The Region B Blu-ray of Conan the Barbarian includes both the 2D version of the film and the 3D version of the film on one disc. The film was shot using Super-35 with both versions being framed at 2.35:1 and encoded using the AVC codec for the 2D version and MVC codec for the 3D version. The 2D transfer was taken from the 2K digital intermediate and is actually quite good with a clean print that has been encoded with plenty of fine detail and no banding or compression artefacts. The photography is quite dark but the transfer accurately reflects this with solid and deep blacks and plenty of shadow detail. The dynamic range is also impressive with excellent contrast between the deep blacks and the peak whites. The colour palette is dominated by earthy tones with occasional flashes of blood red and the transfer accurately replicates this and renders the images with an attractive film-like quality. Overall the 2D version is very impressive and quite frankly is the preferred viewing experience.
As mentioned in the main section of the review, Conan the Barbarian was not shot using native 3D cameras but was converted in post-production. This is evident from the opening shots, with the 3D immediately looking like the results of a conversion rather than as a result of native 3D. The shots lack any real sense of depth and in fact at times barely look 3D at all. At other times the 3D effect has a pop-up feel with the backgrounds appearing layered but never providing realistic dimensionality. As is often the case with 3D conversions the process struggles with complex shots and objects like tangled tree branches are riddled with artefacts. It is one thing to convert a 2D cell animated movie like The Lion King or a stop motion animated film like The Nightmare Before Christmas - both of which were relatively successful conversions - it is an entirely different matter to convert live action. Real life is far more complex and the brain is not as easily fooled because we know how people and objects are supposed to look in three dimensions, thus the results are largely unconvincing. Another problem that often affects conversions is the reduction in light caused by the glasses and Conan the Barbarian is no exception. The early scenes in particular are very dark, making it difficult to follow the onscreen action and reducing the impact of the 3D still further. In his commentary, director Marcus Nispel mentions that whilst they didn’t shot the film with 3D cameras, they did plan to convert the film in post-production and as such he avoided certain things. As a result the film is thankfully free of too many whip pans, shaking cameras or epilepsy inducing editing which at least makes the 3D experience bearable. The transfer keeps crosstalk to a minimum but this is scant reward for an otherwise deeply disappointing 3D experience that lacks any real sense of immersion and adds nothing to the storytelling, as a result the 2D version is the preferred viewing experience.
Whilst the 3D might be something of a disappointment, there are no such concerns over the soundtrack for Conan the Barbarian. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel mix is excellent, providing an genuinely immersive experience, which is more than can be said for the 3D images. The score is wonderfully recorded and mixed into the soundtrack without swamping the dialogue or the sound effects. Given the nature of filming, a lot of the dialogue is ADR but this has been expertly integrated into the mix to ensure that it is spatially integrated. The same is true of the sound effects that display precise positioning to create an immersive sound field that surrounds the viewer and draws them into the action. The fidelity of the soundtrack is excellent, as are the levels of clarity and the bass is solid and deep, supporting the action with plenty of subwoofer trembling energy. This combination of bass and fidelity creates an impressive dynamic range that makes for an exciting and decidedly muscular audio experience.
The Conan the Barbarian 3D Blu-ray comes in a two disc set that includes the 2D and 3D versions and all the extras on one disc and the DVD version of the film on another disc.
- Audio Commentary by director Marcus Nispel - This commentary is reasonably informative and whilst Marcus Nispel is a garrulous chap resulting in no periods of silence, at times he sounds incredibly bored. However, after listening to Nispel talk about the thought processes behind the film it does rather explain why it failed so badly. At one point he mentions showing a scene to his kids, who promptly pointed out various holes in the plot. Nispel laughs this story off but frankly if your kids are pointing out flaws in the film, you’ve got problems.
- Audio Commentary by stars Jason Mamoa and Rose McGowan - This commentary track has some amusing anecdotes but as is often the case when two actors get together there is a lot of back slapping and describing the action on screen. Rose McGowan is the most interesting to listen to, in part because Jason Mamoa’s voice is so deep that it’s hard to understand. At one point they talk about how great the 3D is but then mention that they hadn't seen many 3D movies which is clearly the case if they thought the 3D in Conan the Barbarian was good.
- The Conan Legacy (HD, 18:01) - This is a reasonably interesting featurette that covers the history of Conan in various media, from his Robert E. Howard pulp fiction origins right up to the 2011 feature. Along the way the we find out about the various novels, the Marvel comics, the Frank Frazetta paintings, the Schwartzenegger movies, the animated TV series, the Ralf Moeller TV series and the video game. There are contributions from the filmmakers as well as Conan experts such as Paul Sammon and people involved in comics and the video game.
- Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan (HD, 11:24) - This is also an interesting featurette and, as the title suggests, it documents the life of Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard. The featurette covers Howard’s early life and influences, the history of pulp fiction, his earlier creations Solomon Kane and Kull, the evolution of his Conan stories for Weird Tales and his suicide at only 30. There are contributions from Paul Sammon again, along with other Conan experts and Robert E. Howard biographers.
- Battle Royale: Engineering the Action (HD, 09:55) - This featurette covers the creation of the major fight set pieces and includes interviews with Director Marcus Nispel, Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan and the various stunt coordinators. As is usual in these promotional featurettes the filmmakers and stars claim they did most of their own stunts, even though we know in reality the film’s insurer would never actually let that happen.
- Staging the Fights (HD, 05:47) - This is a fascinating look at the pre-visulisation videos that the stunt team created to give the film makers an idea of how the various fight scenes would look. These pre-viz videos have rough audio and visual effects added to them and are shown next to the remarkably similar completed fight scenes from the film itself.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 02:10) - Whilst this is the standard modern theatrical trailer, fast paced and cut to rock music, it at least fulfills its purpose by making the film look far more interesting and exciting than it actually is.
This new version of Conan the Barbarian is something of a missed opportunity, especially as today’s more relaxed mores provided a chance to create a film that actually lived up to its title. As it is the finished film lacks any real excitement or genuine barbarism or, for that matter, a coherent plot. There is no sense of geography or history to the environment which means that the Hyborian Age never feels like a real place and the production design and special effects fail to create an epic look, so ultimately the film looks rather cheap. Worse than that the direction is uninspired, the lead character lacks any real charisma and the main villain is decidedly anaemic, leaving only the always reliable Ron Perlman and Rose McGowan to add some thrills. All this could be forgiven if Conan the Barbarian delivered on the violence and sex but even here the film falls short, catering for the adolescent crowd without ever being genuinely adult.
At least the Blu-ray of Conan the Barbarian looks good with an accurate and detailed high definition transfer that offers a consistent image that is free of artefacts. The 2.35:1 2D image uses the AVC codec and the transfer is free of banding or aliasing. The blacks are solid and the shadow delineation is impressive, which is just as well since the film’s cinematography can be quite dark. Unfortunately the film is being sold as a 3D spectacular which is misleading because the 3D itself is a serious let down. The 3D version uses the same 2.35:1 framing but was encoded using the MVC codec. The filmmakers used post-production conversion and it shows with a lack of dimensionality to the image and artefacts caused by complex images. The dark cinematography works against the conversion process resulting in images that are very difficult to see and at times the transfer lacks any depth at all. Ultimately the 2D presentation is the preferred viewing experience.
The DTS-MA 7.1-channel soundtrack is impressive and delivers an experience that is far more immersive than the so-called 3D. The soundtrack combines a well recorded symphonic score with spatially integrated dialogue and sound effects. The positioning of sounds within the sound stage is very precise and the solid bass provides a solid support for the sound design. The fidelity is excellent and the resulting dynamic range is very aggressive, as befits the material. Whether you are watching in 2D or 3D, the audio will not disappoint.
The extras - whilst not comprehensive - do at least offer and insight into the film’s production, especially the extensive fight scenes and the development of the film itself. There is an interesting featurette about the life of Conan’s creator - Robert E. Howard - as well as two commentaries, one featuring director Marcus Nispel and the other featuring stars Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan.
In the end, whilst the 2D picture and 5.1 audio of Conan the Barbarian deliver a broadsword to the head, the 3D presentation and the film itself are something of a wet kipper. Fans of the Robert E. Howard’s original stories will be disappointed, as will fans of Milius’s earlier film. Ultimately it is difficult to see who Conan the Barbarian is supposed to appeal to and the unfortunate answer is no one.
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