Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Conan Binge: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Times have undoubtedly changed since 1982, and that fact is clear from a screening of the 2011 Marcus Nispel fantasy film, Conan the Barbarian.  
The re-boot -- like many films produced in the last decade -- is virtually awash in CGI imagery, often at the expense of its sense of realism. 
By contrast, John Milius’s 1982 Conan featured real locations, and marshaled symbolic imagery to express the nature of Conan’s life, from the Wheel of Pain to the anti-family cult of Thulsa Doom.
Many movies made today, however, can’t be bothered to think in symbolic or resonant terms. Instead, filmmakers labor under the delusion that symbolism is unnecessary because digital imagery makes all things possible.
But more than anything, the constant and oppressive use of digital creatures and imagery in this Conan the Barbarian tends to make the picture look identical to every other fantasy movie of recent vintage. 
Therefore, the production loses some crucial aspect of Conan’s indomitable essence: the singularity of his personality and even his very physicality. 
In short, there are moments in this film when you can’t be certain if you are watching Conan the Barbarian, The Immortals (2011), Clash of the Titans (2010), a Stephen Sommers Mummy movie, or  a film I genuinely liked, John Carter of Mars (2012). 
There’s just no visual distinction here. There’s nothing that screams “This is Conan!” like you hope the movie would, or the way that 300 (2007) shouts “This is Sparta!”
Therefore, by the time of Conan’s digitally-larded climax -- which features characters hanging onto impossible, computer-generated precipices by their finger-nails -- all human interest and danger has long since bled out of the picture. 
At about the 45-minute point of the film, you may just find that you have stopped caring…about anything related to Conan.
And that’s a true shame, because brooding, saturnine Jason Mamoa seems absolutely right for the part, both in appearance and demeanor.  With a better script and a more realistic and distinctive visual canvas, he would likely have made a great Conan instead of a Conan few people saw, and fewer cared for.
Outside Mamoa, this Conan features a few strengths worth mentioning. 
Ron Perlman is a perfect choice to play the warrior’s father, and the script does, at the very least, feature some nice call-backs to Howard’s literary Conan, namely the barbarian’s vocations as thief and pirate.

 “I live. I love. I slay. And I’m content.”
Young Conan, the son of Corin of Cimmeria (Perlman), undergoes a difficult training exercise in which he must navigate the hazardous woods and overcome all kinds of physical challenges without breaking a delicate egg. The training is interrupted by marauders, but still Conan endures.
Soon after this exercise, the hordes of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) invade Cimmeria.  Zym is in search of a piece of the legendary “Mask of Archeron,” which he believes is the key to the resurrection of his dead wife.  Zym finds the piece in Corin’s black-smith tent, and leaves Conan an orphan. 
Some years later and now a pirate, Conan encounters one of Zym’s henchman and renews his quest for vengeance.  He learns that Zym and his sorceress daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan) are seeking to re-assemble the mask, but require the pure blood of a hereditary princess to do so. They believe they will find their quest at a nearby monastery.
There, beautiful Tamara (Rachel Nichols) learns of her true nature and Zym’s nasty plan for her. Conan rides to Tamara’s rescue, but Zym is relentless, and re-captures her.
Now Conan must save Tamara, with whom he has fallen in love before Zym and Marique can conduct an occult ritual which will rob the woman of her very soul.

“Come…time to forge a blade.”

Well…this will likely go down in the history books as one of my shortest reviews here on the blog, and that’s because there simply isn’t much good or interesting to talk about in regards to this cinematic iteration of the Conan legend.  

Reviewing the film is actually a struggle for me, because there’s relatively little to latch onto. Conan the Destroyer (1984) looks like an example of layered and nuanced filmmaking by comparison.

Not unlike other fantasy movies of recent vintage that I watched but never reviewed -- Snow White and the Huntsman (2013) and The Wrath of the Titans (2012) to name them -- this Conan the Barbarian is a remarkably empty viewing experience. 

Technically, all these films are competently wrought, yet they recede from memory almost immediately after their end credits roll. They are incredibly disposable efforts, expressing no deep thoughts, and possessing no real visual style to distinguish them.

After a while it all looks like the same CGI castles, monsters, and backdrops to me, and a kind of digital snow-blindness occurs.

So Conan the Barbarian is eminently forgettable, which is sad given the nature of this particular character and franchise.

But in addition to being forgettable, this re-boot is often laughable too.  

For example, a scene early in the film in which a pint-sized, pre-adolescent Conan dispatches a horde of giant attackers -- yet is able to keep an egg intact (per his training…) -- might sound fine on paper, but on screen it plays as merely ludicrous. Conan isn’t Superman, but this scene exaggerates his abilities to cartoonish levels. 

It doesn’t even make sense on a character level when played out on-screen: why would Conan even care about the egg once a real battle is joined?

The nature of the love story here is also, largely, underwhelming. Tamara is one of those all-too familiar female characters who starts out a movie as indulged, pampered, and reluctant to get into a scrap. But then, by movie’s end, she is dispatching bad guys with flair and expertise. 

One element of the Milius version that this iteration probably didn’t need to revive, anyway, was the romance.  In the original film, Valeria and Conan formed a bond based on their mutual love of battle, and few words needed to be spoken.  Tamara never seems like Conan’s true match or equal.  She’s a nice distraction, though, but that’s not how the movie treats her. Instead, she is True Love material.

Finally, one wonders why the makers of Conan movies feel it necessary to keep re-inventing his origin, only with different bad-guys killing his family members each time. 

Unequivocally, the best thing about the film is Mamoa. 

He looks good -- faintly sinister and pissed off -- and he moves well. 

If the James Bond saga has taught us anything about such matters, it is that sometimes an actor deserves a second (or third…) chance in a make-or-break role, because he can grow into it.  

By giving the actor a chance to do just that, a franchise maintains its own internal integrity.  In the 1980s and early 1990s we had three Batman actors in four films, for example, and so the fabric of that movie universe seems frayed to me. 

So if a new Conan the King movie arrives with Arnold Schwarzenegger back as the elder Conan, there’s absolutely no reason why Mamoa can’t be brought back as young Conan too…in a hopefully far superior effort.

Then again, I felt the same way about Brandon Routh.

In a world of instantly disposable movies, this is part of the problem. As Conan the Barbarian fails before your very eyes, it’s hard to register even much disgust about it. The bloody thing will probably get re-booted in ten years anyway....

Maybe that movie will be a better one.  

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