Conan 2011: One Month On

Well, a little over a month since the film’s US premiere and Conan, and the film’s first few weeks in the open world are in the books. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have gone particularly well, critically or financially: Box Office Mojo’s current numbers crunch to only $21,180,241 million domestic takings and $27,500,000 foreign, amounting to $48,680,241 worldwide. While Box Office Mojo isn’t infallible – it still cites the production budget as $90 million despite Avi Lerner and Fredrik Malmberg confirming the budget as $70 million on multiple occasions – it’s a fairly reliable site for the most part. This is a pretty big disappointment for all involved, and although the first Conan trailer got a lot of buzz on the ‘net in the first week of its release, Conan the Barbarian 2011 has officially underperformed.

I’m not an industry analyst, so I can’t say with any degree of authority why this happened, though blame has been levelled at everything from the marketing to the film’s quality to the Conan brand equity. All we can really do is look at reviews, and see what they see. To that end, I’ve gathered some of what I consider to be the most perceptive and insightful reviews of Conan 2011 in this post, be they positive or negative, hoping that this might tell us something. I may disagree with, say, Phipps’ idea that the 1982 film was the best adaptation of Howard we could get, and Harry Knowles’ wish for Oliver Stone to get his hands on Conan fills me with terror, but they’re pretty good nonetheless.

General Movie Reviewers

Any flickering hope dies with the coming of the grown-up Conan, played by Jason Momoa. The hulking Momoa’s effective in a not-worlds-removed-role on Game Of Thrones, but unlike in Thrones, here he barks and growls his dialogue with the unpracticed enthusiasm of a first-time Ren Fair performer. He’s not acting. He’s LARPing. The grim material around him doesn’t provide much distraction. Nispel seems lost when trying to film a simple swordfight, much less the full-on battles: The special effects are sparing and not particularly special, and the green-screen backgrounds and scenes shot in what looks like the cloudiest parts of Bulgaria make a poor substitute for Howard’s Hyborian Age landscapes. They, and the stories that take place there, remain again trapped on the page waiting for a better adaptation.
– Keith Phipps, AVClub

The facts are – while a lot of the film choices annoyed me, this did LOOK like a CONAN movie should.   I just don’t see why the producers of this film don’t understand that they have a potential LORD OF THE RINGS or 300 style success if they JUST ADAPT Robert E Howard properly…  with a  TALENTED filmmaker who is passionate.   That understands not just the pretty aesthetics, the blood and savagery and the eroticism of the era…  BUT THE PSYCHOLOGY of it.   The LEGENDARY nature of it all.
Get someone like Mark Protosevich to write it.   Then get someone that has a history of seriously great films.   Stop hiring hacks to kick off what should be a franchise.   This could be JAMES BOND…  and Momoa can do it.   There’s evidence here in the film, I just hope that the missteps of Nispel won’t doom the franchise.
If you treated this source material with the respect that Warner Bros did HARRY POTTER – we’d have movies to worship.   I’m pretty sure they have the actor…  let’s hope the film succeeds well enough for a second chance.   And if they seize that chance, they do it right.
– Harry Knowles, Ain’t It Cool News

Fantasy (be it of the “epic” or “sword and sorcery” branches) has fared even worse than science fiction on the big screen. While SF can at least boast a few cerebral film classics (in contrast to hundreds of brilliant, thought-provoking novels that should remain cinematically unadapted but more widely read), epic fantasy has produced about two significant works (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the recent HBO series Game of Thrones) and a bubbling witch’s cauldron of juvenilia (pretty much everything else). The sword and sorcery subgenre has mostly been served in the wake of the ’80s Dungeons and Dragons craze and reflects the influence of that game (and its target audience of adolescent males who want to see women in fetish wear and varying states of sublimation and sword-wielding barbarians in loincloths). Robert E. Howard’s iconic Conan character has already been disappointingly brought to the screen prior to this artless and vacuous waste and surely someone will get around to Michael Moorcock’s drug-addled eternal anti-hero Elric and perhaps even Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. What was lost in past adaptations of fantastic fiction, is lost in this film under discussion and stands to be lost in the future, is not only the aforementioned and crucial sense of wonder, but the depth and subtext of truly great fantasy writing. Fantasy will be forever a cinematic romper room for twinkle-toed elves or an abattoir for raging barbarians if filmmakers don’t respect their source material enough to present it (and their prospective viewers) with a work capable of intellectual depth, subtlety, a vast history and the all-encompassing sweep of sheer imagination.
– Joseph A. Gervasi, Cinedelphia

Conan the Barbarian” is a brutal, crude, witless high-tech CGI contrivance, in which no artificial technique has been overlooked, including 3-D. The third dimension once again illustrates the principle that when a movie largely takes place indoors in dimly lit spaces, the last thing you need is a pair of dark glasses.
Roger Ebert

You don’t go to a movie like this expecting to hear Shakespearean dialogue, but the action, under Marcus Nispel’s direction, is consistently vigorous and exciting. So are the visual effects, from an epic battle with sand creatures to a struggle with an enormous sea serpent. But it’s the bad guys who give the movie weight and solidity. Lang is a truly formidable opponent with a strong physical presence; McGowan stops just this side of camp to become a figure of danger.
I try to take each movie I see on its own terms; this isn’t my favorite kind of entertainment, and some of its violence is extreme, but on the whole Conan the Barbarian is pretty good, for what it is. The screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood may not be inspired, but it does what it sets out to do. I’m not sure if Jason Momoa has what it takes to become an A-list star, but he definitely looks the part of Conan.
Incidentally, I’ve been quoting my favorite line from the film: “I live, I love, I slay, I am content.” I think I’m going to adopt it as my new mantra.
– Leonard Maltin, Movie Crazy

Personally, I quite liked the new Conan The Barbarian, though it is by no means a complete epic. This is pure action, and a total escape from reality. Momoa steals the show as the title character and it is worth seeing this film just for his performance alone – he embodies the character of Conan. In several ways, looking back on it, it was the character of Conan that made Arnold Schwarzenegger (and his career). In comparison, it is Jason Momoa makes Conan a reality. Novel and comic fans of Conan The Barbarian are certain to love the film.
– cGt2099, Geeks of Doom

Here’s the thing about making a movie about Conan the Barbarian: his creator, Robert E. Howard, is such a definitive creator in the sword & sorcery genre that he’s influenced and been imitated in countless stories. As a result, when you set out to create a modern take on his creations, it’s easy to fall into the trap of recycling elements that have become standard fare for fantasy barbarians over the past eighty years, while completely missing what makes Conan himself such a unique character. And honestly, based on the trailers, that’s what I thought was going to happen in the new Conan the Barbarian movie, just like it’s happened before.
But then, about a half hour into it, Conan cut off a man’s head and then punched another man in the face with the severed head, and I knew that wasn’t going to be the problem.
– Chris Sims, Comics Alliance

Though it has a decent Conan and a halfway acceptable off-the-peg baddie in Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym, nothing else works. The good girl (Rachel Nichols) is dreary and the bad girl (Rose McGowan) ridiculous — note that the villainess is the only woman in the film who doesn’t show her tits (seven Russian ladies are credited as ‘Topless Wenches’). Characters drift into frame, fight beside or against Conan, and wander off or die without troubling to introduce themselves. The plot meanders from place to place without urgency — when Khalar Zym finally puts on the magic mask, it doesn’t seem to make him more formidable. Action scenes spring up and blow over like summer storms (a carriage chase is the best bit), with moments of CGI-augmented bloodiness which ought to be more shocking than they are. And it has that muddy, ugly, drab look common among mid-range 3D movies. Theoretically exciting, it’s somehow very dull.
Leaving aside Milius’ Conan The Barbarian, this is thinner beer even than Conan The Destroyer, more on the scale of imitations like The Sword And The Sorcerer and Hawk The Slayer – if lacking their intermittent sense of fun. Howard’s fans were better served earlier in the year by Solomon Kane, though that also made the strange decision to use one of his characters but not adapt any of his (still readable and stirring) stories.
– Kim Newman, Empire

Conan the Barbarian is the worst kind of failure, the one where nobody shows up to play. Nispel and his collaborators don’t try to mimic the Milius version, but they don’t bother re-conceiving it, either, save to neuter the robust machismo that was the earlier film’s lifeblood. They simply go through the expected paces for sword-and-sorcery adventures; if he wasn’t called “Conan,” he could go by any other name, and no one would be the wiser.
– Scott Tobias, NPR

So, for a Conan The Barbarian movie to be about stopping an arch-villain from fulfilling an ancient prophecy and taking over the world by bringing all the McGuffins together… it’s a little like a Game of Thrones movie about noble hero Jon Snow and his band of whacky allies (oh, that fun-loving Littlefinger!) going on an epic quest to slay the dark queen Cersei before she uses her orc horde to conquer the world. The point has been missed.
Now, you can still have a character arc and all that “this time, it’s personal!” stuff without giving Conan a bunch of murders to avenge. Casino Royale had a very personal, transformative story for Bond and he never looked up from a picture of Le Chiffre to say “This man killed my father!” Then Quantum of Solace rolled around and even though the objective was much more personal for Bond, the story wasn’t good.
– Kickpuncher, Fempop

Howard Fans

All I know is them there fools do not know what they missed out on. When I like a movie I see it several times before it’s pulled and goes to home video. I saw Alien resurection 4 times and The first Brendan Fraser MUMMY film 3 times and each LORD OF THE RINGS FILM 3 TIMES….CONAN I will go see again at least 2 more times. ( Then when I get the DVD another 4 times )
If I had to rate this film on a scale of 1 to 10 Battle axes…I give it an easy 8 battle axes! Easy I say!
I certainly hope there will be another one as they say they have planned. With the right promotional campaign and a big name or two…there is no reason it would not do better.
Mikeyboy, CROM!

On that front, I can say without hesitation that Conan the Barbarian is not as bad as I had expected. If I had to pick a single word to describe it, though, it would almost certainly be “mediocre.” I knew going into it that I was not going to be getting Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but I held out hope, particularly in light of some of the reviews that I’d read, that I might still be getting a solid sword-and-sorcery film whose protagonist just happened to share a name with a certain famous Cimmerian. Unfortunately, that’s not what I got. What I saw today was, frankly, a mess and not of the glorious kind.
– James Maliszewski, Grognardia

Conan the Barbarian is total bullshit. It is one of the most aggressively bad and boring movies in a summer more full of them than any in recent memory. Thankfully, it seems that audiences agree as the movie is an unequivocal failure financially as well as creatively. Some people are going to say that this movie is “good enough” just because it’s “supposed to be” a dumb action movie with tits, blood, and cavebrow. I’m sorry but no, fucking fuck no. That is not good enough. If you’re satisfied with that, Crom laughs at you and I have no time for you. I’m sure you liked Green Lantern too, didn’t you. I just don’t understand the need to defend stuff that is actually out to make money off of low audience threshold for mediocrity or worse. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t insult our collective intelligence as much as, say, Transformers 3 or Cowboys and Aliens but it isn’t much better and at least those films had stories.

A skilled film maker with a desire to make Robert E. Howard’s work come alive on the big screen could create something that was a box office success and was memorable, a film that would stand out in the sword and sorcery genre and would join films like The Lord of the Rings in demonstrating to audiences and to film companies that a well made and lovingly crafted fantasy film is box office gold. Instead we get the kind of dreck that could have existed on screen with any character name. The 2011 Conan the Barbarian film could just has easily been called Bob the Barbarian as there is nothing but a few names lazily borrowed from Howard’s Canon to associate this movie with the work that Howard created.
In recent years the quote “Don’t judge a book by its movie” has become popular. It couldn’t be used more appropriately than when comparing this film to the printed pages that “inspired” it.
– Carl V, Stainless Steel Droppings

Howard Scholars

There are bound to be comparisons to other Howard based films, and that is sad.  The original Conan movie, of which this is not a remake, was so far off base on every level that it was laughable.  It has even been parodied (Master Pancake Theater’s Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Musical) and with good reason.  John Milius had some sort of ridiculous vision of what Conan should be, and he tried to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan is a lumbering dumb ass, whose swordplay is slow and posing.  While he’s showing off, swinging that big ole eighty pound sword around in circles, any real swordsman could kill him five times.  And the acting?  What acting?  The follow-ups to the 1982 film, Conan the Destroyer and the almost Conan, Red Sonja, are in a class of pure garbage all by themselves.  The 1982 film inspired dozens of imitations.  Many of those were light years better than Destroyer or Sonja.
Dennis McHaney

Overall, and given the amount of Hollywood hamstringgery that the filmmakers Paradox had to endure to get this film made, I think they did the one thing that they could do, and that’s focus on the character of Conan.
This movie, for all of its flaws (and I’m not going do disagree with anything that’s been written about Nispel’s direction or editing), represents a course correction in popular culture, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades.
This film is to pop-culture Conan as Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was to pop-culture Batman. Just as the then-new dark and gothic, troubled Batman permanently wiped Adam West’s smirk off of the map, so too does this fast and agile, smart and mean Conan eviscerate John Milius’ samurai stand-in, and most especially, that Dungeons and Dragons module that was Conan the Destroyer.
Mark Finn

There are two Conans. The first one, Conan of Cimmeria, was created by Robert E. Howard in 1932 and adventured his way through Weird Tales, The Avon Fantasy Reader, and any number of books over the years. The other, Conan the Barbarian, was created as a simulacrum of the original, able to adventure through Code-approved comic books and, a bit later, movies. The former is the exclusive creation of Robert E. Howard, though a number of others have attempted to write stories about him. The latter is a collaborative effort by many hands, starting with Roy Thomas at Marvel Comics: I’ve lost track of how many different writers, artists, and others have been involved in the comics and movies. Conan the Cimmerian is a literary character. Conan the Barbarian is a pop culture icon.
The title of the new film should clue you in to which Conan it is about.
Rusty Burke

As I sat there in the dark watching a disaster unfold before my eyes, I got to thinking why should I have to lower my expectations? Why can’t Hollywood make a decent Robert E. Howard movie? Given the amount of source material, they could have easily adapted a story or several stories instead of doing a ham-handed remake of Milius’ Conan. Yes, I know that I am like Charlie Brown attempting to kick the football, but thwarted every time by Lucy pulling it away at the last moment. I guess I hope just one time the football won’t be pulled away.
I did like a few things about the movie. I thought the sand monsters fight scene was well done, sort of homage to Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors scene from Jason and the Argonauts. The scenes of Corin with young Conan were well done, as was the scene with the wheel Tamara was tied to was falling down the well shaft (or whatever it was) with Conan and Khalar Zym fighting on top of it. But overall, the negatives far outweighed the positives.
Damon Sasser

Saw Conan the Barbarian last night. Revoltingly stupid, incomprehensibly plotted and edited, and overflowing with the kind of quasi-erotic torture porn (seemingly pulled wholesale out of a serial killer’s wet dreams) that’s become a staple of both fantasy literature and Hollywood films this century. Easily one of the worst films I’ve seen during decades of painfully slumming through mediocre genre fare — I daresay even Uwe Boll (the ham-fisted director commonly seen as the modern era’s answer to Ed Wood) has never made anything this irredeemably rotten. As you know, the best of Robert E. Howard’s pulp tales of the 1930s — which in recent years have been reprinted everywhere from academic presses to Penguin’s prestigious Modern Classics imprint, and which the various silly comic books and movies resemble not a whit — cry out for the cinematic talents of a Akira Kurosawa or a Sergio Leone, men possessed of  the same operatic poetry, grandeur, heroism, and thematic depth found in Howard’s original stories. Perhaps someday. Until then? Well, the audience I saw the movie with seemed to have cheerfully low expectations, yet even they didn’t so much leave the theater as recoil from it. You’ve been warned.
Leo Grin

You can also find a great deal of cross-posted Conan reviews at CROM!, as well as this thread at the Official Robert E. Howard Forums. Follow this link for my review, and if you dare, you can brave my critique too. Any readers can also put their favourite reviews in the comments, and leave your thoughts and reviews while you’re at it.