Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: Marcus Nispel's Conan the Barbarian (2011)

I posted this review in a slightly different format on my older blogs, but since Conan came out on Blu Ray and DVD a few months ago, and has been making the rounds on cable and On Demand, it seemed a good way to kick off my blog.  Plus, someone requested it. The promised reviews of John Carter and The Hunger Games will follow soon.  

Fair warning: there will be minor spoilers in this review.  Nothing major, but if you're avoiding spoilage altogether, you might give this a pass.

First things first.  This is absolutely not a remake of the Arnold one.  The only thing it has in common is the "revenge for my dad's death" plot.  The events of the story are completely, 100% new (well, new as in, they weren't anywhere to be found in the Arnold flicks).  So that's something.

A new Conan film has been in Development Hell since 1984’s Conan the Destroyer. Various incarnations have come and gone, all of which have generated varying degrees of Howard-scholar- and geek-rage due to their blatant disregard for the source material. Now, we have a new Conan film out, a reboot of the entire franchise (in grand Hollywood fashion—reboots and remakes are all the rage these days; better a tried and true “safe” property than some actual, original creativity or a moving forward of what came before). This one, we were promised for several years, was being made by rabid fans of Robert E. Howard.  This one, we were promised for several years, would be the Conan we’ve been waiting since the 1930’s to see on the screen—Robert E. Howard’s barbarian, 100% true to the writings of the book.

Not long after the announcement was made, however, elements started to leak that gave fans to question the truth of this statement.  In the end, what we got was…something far less than Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and a film that it is hard to believe was actually made by fans. Still, there are some glimmers of effort present, and the delivery was an entertaining Swords-and-Sorcery film in its own right.  The brightest spot in the film, thankfully, is our new Cimmerian in the form of Jason Momoa, who really does play the character of Conan pretty true to Howard.  It’s just the rest of the film that suffers from a lack of effort and research. 

This film has already generated a good deal of geek rage, with many denouncing it outright for its many shortcomings, in particular its failure to stay true to the source material. However, as with most over-reactions of the sf/f fandom community, it’s worth it to take a step back, take a breath, and try to appreciate the film on its own merits—and make no mistake, for a science fiction/fantasy fan, the film does have its merits.  They just don’t lie in its presentation of the Hyborian Age.

So, without further ado, I give you The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly in Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian.  

The Good

1. Jason Frickin' Momoa.  This dude plays an absolutely outstanding Conan, and that's worth a great deal of screwed-up production design.  He plays the character to the hilt.  I get the sense he's actually read the stories.  He knows Conan.  I believed he was Conan, and his performance carried me through the movie.  There's even times when you get the sense that his desire to take out Zym isn't to avenge his dad, despite him referring to "the man who killed my father," but out of his own Cimmerian sense of duty--Zym was a rat bastard who wiped out a village to take a piece of bone, so he needed killing, and Conan was going to follow him to the ends of the Earth to do it.  I can buy that from Conan.  He even says at one point, "If you're going to take out a Cimmerian, even a boy, you'd best make damn sure you kill him."  He also utters one of only two lines of dialogue in the film that are actually from a Conan story (the one we all saw in the teaser trailer).

2. Khalar Zym.  When I first heard the "one hero rises to save the world" bit I threw up in my mouth a little.  But I bought it in the context of the film.  Why?  Two words: Acheronian Artifact.  Once you bring in a guy who wants to give birth to a new Acheron, you've justified the world domination bit.  Look, for example, at Xaltotun in The Hour of the Dragon.  And to be fair, Zym never actually takes over the world, or even really a kingdom.  He's just a megalomaniac necromancer with a war band, who thinks he's gonna.  In short, he's actually a very Conan villain, sort of a cross between Xaltotun and Thoth-Amon when he appears in "The Phoenix on the Sword"; that is, this guy really wants to be a powerful necromancer, but he needs an artifact and wisdom from someone else to achieve it.

3. Marique.  I'm not a fan of Rose McGowan at all, but she chews up scenery nicely in this flick, and really gets her rocks off as she sinks her teeth into the role of a burgeoning necromancer--she also casts one of only two real spells we see in the film, which results in a pretty cool battle sequence.

4. Rachel Nichols naked.  'nuff said.

5. The setup in the beginning actually starts with the "...between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of," speech done in voiceover.  Unfortunately, it never gets to "Hither came Conan," because it forks off into the movie's setup, which is okay, I suppose. Plus, Morgan Freeman. WIN.

6. The good Howard reference.  I got really excited when someone announces that Conan, "Stole the heart from the Elephant's tower, and slew the sorcerer Yara!"  It's just too bad they didn't show us that episode.

7. Ron Pearlman.  He's pretty badass as a Cimmerian chieftain and as Conan's father. He's the face of Cimmerian culture and tradition in the film, and it's a good face.

8. The kid who plays Conan as a child.  The one battle scene he has (which I won't spoil) may actually be the most "Conan" part of the movie.

The Bad
Now, on to the bad: the problems from the standpoint of an actual Robert E. Howard Conan fan.

The Presentation of the Hyborian Age is wrong in every single way. 

3. Did you know that Hyrkania is a safe and sheltered place that is pronounced "High-ruh-kania"?  Because that's how they pronounce it...repeatedly...seriously, like 15 times in the space of 10 minutes.  We never actually see it, save a glimpse of an old castle at the very tail end; they just name drop it a lot (badly), so I don't know if there are proto-Mongols or proto-Huns there or not, but not judging by how they spoke of it, and not given that Nichols’ character, who is as white as the pure-driven snow, with flaming red hair, is supposedly from there.

4. They had Zingarans that looked like Turanians.

5. They had Argosseans (actually Messantians, as if that was a country) that looked, well, I'm not sure what they looked like.  Ever see the Highlander episode "Comes a Horseman?"  You know what Kronos looks like in the flashbacks to the Bronze Age?  That's the rulers of the apparently impotent, tribal and barbaric land of Messantia.

6.  The City of Thieves was all right, except that they didn't call it was some made-up name that I forget.

7.  Another problem--the main locations in the movie are made up whole cloth and don't appear in any Howard writings at all (and the film doesn't even give a nation wherein they're located).

8. Those beast-men-dudes: were they supposed to be Picts?  If so, why were Picts in loyal service to a Hyborian warlord/necromancer?

9. The good Howard reference.  I got really excited when someone announces that Conan, "Stole the heart from the Elephant's tower, and slew the sorcerer Yara!"  But really…why would you not show this???

Now the sad thing is that a tiny bit of attention being paid could've solved a lot of these problems--making the "Zingaran slave camp" a Turanian one would've been fine, and having them head to Shadizar instead of Messantia--no problem (though for Shadizar they'd have needed a bit more decadence).  I found it odd that Messantia was some kind of bizarre desert wasteland, but the invented temple where the monks reside looked just like Argos.

And for crying out loud, is it really that hard to pronounce "Hyrkania?" (Hint: there are two possible pronunciations that can be viewed as correct, and neither has a long-"i" sound: one is "Heerkania," and the other is "Hurkania."  Both have long "a" sounds in the second-to-last syllable).

They pronounce Acheron wrong, too (ASH-eron, as opposed to ACK-eron), but a lot of people do that, and it's not egregious enough to pick nits over in this case.

So here's the issue--they did just enough research to badly name-drop, but apparently didn't care about getting the kingdoms whose names they drop right.  And seriously, there's plenty of source material out there, guys.  It wouldn't have taken much more effort to get some production design and costumes proper.

So they really just dropped the ball on the presentation of the Hyborian Age.  It looked way too Mad Max.

The other thing that bugged me was the MacGuffin. I won't give too much away, but there's a huge buildup about the MacGuffin, and it seems to me they didn't actually do anything with it. Plus, there's a bit set up in the very beginning about the Cimmerians guarding these pieces of an ancient magical artifact to protect it from misuse...that's kind of crap.  Cimmerians wouldn't guard something like that.  It's magic and they hate magic.  Rather, they would've ground the pieces to dust and let the dust blow away in the wind.  But I'll let it go because, well, see the Acheronian Artifact bit from the Khalar Zym discussion above.

Finally, there's a bit of schizophrenia with Rachel Nichols' character Tamara.  They couldn't decide whether she was a badass or a screaming girl who needed to be rescued.  She bounced between the two roles faster than John Kerry pandering to two opposite crowds in 2004.  This comes from the fact that in the original script, the character was actually two characters: a princess who was the last scion of Acheron, and her bodyguard.  In the final script they combined the two characters, which works okay until the end, when the character undergoes a sudden and dramatic personality shift.  Personally, I'd rather they just stuck with the badass.  I liked her much better sticking people with swords and punching people in the face, than I did when she was screaming for help in a shrill squeal.

Finally, there were a lot of wasted opportunities.  An ancient menace that they talk about resurrecting is wasted.  The tentacled horror that appears in one scene, wasted.  The MacGuffin I mentioned earlier.  Wasted.

The Ugly
The cinematography in this film is competent, but nothing to write home about.  You won’t be wowed by the grandeur of the scenery; however, one could argue that straightforward cinematography is exactly what this film called for, so in that sense it was done right.  The Hyborian Age is gritty, not necessarily grandiose, so it didn’t require or call for the type of vistas we got in Lord of the Rings.

The special effects, as one might expect from this sort of film (as as one should expect) are pretty outstanding.  The battle between Conan and the sand-men is quite impressive.  A special feature on the DVD says that Nispel chose to film the entire final sequence in a cave, which proved grueling and dangerous to the cast.  However, I like this decision. Real locations are always, without exception, superior to constructed sets or (ugh) cgi-created settings against a green screen.  One of the (many) failings of the Star Wars prequels were their horrific over-reliance on CGI for everything, rather than using practical FX as the originals did.  Thankfully, Nispel does not fall into this trap as much as he could.  There is CGI, obviously; that’s just a given in this day and age whether we may like it or not (and I myself take a pretty fence-line stance on this issue—I think CGI has its place, but is often overused).  But Nispel uses it to enhance his film; he doesn’t rely upon it for every shot.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the cave sequence, he chooses some pretty poor locations in which to film.

1.  Apparently the Hyborian Age is all desert and beachfront, with a big honking skull-shaped volcano in the middle, except for Cimmeria and the area surrounding the made-up (doesn't exist in Howard's world) Shaipur monastery.

2.  Apparently Cimmeria is agrarian and idealistic.  They're warriors, but there doesn't seem to be a reason why...that being said, and in fairness, their village did look fairly Celtic in flavor.

3.  Messantia looks like something out of ancient Babylon or Persia, instead of resembling a Greco-Roman-inspired center of culture as it should.

4.  I’ve already mentioned how they made the Zingarans look like Turanians.

In the end, however, the problems were not remotely with the locations themselves, but lay in the fictional locations with which they chose to associate the filming locations. The overall look of the film is sharp and impressive in its own right.  The editing is fast-paced and maintains the pace of the story well; the battle scenes are well-cut and very dynamic.  There seems these days to be a tendency to use hundreds of fast, microsecond cuts when filming fight sequences, making them hard to follow and chaotic—See the third Underworld movie for an example of how not to film battle sequences. This often (not always, but often) occurs for one of two reasons: either the editor/director are not confident enough in their ability to present fight scenes adequately, or the actors themselves just aren’t good at handling these kinds of action sequences, so lots of quick cuts that make the fight hard to follow cover up that weakness.  This isn’t the case, here.  The editing in Conan is sharp and knows when to linger. We see every cut, every parry, and every limb severing and decapitation. The battle scenes are visceral and straightforward, exactly how battle scenes should be. Clearly Momoa, Stephen Lang, and the rest of the cast did a lot of work becoming convincing swordsmen (and swordswomen) for this film, and it shows in the visuals. 

Overall, I have no complaints about the look of the film other than the fact that the appearance of the Hyborian Age locations was wrong from the standpoint of the extant Howard texts. On its own merits, the film looks great.

Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian was not a home run.  It was not the Robert E. Howard Conan that we were promised, with one caveat: Jason Mamoa was fantastic.  It's not being too gracious, however, to say it was a solid base hit. In the end, they made a modicum of effort, so I'll give them an A for effort.  The presentation of the world was really poor, but the performances were great, and the villains suitably Conan.  If this movie had gotten the production designer from the 80's flick to redo the Frazetta-like look of the Hyborian Age from that film, and if they'd not wasted so many potentially great opportunities, they could have had a triple, or even a home run.  Unfortunately, the film pretty much bombed at the box office, which doesn't bode well for future installments getting it right as they move forward.  At the very least, it was a fun ride, and it's worth it to see Mamoa's portrayal of Conan.

After having purchased the film on Blu-Ray and giving it several more viewings, I’m going to up my original rating just a bit, to account for the sheer enjoyability of watching this fun ride of a Swords & Sorcery film.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 popcorns. 


  1. I loved this flick. I thought it was a great swords and sorcery movie. Momoa did an outstanding job.

  2. I was looking forward to this review almost as much as the movie itself. After all, you are the biggest Conan fan I know.

    For me, I am not in the know enough to say whether or not this movie (or any other Conan movie) is a faithful adaptation. I only know if it is a fun flick.

    Given this review it sounds like it will be a good evening's diversion. If you give it a 3.5 with all the "Bad" and "Ugly" you mention then I am sure I will enjoy it.

  3. First, lemme get this outta the way. Yes, I'm a woman.
    That being said, I certainly agree with your description of Momoa's performance. He made wonderful eye candy as well.
    I cannot disagree with your very technical breakdown of the film. However, the movie bored me to the point that I didn't care how it ended and went to bed 2/3 of the way through it.
    I appriciate your attention to detail with your review and look forward to reading more of them. (especially the Hunger Games)

  4. Hey! Great to see you here! Most of the reviews here will be 2 parts story and character review, one part technical breakdown (that's the "Ugly" section.

    And yes, you, your husband and I have discussed Conan already at Thursday gaming. Startlingly, he and I agreed on more things than we usually do in regards to this one! ;)

  5. Ok. I finally saw Conan.

    I am not the REH purist that you are Jason, and we have talked about this before. So I'll defer to you on that.

    As a movie it was a fun popcorn movie (and I was eating spicy habanero cheese popcorn while watching). I thought Jason Momoa was great as Conan and he did a better job than Arnie. I like Rose McGowan (as you know) a lot, but felt she was just chewing up scenery here. She was wonderfully creepy though. And I'll watch Rachel Nichols in anything.

    I agree with many of the points you brought up, but I can say as someone that has only enough familiarity of the REH Conan (and maybe more of the Marvel Comics Conan) that this was a fun movie.

    I did have some issues with it. I would have like to have seen more overt magic and I would have liked the Mask to actually have done more.

    There is the issue of the narrator telling us "Conan did this and this and the other thing" and not showing us, but I think they were trying to establish that he had adventures before this, and this was one more of his many adventures.

    I would like to see more Conan movies to be honest. I have this fear that sometimes these old pulps we all like don't strike the same chord with people these days. That goes for Conan, John Carter and the works of Lovecraft.

  6. Great post.

  7. As some one who has never read the books. And I only have the 80s movies to compare it to. I loved the movie. A few parts were cheesy or over narrated but over all I liked it.

  8. I only watched the movie because I was impressed by Momoa in Game of Thrones. Also, someone told me they liked the movie, so I checked it out.

    I don't care about about the movie sticking to the source material, as I'm simply watching a movie without ever having read any of the books. So none of that bothered me. Also, I didn't really compare Momoa to Arnold - I though Momoa did a fine job.

    It's just that in the first three minutes of the movie I realized I was drowning in a bath of cheese, and Momoa wasn't enough to help me get out. Way... too... cheesy...