Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

God dammit, don’t end your sentences in prepositions, and more to the point, this “undreamed of age” was dreamed up 80 years ago.

So let’s get something straight.

I tried my hardest to watch this without actually comparing it to the 1982 film of the same name.

I tried to watch this without thinking about Robert E. Howard’s published writings.

Up until the credits rolled, I tried even to imagine whether the movie would be any good if all the Hyborian names and references were taken out, leaving it as it’s own standalone fantasy adventure.

None of these attempted self-imposed mind tricks yielded a positive result, however, on account of all the other shortcomings. Even if the name of our “hero” were not Conan, you would be asking yourself why they put movie this together.

So what this movie isn’t:

It’s not a continuation of the 1982 + ’84 Schwarzenegger films. It’s not an adaptation of any of Howard’s original source material. It doesn’t really follow any of the plotlines, in fact (not that the ’82 movie did, but that one at least was sort of an amalgamation of scattered stories put together to form something new and unique), though there was reference to having “killed the elephant man” or some nonsense, which I can only assume is an allusion to The Tower of the Elephant, but in that story, killing the “elephant guy” wasn’t some barbaric, swashbuckling conquest. It was a mercy killing.

This is essentially pissing on the source material.

What this movie is:

An action-packed adventure full of easily-forgotten one-liners, exposition via villainous verbosity, and a plot that comes to a screeching halt the instant you start asking questions. There’re some neat special effects, gratuitous gore, and less-than-memorable characters.

“Quick,” said one producer, “cast Conan’s best friend to a black guy.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Conan kills some black warriors in the next scene. Recast the loyal sidekick as a black dude so people think we aren’t as racist as the original writer.”

Because, if you know anything about the original source material concerning not only Conan, but others of Robert E. Howard’s creation, it may come as no surprise that Howard (along with his long-time writer friend, H.P. Lovecraft) were, in Stephen King’s eloquent words:

“… Lovecraft was, by all accounts, both snobbish and painfully shy (a galloping racist as well, his stories full of sinister Africans and the sort of scheming Jews my Uncle Oren would get worried about after four or five beers), the kind of writer who maintains a voluminous correspondence but gets along poorly with others in person—were he alive today, he’d likely exist most vibrantly in various internet chatrooms….”

I’m actually a huge fan of Howard’s writing. The wordcraft turned out to be hugely influential in my own prose, however the subject matter, at times, got about as ignorant as Lovecraft.

The story of Conan (2011) is so utterly try-hard that if one didn’t know better, one might suspect it written by multiple people who couldn’t agree on what would make a good plot…

3Writers

So even if I set aside my annoyance for barely acknowledging the writings of Howard, I have to at least try to enjoy the movie for what it is instead: a fantasy film with swordplay, monsters, heroes/villains and magic. Those are usually the components of a fantasy I’d be interested in.

The fight choreography was passable. There’s a lot of flashy swordplay that is supposed to make Conan look like master fighter, but in truth I got the impression I got was just some dude with pecs being handed a sword. Not to say this athleticism is easy (or surprising, as we all know what’s seen on TV/movies is by it’s very nature, flashier).

But very few movies measure up to the most interesting swordplay in a movie like this, in the opinion of yours truly, like in Troy.

Don’t get me started on all the problems and inaccuracies of that movie. In spite of them, though, I was able to enjoy the film for its other redeeming factors. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t really have any.

Well, except for Ron Perlman, maybe. But they sorta get rid of him early so it’s no fun anyway.

Monsters? We have a tentacle beast whose name, the Dweller (a veritable eldritch abomination which, considering the Hyborian connections with Lovecraft works, is at least not out of place) we can only know from grunted, contrived dialog.

Conan falls into the pit with his plot device sidekick and looks upon the pink orc guy he saw as a child.

“Great, a feast for my sword,” says C-man.

“No, a feast for the Dweller!” bellows the pink orc. Enter monster in elaborate, poorly designed room.

What other monsters are there? Orcs, I guess. Pink orcs. Oh wait no, maybe those’re just big angry sub-humans.

How about the heroes, then? Well like in Roger Ebert’s review, it’s kinda hard to like or relate to Conan in this depiction. I suppose that makes him an anti-hero, which is fine. Anti-heroes make great characters, like Batman, Guts (from Berserk), pretty much any character played by Clint Eastwood, and even James Bond. What do they all have in common? A general disregard for the usual things that most “heroes” care for, such as a desire for peace (in fact most anti-heroes are rather violent), but they’re not evil. Not really. In fact what makes them anti-heroes (and not just villains) is the fact that they kinda do a lot of good.

Conan doesn’t really give that impression at all. He’s a swashbuckler, pirate, thief, all-around tough guy who talks down to women and eschews the use of words when a sword would do (though he still talks too much in this movie as far as I’m concerned, and Conan as seen in Howard’s writings is actually quite long-winded). Schwarzenegger’s Conan was also a swashbuckler and thief and all-around free man that otherwise can’t quite fit into “civilized society,” but he wasn’t a dick.

There’s a difference between coming off as a badass and coming off as a douchebag.

Jason Momoa certainly looks the part of a savage warrior, that’s for sure. Indeed his character is, despite other things mentioned, closer to the original Conan. I think I preferred Momoa as Khal Drogo, though.

The villains were cookie-cutter characters you’ve seen a hundred times already, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t a bastardized re-hashing of Thulsa Doom’s rise to evil-kinghood. The Evil King seeks to put together an ancient mask of power in order to bring back his dead wife, who was some years ago burned at the stake for witchery. Their daughter, who follows in her mothers footsteps, continues said witchcraft but only really employs it once throughout the entire movie. And what’s the result?

Sand people.

Oh right and she can taste the “purity” of someone’s blood, too, because plot.

This movie left a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s not that I was expecting something great or different, I was just expecting something less… average. The effects are neat at times, I suppose, but overall what I saw when watching this film was a bland, boring world that barely passes for fantasy with a couple of names of people and places inserted into it. Barely any time is spent just … observing things, so there’s no sense of culture in this world. Just movie sets and rendered landscapes between fights.

By far, though, the biggest issue is that there is no character arc.

To illustrate my point, let’s now do a direct comparison between the characters of 1982 Conan and the 2011 Conan, ignoring special effects, acting ability, budget, or number of horses killed during production.

  • 1982 Conan
    • Started off as a speechless child who, by all accounts, was “normal.” No noticeable attitude problems, except perhaps a hatred for ice fish.
    • Lost both parents in the raid that destroyed “his people,” where a lot of emphasis is placed on his desire for revenge. Like, the dialog-less scenes with little more than music to extrapolate the emotions in play tells volumes.
    • Went on to push the Wheel of Pain in a circle for ten years, no doubt instilling a sense of stubbornness
    • Fell in love, but set it aside to pursue revenge
    • Got killed as a result (spoiler)
    • Got resurrected (spoiler), and afterward began the long trend of contemplation as well as action
    • Lost his love (like, forever, none of that Marvel Comics shit where people don’t stay dead)
    • Achieved vengeance, but at great cost
    • Doing so, however, seems to have also averted a world-wide upheaval
    • Went on to a life of debauchery before finally becoming king ‘by his own hand.’
  • 2011 Conan
    • Child-Conan has an attitude from the get-go. He’s supposedly above average and quite the teen-aged savage. Very good at not crushing quail eggs
    • Lost parent, but once his father is ‘out of the way’ the plot can continue
    • Makes the beast with two backs with the damsel in distress who passes for a love interest
    • Kills the antagonist evil king guy as well as the evil witch daughter
    • Says goodbye to the damsel
    • Goes on to kill, thieve, and otherwise inconvenience people

The 1982 Conan has a complex and interesting character arc. He faces off against Thulsa Doom and his elites multiple times, and the one failure he suffers really hits hard. But the friends responsible for bringing him back are believably doing so because they care. He grows, rises, falls, rises again.

2011 Conan never changes. He doesn’t grow. In a fight against the evil king, Khalar Zym (really?), Conan lost. Sure the witch threw magic and poison-tipped-weapons-of-zero-consequence at him, but he lost, and he’s bummed out for about five minutes. The damsel sets herself up to be captured by stupidly running away from him when he’s asleep. He pursues – with absolutely no obstacles between himself and the obvious skull mountain – kills the people, saves the girl, and rides off with the mountain collapsing (for no reason) behind him.

He’s the exact same character from the beginning of the movie to the end, which is fundamentally boring, and the real reason books like Ready Player One ended up being terrible.

If your character doesn’t grow, or learn something, or change his mind or attitude about something, what the hell is the point of the story?

Anyway, for a movie I didn’t actually like, this is a long review. If you’re even half the fantasy enthusiast I am, save yourself the trouble and skip this film. That’s why I spend so much time writing about it – this is a film on par with those awful Dungeons & Dragons flicks that nobody is glad exists. Movies like this are an insult to my field.

If you’re going to use the name, you may as well attempt a retelling of any of the myriad adventures already written that aren’t half bad.

Jesse out.

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