Sunday Morning Movies – Conan the Barbarian

January 16, 2012

I really can’t figure out who likes Conan the Barbarian.  Not just the latest reboot/reimagining/remake, but also the character in general.  What is the appeal? Fantasy fiction, whether it’s Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, takes us into new worlds that are somewhat recognizable and also completely alien.  The baseline interest in the genre is, really, world building (and a certain fetishization of medieval garb, I suppose).  Set up a fantastical, intriguing place and then create characters to play around in it.  I’ll bet this is a reason for the success of World of Warcraft or the Elder Scrolls series of games.  Still, there are characters in the fiction in which to invest, and a whole set of rules that are ever changing to inhibit their desires.  Conan the Barbarian’s sole source of interest is his muscular physique and the way in which that allows him to swing a sword quite well.  There are notions of heroics and honor, but this isn’t a well-established universe – at least as far as the film adaptations are concerned – and there doesn’t seem to be a central struggle.  In the new film, he wants revenge on a guy who also happens to want to take over the world.  Conan, then, must be devoid of personality or conflict or even flaws.  He is a Hero in the most banal sense – the always-good guy who can’t be beat.  Why is this interesting for anyone?

The film begins with Morgan Freeman (who I imagine was filling out a deposit slip as he recorded his narration) helpfully giving us the exposition we need to understand absolutely nothing at all about this strange and fantastical world.  It takes sometime while Atlantis was around, maybe?  Or it is Atlantis?  I have no idea.  Either way, Young Conan is born dodging a sword through his mother’s womb as his small tribe is attacked by someone for some reason.  He grows up a bit and impresses his father (Ron Perlman, the best thing here by a country mile) with his ability to decapitate three bad guys while holding a quail egg in his mouth.  His father is the chieftain of a barbarian tribe – though from what I can tell there is no central Greek or Roman civilization so I have no idea why they are considered ‘barbarian’ – who happens to have the last shard of a broken super mask that allows the wearer to control the world in some way or another except when he’s beaten and they smash up the mask.  Conan’s father is killed and he grows up to be Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones fame.  He spends his days doing general barbarian-like activities, such as freeing slaves, drinking mead, bedding wenches, and having muscles.  He’s still on the hunt for the mysterious man who could somehow control an entire army, gain the most powerful mask in the world, and then disappear because he needs the blood of a certain person.  That ‘certain person’ is a fair-skinned, blue-eyed monk played by Rachel Nichols.  Then people fight and nothing much of interest happens until the credits roll.

Not, of course, that the plot matters a jot in a film like this.  The real question is what do director Marcus Nispel and his team do to compensate for the void of a central character, and the answer is: nothing at all.  The John Millius version at least had a degree of campy silliness that, when viewing the film as a sort of Flash Gordon, overblown serial, gave it a certain amusing charm that least sustained audience interest through its running time.  Nispel’s version feels punishingly dull for every single second of its near-two hour running time.  The idea seemed to be to take it all very seriously, throw in some breasts here and there, and ramp up the gore-factor.  To say that this is pandering to a certain type is unfair on the audience.  This feels like pandering to a perceived audience of action-gore hounds and lonely fantasy nerds.  It’s the kind of thing that Game of Thrones has been accused of, but there’s purpose to those beheadings and throat-rippings and (occasionally) to the nudity, where here it’s used in the vain hope of giving the film a bit of ‘grit’ and pleasing Harry Knowles and his cadre of moron followers.  No longer can an anonymous bad guy get tossed off the roof a speeding carriage to be forgotten.  Now, he must land head first into a flat rock where his head caves in, leaving a splatter of blood.  It says a lot about my own desensitization that none of this was shocking or interesting or even laughably silly.  It was just dull.  Always, always dull.

The action scenes are inept and confusing.  The whole film looks brown and drab.  There isn’t a hint of humour or charisma from anyone in the cast.  Momoa does fine with a character that only requires muscles and growling.  Rose McGowan, as an evil sorceress, gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a long time.  Not to say its her fault, really, as I can’t imagine there was much direction or even understanding of the tone of the piece.  Nichols gets the token “feisty” line but she’s quickly demoted to plot contrivance and pretty looks.  There isn’t an ounce of fun or joy in the picture.  It’s bland, ugly, and boring for pretty much every minute of its bloated running time.  The one exception is a hilariously tacky sex scene that’s lit and shot like 80s softcore.  It was the kind of earnest throwback that the rest of the picture could have used.  Instead we get a slashing snooze.



2 Responses to “Sunday Morning Movies – Conan the Barbarian”

  1. Al Harron Says:

    Perhaps visiting the Robert E. Howard Forums should give you an idea as to who likes Conan:

    Contrary to the popular conception of Conan as little more than a musclebound he-man, the character as originally written by his creator is a far more complex character, as is the world in which he lived. He has faults, he makes mistakes, he loses: he’s also conflicted in his relationship with civilization, strives to improve himself and learn, and grows and matures throughout the stories. Considering Conan was tremendously successful in books and comics for a good 50 years before the Schwarzenegger films, asking why anyone could be interested in a property when your only frame of reference is a few films is somewhat short sighted.

    Of course, there’s no way you could divine this from the film: practically nothing from Howard remains aside from a few names and the central character, who is saddled with a revenge motivation entirely alien to the original. None of the story, none of the characters, none of the themes have anything to do with the original stories. Everything was made up by the filmmakers.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I probably shouldn’t have been so harsh. I’m sure that Conan has a long and illustrious literary tradition, but I suppose my confusion comes solely from the films, but it was the success of the original that brought this one about.

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