Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Conan the Barbarian (1982 / 2011)

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure. 

Wow, I almost let the entire month of November slip by without posting a review. (That’s if I can get this posted before midnight.) Clearly I picked the wrong time of year to start this blog. No matter. Let’s get back to it, shall we?

I didn’t know that a remake of Conan the Barbarian had even been done until I saw a display for the DVD in the store. That made me realize that I had never seen the original film, despite it being considered an iconic movie of the ‘80s. So, with a twinge of guilt over my neglected fledgling blog, I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I hit the Redbox® and hoped that the original was available for instant viewing on Netflix®. It was my lucky day.

Though quite divergent from one another in most respects, the two Conan films tell approximately the same story. Conan is born into a warrior tribe called the Cimmerians. While still a boy, a band of marauders massacres his village while young Conan survives. Jump ahead several years and Conan is a full-grown warrior on a revenge quest to find and kill the man responsible for his people’s slaughter.

The most noteworthy thing about the original film is that Arnold Schwarzenegger effectively launched his career playing the titular character. That singular fact has proven enough to overshadow everything else about the film, so much so that I had not known James Earl Jones played the villain, Thulsa Doom. I would expect that such an overshadowing would not bode well for any film, but it turns out that I really was missing something by not seeing Conan sooner.

Taking in the credits, this isn’t much of a surprise, Conan was directed and co-written by John Milius. The entire dialogue of the film could probably fit on a bar napkin, making it a perfect vehicle for Milius’ style of writing memorable one-liners and equally pointed monologues.

Though the dialogue is scant, the script is far from it. It moves briskly from scene to scene pulling the viewer along in a way that feels as though one is breathlessly chasing Conan to keep up with the tale. Not a single scene is superfluous, though their relevance is not always immediately apparent. (Okay, Arnold punching a camel was probably unnecessary, but also hilarious.) This adventure flick holds the viewer’s attention not just by spectacle, but also by being truly captivating.

To be sure, Schwarzenegger’s performance is expectedly campy. What is unexpected is the same level of camp from Jones, not that it isn’t excellent camp. Remember that bar napkin? Well, Jones got two-thirds of it and it is comprised of some of the most spectacularly campy monologues ever written. In fact, all of the acting is campy. But this serves the film quite well; all of the characters are believable because they play on the same level and the picture never takes itself too seriously.

However, campy does not mean cheap. This film had a budget which shows and shows well. The film’s magnificent scenery, loads of extras and horses, elaborate sets, sweeping score, and careful animated effects easily set it apart from other fantasy adventures of the same era. The whole thing may be dated looking, but it is a spectacle of truly epic proportions.

If all that sounds like a lot to live up to, it is, as the remake proves. The desire to remake Conan the Barbarian is obvious: it was an epic spectacle that had faded with time and the chance to update it with modern production abilities was irresistible. The hardest part of remaking Conan should have only been finding a suitable player for the lead. And that is the remake’s only major failing.

In the original film, Schwarzenegger is the most physically dominating figure on the screen at any time. Not so with Jason Momoa who, though muscular, is a slight figure and is dwarfed by several other characters. This is an odd choice for a film that purports to have gone back to the source material. A little Wikipedia time informed me that Robert E. Howard’s creation is indeed meant to be the most powerful and imposing man of all. Casting Momoa as Conan strikes me as a little too modern to be believable.

The character of Conan gets some modernization from the script, as well. In addition to being a barbarian, the original Conan is a thief, a brawler, and a slayer who’s only redeeming quality is his discipline which is turned toward swordplay and revenge. The new Conan, not content to be merely an anti-hero, has a penchant for randomly freeing slaves and a rainbow coalition of buddies—you know, so you can tell he’s the good guy.

Conan isn’t the only character to get a modernization; female lead does too. In the original, Conan’s lover Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) is a valkyrian warrior and thief in her own right. In the remake, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) is a sheltered monk who, in typical empowered female fashion, demands her equality with barbaric men who manhandle her all the same. This wouldn’t seem so absurd if it weren’t for her counterpart, the witch Marique (Rose McGowan) who stands equal to the males in terms of martial prowess and she has magical powers to-boot!

Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym is satisfying as the villain, but he otherwise left such a slight impression that I’m at a loss to say anything else.

The absolute befuddlement of the remake is the casting of Morgan Freeman to narrate. The narrator for the original (Mako) just seemed right. Freeman’s voice, however, simply doesn’t fit the film. He may be the best narrator ever, but that doesn’t mean he can narrate just anything.

Where the new Conan takes the lead from the old is in the department of visual effects, as it rightly should. The original did not slouch at all in this department, but nothing available in the ‘80s is an adequate match to modern CGI. An early scene involving molten metal dripping on people (I assume it wasn’t real) was done so well that I didn’t think about it being an effect until later. However, the big effects scenes all felt stolen. The scene with the sand warriors smacks heavily of The Mummy Returns (2001) and the tentacle monster felt like a poor-man’s Kraken. The big final battle taking place over a gaping chasm seems so unbelievable that it is yawn inducing.

Now, maybe I am an overly nice guy, but I must finish by saying that Conan the Barbarian is a prime example of the hazards of remaking a film. The original is so highly revered that even a great remake would have probably attracted much negative criticism. However, in comparing the new film to the reviews it has received, I think it has suffered lower marks that it would have as an original film. In the end, both movies are simple revenge flicks that are long on spectacle but short on story. It’s hard to hold one above the other based on that.


  1. I haven't seen the new one yet and haven't really been in a hurry to. To me, the original was so iconic that it just shouldn't be remade, especially in this cynical age of marketing-demographics over story-telling.

    Also, I think Conan was a special film. It is one of those rare films that works with almost no dialog. When those work, they are fantastic. When they don't, they bore you to tears. This one worked because the action was so well done/amazing and the score so engrossing that you didn't mind that they didn't speak for 4-5 minutes. I doubt any film can match that.

    I've watched Momoa on Stargate Atlantis and Game of Thrones and I personally don't think he's a great actor. So that gives me doubt too. I didn't know Freeman was narrating, but him narrating has become a bit of a joke IMO.

    I also read an interesting article some months back where the writer was whining that people didn't see this film. It was a very revealing article because it was immediately apparent to me that the guy didn't care about the quality of the film at all. He never got into the story so much as he saw it as a stupid little story which anyone should be able to write. He seems to have approached it with the idea that these stories are nothing more than a whole bunch of cliches and audiences are too stupid to know the difference. That's a horrible basis from which to start writing. It's also not true of the good fantasy films. The bad one, yes, but not the good ones. When the first Conan came out, there was NOTHING like it. And even its sequel is nothing like it. The sequel is more like what you normally find -- stupid characters all trying to act tough rather than be tough, bad sets, set piece scenes rather than plot, weak effects, etc. Conan was something very different. It was Lawrence of Arabia as fantasy.

  2. Part of what inspires me to do this remake blog is that I don't have the same perspective you do. I was either too young or not yet born to see the original version of most movies being remade today. For me, it's a bit like archeology to do these comparisons.

    While you are able to recall to me the experience of seeing Conan as a spectacle like nothing before seen, I can only try to imagine that feeling. It's a bit like trying to relive the experience of the westward pioneers while jetting down the interstate at 80 mph.

    From my perspective, it is a tough call on whether any film should be remade. I came up in a world where ILM was the standard rather than the exception. I tend to think that a remake can be justified as long as it accomplishes a better telling of the story. But the Conan remake did not.

  3. If I had to recommend this movie or not based on a single point, I would say this is the film where the Morgan Freeman as narrator thing finally goes to far. Actually, the remake didn't even need a narrator.

    I hate these films that have the narrator jump in only three or four times. Narration, like any other aspect of cinema, should be used with some sort of consistency. To my mind, there are only three effective ways to use narration:

    1. Exposition and Conclusion: the narration bookends the whole tale with information that is necessary to understand the story but does not fit within the tale.

    2. Transitional: this narration can take two route. It can either briefly introduce scenes as they are moved between or it can fill in events not shown that take place between the scenes.

    3. Continuous: this narration continues all throughout the story and is generally used for stories told in the first person (but not always). Here, the narrator fills in details that would be unknowable any other way, such as the immediate thoughts of a character.

    They type of narration found in the Conan remake is none of these. It is simply some voice over information tossed in haphazardly and inconsistently at odd intervals in the movie.

  4. tryanmax, I find it interesting as well. You and Scott both have very different perspectives than I do (and from each other) because of when you were born. For example, the whole Temple of Doom debate is interesting and I think is largely the result of when we were born.

    For me, Doom was an unpleasant shock as it was so different for what we expected. But for you guys, these movies both already existed so it wasn't nearly as shocking for you. Also, neither of you experienced the "event" of the original by standing in line to see it in theater and hearing everyone just absorbed by it. So you don't have the emotional connection to the film that my generation does -- heck, we bought the toys and talked about it at school for months, etc.

    As an aside, I also find it interesting that neither of you guys has the perspective of a "national event" like I do because when I was young, there were only three channels and if something special came on television, EVERYONE in the country watched it and talked about it the next day. Those days are gone.

    Conan doesn't rise to the level of Raiders or Star Wars but it is one of those things that is iconic and has remained iconic. So while I'm not opposed to a remake -- as I would be with Star Wars or Raiders -- I would expect a pretty high level of film before I saw it as anything more than a marketing ploy. And from what I've read about the film, it doesn't come anywhere near that.

  5. I think that the Harry Potter phenomenon is the only thing I can think of that has any similarity to what you describe, and I wasn't personally swept up in it.