetic head and hope no-one will notice.
On the other hand…
With all this criticism, you might wonder if there are any bright spots. I did say some parts were better than expected, after all. The most noticeable one, for me, is that the film is a lot easier to follow than I was fearing. Many lines of vital exposition, plot development and character interaction which I was led to believe were removed were indeed in the cut I saw. Artus’ brief explanation of Conan’s worldview to Tamara, Marique & Tamara’s conversation (my assistant asserted this wasn’t nearly enough to pass the Bechdel test, and admittedly I agree: if they’d just cut Khalar out of the conversation…), even a little extra dialogue for the villains to make them more than just meaty scenery. I can only assume the European cut of the film differs in some way, or earlier versions had just cut those scenes out: whatever the case, I was pleasantly surprised to hear some lines – if gnashing my teeth at some of the cheesy additions which most certainly weren’t in the script I read.
Jason Momoa is another success… sort of. In fact, Jason was by far the most frustrating thing about the film, in a way, because as with James Purefoy in Solomon Kane, there were real flashes of Robert E. Howard’s Conan in his performance… but because of the story and direction, these brilliant moments were few and far between, and horribly undermined by the very non-Robert E. Howard things that we see. There’s one particular moment in the film which almost had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, so Conan-esque it was. Based on Game of Thrones and a few moments in Conan, I know that Jason Momoa could be Howard’s Conan, so long as the right director and story were involved. In this, he’s a swaggering, sadistic, chauvinistic bully, about whose personality and worldview we know practically nothing, who is utterly unchanged from beginning to end.
Is he closer to Howard’s Conan than Arnold, and does he make a better Conan than Arnold? By Crom, yes, on both counts. Arnold’s Conan could never be Howard’s Conan: the two characters’ histories are just so irreconcilable that you might as well be talking about two different individuals. However, what’s worrisome is that the ways he’s closer to Howard’s Conan than Arnold is because of what he isn’t, not because of what he is: instead of Jason’s character being more like Conan because he’s more like Howard’s Conan, it’s because he’s less like Arnold’s. It may seem like splitting hairs, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made. Jason’s Conan is closer than Arnold’s Conan because he is not forced into slavery as a child, nor is he thrust into pit-fighting as an adult, nor taken to the Far East to train in the use of the katana: all greatly appreciated, but it’s like saying “Jason’s Conan was not abducted by aliens; nor has he had his brain swapped with that of a tapir, nor was he transported to the 25th Century”: there’s an awful lot more that Conan didn’t do than what he did do, and of the things we know Robert E. Howard’s Conan did, there’s precious little evidence of it in this film.
Leo Howard was also a pretty solid young Conan. This was a young Conan I could believe hunted mountain-beasts with spears, or had been discussed in the council fires all over Cimmeria, or – in a few years, perhaps – would break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull. In-between the ridiculous roundhouse kicks and silly katas, Leo brings an intensity and ferocity to the role that’s sorely needed to wash away Jorge Sanz’s heartfelt but entirely inappropriate performance. If they cleaned up the fight choreography and made his attacks brutal rather than flashy, I’ve no doubt people would buy that this boy is not someone to trifle with. Frankly, I’d love to see Leo take on the early thief Conan stories in a few years.
Of the supporting cast, I like Ron Perlman’s Corin and Nonso Anozie’s Artus the best. Perlman does a great mixture of loving father and brutal barbarian, treating his son with alternate kindness and harshness without his treatment being jarring or schizoid. He doesn’t sleepwalk through the role like he did recording the 2007 Conan game, either: this was him on his A-game, and though the material he had to work with precluded a stellar performance, he was still a highlight. Anozie was given a somewhat thankless task as the Token Black Sidekick, but his jolly eloquence constrasting with his bearlike charisma and presence was very likeable to me, to the point where – horror of horrors – I might not necessarily mind seeing him return in future. Perhaps, in an adaptation of “Queen of the Black Coast” treated as a prequel, we could see Conan’s first meeting with Artus on board the Tigress…
The one thing I liked about the other cast members was that there was a definite sense of enthusiasm. Everyone was having fun in this film, be it Lang devouring the immediate area as Khalar Zym, McGowan savouring her large portion of ham as Marique, or Anozie and Taghmaoui being energetic and cheerful as Artus and Ela-Shan respectively. Bob Sapp and Nathan Jones fulfill their roles as Professional Huge Persons admirably, though Nispel never really takes full advantage of their grand dimensions to the extent he should. Of all the cast, only Ron Perlman and Raad Rawi try to give somewhat more sombre and serious performances, but even they couldn’t resist going overboard at times, having a nibble at the few parts of the set Lang and McGowan haven’t consumed in their rampage. I didn’t think anyone was on autopilot, or having a rough time: everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and it’s kind of infectious. Compared to the dull, lifeless dross of Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans, I’d at least prefer the cast to seem entertained by what they’re doing than bored to tears.
The effects that were good, were very good: these were the particle effects of dust, fire, cloud and whatnot, which are damned difficult to do well, and so I applaud them for doing them well done. The stunts may have been completely inappropriate for the type of Conan film I envision, but in terms of technique and competence, the 300 choreographers and Bulgarian stuntment did a fine job. As I said earlier, some of the matte paintings are quite beautiful: the far shots of Khor Kalba, the Shaipur outpost, the monastery, Messantia, Argalon and what I presume to be Hyrkania are quite lovely, and I wish the other mattes were up to those standards.
Special mention should be made of the locations. It’s very evident when the film is showing us a digital matte, and when we’re seeing Bulgaria: when it’s the latter, it’s absolutely beautiful, and entirely real. The scenes shot at Prohodna, the petrified forest, the stone river, the Black Sea Coast and elsewhere add that touch of authenticity that the film desperately needed, and it isn’t as familiar as the much-mined New Zealand locations of Hercules, Xena and the Lord of the Rings films.
“But what do you expect? It’s just a Conan movie”
If all you know of Conan is a vague recollection of a pair of 1980s films, coupled with a rough knowledge of other Sword-and-Sorcery films, then I can see why someone would react to my criticism of the film’s story, characterisation, themes and general content with perplexity. After all, people only go to Conan to see sex, action and adventure, right?
Even those who know that Conan was created by Robert E. Howard – even some who’ve read his stories – might think those expecting more from a Conan film than blood, breasts and brutality are pretentious, deluded souls seeing things that aren’t there, desiring profundity and complexity in an adaptation that isn’t warranted from the source material.
These people, of course, are idiots.
Well, no, of course they’re not idiots, that’s just unkind – but I do strongly disagree with that assessment. Greater Howard fans and scholars than I have given copious examples of why Howard was more than just a particularly good pulp writer: that there is real depth and complexity to his writings, mythic significance in his characters and narratives, philosophical and symbolic vigour that truly does elevate his work beyond the status of mere subliterary hackwork. One need only peruse REHupa.com, The Cimmerian, REH-e-apa.com, Two-Gun Raconteur and other sources to find that there is indeed quite a lot more to Howard’s Conan than you’d find in a dime-a-dozen other Sword-and-Sorcery films.
That’s why this film smarts so much: it’s just a dime-a-dozen Sword-and-Sorcery film. The villain has slightly more motivation than most, and it has nicer scenery than most… but what does it have to offer over The Scorpion King or The Beastmaster? Does it have the cosmic tragedy, subverted Biblical allusions and intellectually curious barbarian of “The Tower of the Elephant”? Can one glean the civilized hypocrisy and arrogance threatening the honest underclass through colonialism of underestimated barbarism of “Beyond the Black River”? Is there an iota of the delving into the corruptive power of decadence and complacency exemplified by “Red Nails”?
In fact, let’s forget the deeper things, and concentrate on the basic stuff. Are any of the villains in this film remotely as compelling as the inhuman Xaltotun, the charismatic Thoth-Amon, the sadistic Tsotha-Lanti, the conspiratorial Tascela, or the sympathetic anti-villain Khemsa? Do any of the creatures have any of the impact of the heartbreaking Yogah, the sinister Satha, the monstrous Winged One, the unstoppable Khosatral Khel, or the almost-human Thak? Is a single one of the supporting characters comparable to the magnificent Valeria, the stalwart Pallantides, the heroic Balthus, the boisterous Taurus, or the unforgettable Belit? Any locations so resonant as Zamora’s Maul, Xuthal, Xuchotl, Tarantia, Belverus, Khemi? Any set pieces as memorable as Conan’s stand against his conspirators and the chilling reminiscence of his homeland in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” his battle against the spider and subsequent meeting with the tower’s captive in “The Tower of the Elephant,” his monstrous battle with Thog in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” breaking the neck of a vulture in his teeth while crucified in “A Witch Shall Be Born,” his pulse-pounding flight from the Picts in “The Black Stranger”?
No. There’s obviously something that has people coming back to Robert E. Howard and Conan after 80 years in a way they aren’t coming back to his contemporaries or successors; something that’s missing in the tales of Brak, Thongor, Jongor, Elak, and other Sword-and-Sorcery heroes; something that makes him worth returning to every generation. The sex, violence and bloodshed in Howard’s Conan is like the heroics, guns and battles of Lawrence of Arabia: they’re what makes it the same as other war films, not what makes it special.
But what did you think of the film?
A lot of people worked hard on this film. Fredrik Malmberg has been battling the dunderhead forces of Hollywood to get a remotely Howardian film made since his company bought the rights. Sean Hood worked tirelessly to make a film that’s not only more Howardian, but just more coherent and satisfying a narrative. I needn’t even mention the many cast and crew members who put so much effort into performances and creating sets, props and tools to make the best film they could with the budget, resources, time and talent available.
So it’s actually really painful for me to admit that I hated the film.
Not only from a Howard purist’s standpoint, mind – no doubt if I didn’t know of the divergences in advance, I would’ve hated it even more – but from a cinemagoer’s standpoint too. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not so blinded by purist sensibilities that I can’t enjoy a film on its own merits. I enjoyed the 1982 film, after all, as well as Total Recall, Blade Runner and I, Robot despite their vast divergences to their respective source material, and their own disparate qualities to boot. I’m not even that much of a snob: while I confess to preferring the likes of Tarkovsky and Reggio, that doesn’t mean I can’t also relish truly abysmal flicks like the live-action Fist of the North Star. But this film…
Believe me, I tried to like this film. I wanted to like it so much. But I couldn’t, and I can’t lie. But that doesn’t mean you won’t like it: after all, the only way you can find out is to experience it for yourself. Crom knows I have my share of films I’ve liked that others hated, and the reverse: perhaps my opinion will be in the minority. Frankly, I’d love that to be the case, that I’m just a curmudgeonly old purist/film-lover who had completely too much investment to make a fair assessment of a film. It’s entirely possible that those with different expectations will enjoy the heck out of this film: certainly you never have time to be bored, there’s always something happening on screen, there are plenty of nice visuals, it’s easy enough to follow. Have I got myself in so deep that I simply can’t make an impartial judgement? Only one way to find out: you, the reader, are the only one capable of making the decision. I’m not going to recommend people don’t see the film, as I believe it’s one of those films where you’ll just have to see for yourself. Will you enjoy it, or will you hate it? I sure can’t tell. I just wish that, if Conan the Barbarian turns out to be well-liked – maybe it will, look at the bank Michael Bay’s Transformers series made – I could join in that chorus.
I’ll have a longer, more detailed critique of the film up sometime this week, where I get into exactly what parts I enjoyed and, ahem, what parts I didn’t, explaining more thoroughly why I liked/disliked them, and where I think the Conan film franchise can go from here. Until then, I’m going to have to catch upon other reviews…