Tuesday, August 23, 2011
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.
As a movie, Conan the Barbarian is all over the place, with only occasional flashes of cleverness, never mind brilliance. It felt as if it had been hastily -- or at least confusedly -- put together without any overarching vision of what it supposed to be. Was this an attempt to bring a more Howardian version of Conan to the screen, a remake (or "re-imagining") of the 1982 Milius version, a live-action version of a filler story from the latter days of Savage Sword of Conan, or just a B-movie sword-and-sorcery flick? This lack of a clear vision hobbled Conan the Barbarian, making it hard to know how to take the film. You see, I had hoped that, at the bare minimum, this movie would do two things: 1) Sever the connection in the general public's mind between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Conan and 2) Be an enjoyable movie in its own right.
Let's start with the first one. As is well known, I'm not a big fan of the first Schwarzenegger Conan movie (We needn't mention its sequel, since it's just awful). Despite that, I readily concede that the 1982 Conan the Barbarian possesses a certain something that gives it staying power. It's not REH by any means, but neither is it a joke, like so many of the fantasy action movies that followed in its considerable wake. This inexplicable gravitas, combined with a career-making performance by Arnie, has done much to secure its place in people's imaginations, especially those who don't know the real Cimmerian. To succeed, the 2011 film needed to establish itself as more than the ape of its predecessor, which it could have done in innumerable ways, though, to my mind, the simplest would have been to drink deeply from its literary wellspring.
Read almost any review and chances are you're going to see the new movie compared to the Schwarzenegger vehicle. Even when the comparison is a positive one, it only serves to emphasize the long shadow cast by the 1982 motion picture. This is why I find it bizarre that the current release focuses on Conan's quest for revenge against the warlord who slew his father and destroyed his village. Not only is this plot utterly alien to Howard's Conan but it ensures that viewers familiar with the Schwarzenegger version will have it in mind while viewing the new one. There are, of course, plenty of differences between the specifics of the two films' plots, but there are also enough surface similarities that even I, who knew better, found myself thinking of the 2011 film as some kind of remake. However you slice it, that's a failure, both of imagination and of any effort to give this movie its own identity apart from its predecessor.
This brings me to the second question: is Conan the Barbarian enjoyable in its own right? How one answers that question depends, I'd imagine, on the standards by which one measures enjoyment. There were definitely parts of the film I enjoyed. For one, the overall look of the movie wasn't bad and some of the special effects were well done. The same goes for many of the fight scenes, which were (mostly) nicely choreographed, though a few strayed into martial arts movie-inspired nonsense I do not want to see in a Conan film. The cast was solid, too, starting with Jason Momoa, who both looked the part and brought an appropriate intensity to most of his scenes. No one appeared to be sleepwalking through the film, which is more than could be said of me by the end of watching it. The script was mostly awful, laden with clichés and vapidity and largely lacking in the visceral power of Howard's best work. The plot, as I mentioned, is clearly inspired by that of the 1982 movie and does little to distinguish itself, other than the addition of comic book violence. Its characters, including Conan, sadly, are similarly two-dimensional, showing even less depth and development than the Milius version. In short, I was more bored by Conan the Barbarian than outraged.
That's the crux of it for me. Conan the Barbarian 2011 is just not a very interesting movie. The Milius film, for all its manifest faults, as both a motion picture and as a cinematic presentation of Robert E. Howard's most famous character, is memorable. Indeed, it's powerful in its own way and can serve as a discussion point amongst fans of both movies and Robert E. Howard. Its successor, though, is, at best, a way to blow two hours and then move on. It's a very forgettable movie and certainly not one that left me hungering for more. If it weren't for the fact that it laid claim to REH's legacy, it would be largely indistinguishable from any number of fantasy films that have come and gone and were never thought of again. I doubt very much that, in 30 years time, many people will look back on this movie with great fondness.
I think that's a shame, because I remain convinced that Conan is a character who could do well on the silver screen. As conceived by Howard, he's eminently suitable to a series of episodic movies, each one presenting one of his adventures, even as the series advances the larger story of his life, culminating in his claiming of the throne of Aquilonia. To do that, though, Hollywood needs to do more than pay the briefest of lip service to Howard's conception of the character. Even assuming for a moment that a straight adaptation of any of Howard's stories were impractical -- something I don't believe -- why can't we at least move beyond the silly revenge quest origin story and get something different? And, while we're at it, is it too much to ask for stories whose plots actually make sense? I'm not looking for Tolstoy here. Heck, I'm almost to the point where I'm not looking for Howard anymore, but, surely, someone in Hollywood can find a way to tell an engaging, coherent story featuring Conan.
I almost feel bad for this review, because, truth be told, Conan the Barbarian 2011 isn't a terrible film so much as an example of bland, lowest common denominator entertainment, mostly devoid of anything that distinguishes it from dozens of other paint-by-numbers action films churned out each year. For some, that's probably enough and that's great; for me, though, it isn't. I kept hoping against hope that this movie might prove to be more than that, something that might kick off a series of movies about Conan, but, after the disaster this is proving to be at the box office, that seems increasingly unlikely. Indeed, it may have poisoned the well against any future Robert E. Howard-based movies for a long time to come and I am much more disappointed by that than I am by this halfhearted, forgettable movie.