Conan the Barbarian Review
An incipid remake that isn't nearly barbaric enough
When John Milius, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dino de Laurentiis made the original Conan the Barbarian, they planned on making a series of films exploring Robert E. Howard’s mythical Hyborian Age. Sadly in the end, there was only one sequel, the disappointing Conan the Destroyer and that wasn’t even directed by Milius. Despite the fact that Milius clearly loved swords and hated sorcery, his filmic vision of Conan remains the best because with his love of war and all things machismo, no one was better suited to bring the famed Cimmerian to life. One can only imagine what his further adventures of Conan would have been like but they must join all those other unmade films that now reside in the ‘what might have been’ file.
However it wasn’t just John Milius that made the original Conan the Barbarian great, who can forget the Austrian Oak in his first starring role. Yes the accent’s a bit thick and sure he’s no great shakes as an actor but there’s no denying Schwarzenegger has charisma and that was vital to selling the concept of Conan as a living breathing man. Despite Conan the Destroyer’s lackluster box office performance there were plans for Schwarzenegger to return in 'Conan the Conqueror' but that eventually morphed into a film about another Howard creation, the largely forgotten Kull the Conqueror. Even as recently as the late 90s there was talk of Schwarzenegger returning as an older Conan in 'King Conan: Crown of Iron' but the Governator’s election in 2003 put an end to that project.
Of course you can’t keep a good Cimmerian down and after a number of false starts, producer Avi Lerner finally hired Marcus Nispel to direct a new version of Conan the Barbarian. Nispel, who having previously helmed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the Thirteenth, was clearly making a name for himself as the remake king of Hollywood. With such a bland and uninteresting choice of director, what could possibly go wrong? Well, in this world of market research and filmmaking by committee, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that Conan the Barbarian fails but what is surprising is that it fails on almost every level.
The big problem with the new Conan the Barbarian is that the filmmakers just don’t take their world seriously. For Conan to work you need to create a sense of reality, a sense that at some point in history there really had been a Hyborian Age that has long since been forgotten. One of the reasons that The Lord of the Rings worked so well was that Peter Jackson treated the material with respect, creating a detailed and layered world that felt both real and lived in, dating back thousands of years. Now clearly Robert E. Howard was no Tolkein but his stories have transcended their pulp fiction origins and as a result deserve to be treated with a degree of integrity in order to allow them to breathe. This was certainly the approach that Milius took and no doubt his desire for a degree of realism is one of the reasons that he kept the sorcery in his film to a minimum.
Unfortunately, based on the new film it is clear that the filmmakers neither understood Howard’s world nor really cared and this is borne out by director Marcus Nispel on his commentary track. The production design is uninspired and never feels lived in or epic enough, giving the film a rather cheap look. There also appears to be a complete lack of logic to the rules of the world - so vital when dealing with magic - and some scenes appear to exist just because they might look cool. This results in a narrative vacuum that soon swallows the cast and the rest of the film, sucking out any coherent plot and also any sense of fun.
The second major problem lies with the cast and especially the leading man - Jason Mamoa - who might possess the muscles but lacks the charisma to carry the lead. For most of the film he looks more like an annoyed male model having a bad hair day. This is a shame as Mamoa is actually quite good as in Game of Thrones - a HBO series that is everything that Conan isn’t - and one suspects with a better director and script he might actually have been able to inhabit the role of Conan. As any good screenwriter knows, a hero is only as good as his villain and whilst Schwarzenegger’s Conan had James Earl Jones' unforgettable Thulsa Doom, the new Conan has Stephen Lang’s entirely forgettable Khalar Zym. As a villain Zym lacks adequate motivation his main ambition appears to be resurrecting his dead wife and he is unimposing and ineffectual to boot, so Conan rarely seems to be in any genuine peril. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, so it is left to the always reliable Ron Perlman - as Conan’s father - and Rose McGowan to save the film. McGowan plays Zym’s witch daughter Marique and whilst she looks like a transvestite version of Billy Corgan - the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins - she at least injects a degree of fun into the proceedings.
Conan the Barbarian is also supposed to be a 3D movie but it even fails here because it wasn't shot using native 3D cameras and was actually converted in post-production. In his commentary, director Marcus Nispel claims that the film was conceived for 3D but that the decision was made to shoot in 2D and convert in post-production because of the nature of the film. However he also talks about setting up shots to take advantage of the 3D effect and also about the limitations to moving the camera and editing scenes when you know the film will be converted into 3D later. The way that Nispel talks it is as though there is no difference between shooting natively in 3D and converting in post-production but in fact there are huge differences - simply put, one method results in three dimensional images and the other does not. There is no way that a conversion can replicate the incredible complexity and subtle differences of real 3D photography and the resulting images are often flat, distorted, artefact ridden or layered like a pop-up book. If the film had genuinely been designed for 3D there would not have been so many dark scenes in which it was so hard to see what was happening when wearing the glasses. Creating a 3D movie is not a case of just shooting as normal and then converting later, there is an art to correctly composing, lighting and shooting in 3D which Nispel and his cohorts fail to understand. Yes it is more difficult to shoot in 3D but modern 3D camera rigs are much smaller than they used to be and the additional complexities haven't stopped Peter Jackson from shooting The Hobbit in native 3D. Frankly if you're going to make a 3D film then do it properly or don't bother at all, once again we must rely on Peter Jackson to show other filmmakers how it's done.
However, one could forgive all the film's other failings if it delivered on the promise of sex and violence and frankly it just doesn’t. When Milius’s Conan the Barbarian was released in 1982 there was an outcry over the sex and violence in the film, although these days of course it appears rather tame. The fact is that what people want to see are Frank Frazetta’s paintings brought to life, filling the screen with buxom naked wenches and oiled musclemen and all washed down with lashings of sex and violence. Yes there are some bare breasts (mostly girlfriends of executive producers according to Nispel) and a tasteful sex scene but nothing to compare with Schwarzenegger’s Conan screwing a witch as she turns into a wolf and then throwing her naked body in to a fire. The violence also lacks any visceral impact with the fight scenes appearing too choreographed and the blood and gore suffering from excessive CG. In fact the best example of what Conan could have been is another TV series - the Sam Raimi produced Spartacus: Blood and Sand - which delivers superb adult entertainment with wonderfully unhealthy scenes of extreme sex and violence.
In fact, Conan the Barbarian is a good example of the state of modern filmmaking, where market research and demographics play such an important part in the creative process and budgets are so big, that the filmmakers are afraid to offend anyone, lest the box office should suffer. Of course the reality is that confronted with such bland and uninspired filmmaking the audience stayed away in droves and Conan the Barbarian was a box office failure. A just reward indeed for such a timid and unimaginative film that totally lacks any conviction. These days it is left to television to provide the kind of adult entertainment that Conan the Barbarian should have been and we must thank (our lucky) Starz and HBO for having the courage to produce shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Game of Thrones.