Conan the Barbarian

September 1st, 2011

Yeah, not great, really.

On the upside, the design was generally good, sets and costume and styling pretty convincing, it didn’t look like cheap crap as fantasy films can (and often) do, and aside from some of the villains’ spiky costuming it was nicely free of the ubiquitous influence of Lord of the Rings.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Lord of the Rings, on the contrary, but it’s nice to see some alternative visions of fantasy.  Early sections with Ron Perlman weren’t bad (you can take Ron to the bank, even when he’s wearing what appears to be a fur tent and has borrowed bigfoot’s hairstyle), Jason Momoa was at least watchable as Conan, there were a couple of vaguely amusing moments, and some of the action scenes were, well, okay.  Aside from that, though, it was mostly an incoherent, charmless mess.

Despite its many faults, I remain deeply fond of the 1982 John Milius version.  Maybe it’s all a function of the age at which I watched it, but to me it had some great evocative moments and at times a really powerful sense of place.  Not to mention that stupendous Basil Poledouris score.  You also had James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, who with his liquid eyes, voice that could make the most dime-store of philosophy sound profound, and anarchist free-love doctrine seemed to be a guy you could imagine the oppressed of fantasy land getting behind.  For a villain in 2011 you have Stephen Lang giving it the massive ham, all poppy-eyed snarling and cut-price ultra-evil fascist blather.  At one point he talks about drowning the world in a sea of blood, or some such, and you think, ‘who signs up as henchman to a guy like this?’  Yeah, my boss is a slavering nutbag hell-bent on the annihilation of the universe, but the uniform is cool and the benefits excellent and, you know, who really likes their boss anyway?  Perhaps that’s why, while for much of the film he is surrounded by an army of goons inexplicably dragging an enormous war-boat across land, at other times he seems strangely unattended.

I like Jason Momoa, in general.  He really stood out in Stargate Atlantis.  If not exactly an actor, he certainly got the charisma.  Which makes him not unlike Schwarzenegger, in a way.  But he doesn’t have much to work with here.  He spends most of his time frowning real hard at people.  Arnie I daresay got no closer to Howard’s Conan, but at least he brought a kind of lunk-headed likability to the role.  Momoa’s Conan verges on being, well, a twat.

Most of all, the 1982 version seemed to create a cohesive world – by no means a masterpiece of worldbuilding like we see in Lord of the Rings but some really memorable and atmospheric moments with a feel of history.  Maybe a lot of it was in the music, and for sure there was a smorgasbord of cultures all bunged in together, but the Giant’s Tomb?  The battle among the stones?  That was good stuff.  The worldbuilding in the 2011 version is a shambles.  From the maguffin-heavy expository opening it lurches like a perp on angel dust from one location to another, linked, it would appear, by neither history, geography, politics, or plot.  And sticking a big wide with the name of the location up when you get there only serves to underline how little thought had gone in to the connections between them.  The ending is particularly nonsensical.  What was the big maguffin for anyway?  It’s like Sauron reclaimed the ring . . . then fell off a bridge, the end.

So I’d have to say the 2011 version is crushed mercilessly beneath Schwarzenegger’s muscular heel while James Earl Jones says something that sounds deep in the background.  Until you think about it.

But is the 2011 Conan the Barbarian worse than Conan the Destroyer?

Ha, ha, of course not.  Now you’re just being silly.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on September 1st, 2011.

34 comments so far

  • Phil says:

    From the outset I had doubts about this version. For a start no matter how good Jason Momoa was as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, he aint Conan. Conan is a big m/f, Momoa is about as big as his thigh. That was one of the great things about the Arnult version, Arnult looked like Conan.

    The second thing that piqued my doubts was the bigbad. Conan has countless wizards, warriors, demons, devils gods and monsters to choose from, and what do the writers/producers do – invent a new one. Why? If you cannot be arsed to actually looking into what has already been written, then I cant be arsed to give a fig about your film.

    Visually it looked brilliant, but there was no sense of scale. The Hyborian world is vast, but here they seemed to jump about it like they were using wormholes.

    I gave it a go, based souly on the teaser they released with the young Conan kicking shit out of a bunch of Mad Max escapees. I wasn’t impressed and sadly felt let down.

    The Arnult version has a lot of the right elements, mainly being Arnult himself looking like the character. This one has very little going for it.

  • SwindonNick says:

    I liked Jason Momoa too and he was good in both Stargate and Game of Thrones but they really gave him nothing to work with here. As a film it was probably more interesting with him as a kid but it’s biggest crime was a lack of anything, fresh, original or clever. It was a dull, dull remake and a terrible waste.
    After the high of Planet of the Apes and the not bad Cowboys & Aliens this was a turgid load of old bollocks.

  • JenMo says:

    Joe, you ain’t wrong. Although I’m a great fan of Jason Mamoa and would happily watch him do anything.

    Phil, you are wrong. Jason isn’t a small dude, not even when compared to Arnold. Not only is he huge, he’s beautiful. He’s got classic Arnold beat, and he didn’t even need to roar inherently.

    And is this really the role Rose McGowan turned down Red Sonja for? The evil witch / creepy daughter doesn’t seem like a better role than our flame haired warrioress. Now I’m worried about how much worse they’ll make the updated version of that!

  • JenMo says:

    Roar incoherently*
    :roars incoherently at typo:

  • Thaddeus says:

    This article reminds me a bit of Die Hard and Die Hard 4.

    The first film had a fantastic villain, a German master thief masquerading as a terrorist played to perfection by Alan Rickman, full of wit and menace.

    Die Hard 4 had a disgruntled ex-IT worker.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Jason Momoa must rarely get criticised on the basis of physical inadequacy. You’d have a hard time calling him weedy, surely? I did not doubt at any point that he could inflict a painful sword wound. Conan needs to have the mighty thews, and all that, but does he HAVE to be international body-building champion big?

    Yeah, evil woman-sniffing daddy-loving sadist bondage sex witch was a rubbish, rubbish cliche role. In fact you’d probably have to say the 82 version offered more interesting female characters, which is truly a horrifying indictment of this one.

    And yes, I fear if Red Sonja sucks as hard as this it will be some time before we see any money being spent on sword and sorcery epics again…

  • chris upton says:

    Be interesting to see if Red Sonja is as bad as the 80’s one with that bird from Rocky IV.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    That’d be Bridget Nielsen.

  • A-drain says:

    On another note:

    Conan vs. Logan?

    better yet…

    Conan vs. Bloody Nine?

  • Nick Sharps says:

    Here’s the real issue. In an interview Jason Mamoa was asked “who would win in a battle, Conan or Khal Drogo.” He foolishly answered Khal Drogo.

  • JenMo says:

    Conan vs Drogo? Wow that’s a tough one. I’d give Conan the edge cause I always felt (spoiler alert!) Drogo died too easily.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Yeah, come off it, Drogo’s a pretty minor character really. Conan is Conan, destined to crush the jewelled thrones of the world beneath his sandled feet and that.

  • Leslie says:

    I think Drogo would beat the snot out of Momoas Portrayal of Conan. But the Conan from the books nah in one conan story (i forget which) Conan takes on a Lovecraftian terror type thing with nothing but his teeth, thats pretty hardcore….

    As for the film I think some bits were ok, others were just dire. It reminded me more of Hercules with Kevin Sorbo than Conan.

    It wasn’t Hawk the Slayer put it that way lol.

  • Stevie G. says:

    Will have to follow your advice on this one Joe (once again after watching The Shadow Line) and give it a miss I think.
    I was not convinced by the sub-standard trailer that was fed to us in the cinema.

    And you’re also right about the best bit of Conan The Barbarian, it’s the score. I listen to it from time to time and it’s still pretty epic! You can almost smell the testosterone…

  • ColinJ says:

    Hated it. I thought it was sadistic, juvenile, incoherent wish-fulfillment crap.

    I literally had my head in my hands when Conan frees the Bulgarian strippers playing slave girls and INSTANTLY they offer themselves up to Conan and his men for sexual favours.

    When people want criticize R.E Howard and Conan, but who know nothing about it, this is what they’re thinking of. This is how the majority of people out there see the ‘sword and sorcery’ genre. And while dross like this gets made it does nothing to dispel those misconceptions.

    Milius, faithful to the source or not, at least took his story SERIOUSLY. And because of that he created a rich, epic world that had scope and depth. Marcus Nispel, on the other hand, is a studio muppet so his film had none of those qualities.

    Paradox should be ashamed of themselves for making this club-footed, misogynistic mess.

  • Doug says:

    After I saw it I was left feeling flat. What I had watched was a standard, dull and contrived Hollywood action film. AT every point the actors, writers and director had a choice to make about how to present the film they chose the focus-tested, acceptable path. Any avid movie goer could have written this film as though it were a paint by numbers piece in a children’s coloring book. I was particularly saddened by the generally politically correct, upright tone that the Conan character had. The staging was, generally, adequate to good, but in no way excuses the lack of depth, emotion or tedium. Perhaps the greatest thing about the film? That the breasts received their own credits, listed as ‘Bare Chested Wenches’. It got a laugh out of me.

  • Gary says:

    A prime example of a film made by people who aren’t passionate about the source material and a Hollywood that has run out of ideas so have to re-make existing films that were and still are good to this day. I bet the people that made the film hadn’t even read Conan. The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked well because Pete Jackson was a fan of the books so felt compelled to make a good representation of it. Just hope they do a good job on the Hobbit. Thinking about it, I can’t think of a single film that has come out of Hollywood in the last few years that I thought was brilliant and original. Another example of Hollywood running out of ideas is a US remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a film that is already well made by a Swedish film company so doesn’t need to be done again.
    Come on Hollywood, stop churning out generic crap and remakes and give us something new for a change!

  • ColinJ says:

    Gary, to be fair to the new GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Hollywood has been developing an adaptation of that novel for ages. It was just that the Swedish got there first. At one point Brad Pitt was trying to get Quentin Tarantino to direct it.

    Also, this one is directed by the great David Fincher. That man ain’t no slouch and he’s not going to sign on to some cynical cash-grab remake.

    And thirdly, the trailer looks amazing.

  • Longbowman says:

    I would have to say Joe, yours is the best review of the movie I have read to date. Spot on! One of the biggest complaints I had of the movie was that in all the Conan stories, there was at one time or another, some mention of Conan’s blue eyes. Could they not have dropped a little cash and given Momoa some colored contacts!!??

  • Jacob says:

    So there was more computer graphics, intricate costume design, and the basic image of the “fantasy movie” over any actual content or emphasis on anything that matters in the Conan universe?

    I consider this an accurate review.

    But Joe, on the 1 to 10 scale, how would YOU overall rate this movie? By all means, us the “.5” system if you have to. Just as an overall package. Music, atmosphere, acting, fighting, story… and so on.

  • David says:

    Hello, Joe. I agree with your review. And I think that Sword and Sorcery films would be handled better by Asian directors.If you look at examples like Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and 13 Assassins you’ll see that these directors treat fantasy with respect for the story and the audience.
    Three things are essential to all great films; A good story, Good cinematography and a good soundtrack. It takes the viewer out of the story when one of these things is amiss. And it’s the story that’s very weak in this new reboot of Conan.
    Thank you, and I’m loving your books by the way.

  • David says:

    I also forgot to mention Red Cliff parts 1 and 2 as excellent examples of asian cinema.

  • Peter Collinson says:

    I did not expect this film to reflect much, if any, of Robert E. Howard’s mythic power. The feeble, tacked on nature of anything remotely connnected to Howard’s imaginative, influential Hyborian Age was not the disappointing part.
    The movie did not suck because it was not Howardian.
    It did not suck because Jason Momoa did not have blue eyes.
    It did not suck because Momoa doesn’t have biceps like vein-laced watermelons.

    It sucked because it was a terrible, uninspired story told in an almost unbelievably incoherent, disconnected way.
    The narrative is a sloppy mess, with a bare minimum attention paid to cause and effect, much less character and action.

    I’m saddened to think the film’s epic failure at the box office may poison the well for other sword and sorcery films, but if this keeps Hollywood away from ever making another Conan film, well, that’s just fine by me.

  • Tim says:

    Excellent review. Pretty much articulated everything I felt about the movie. Not to mention the ’82 version (the score alone elevates the entire film)

    And Conan The Destroyer 🙂

    Thanks Joe.

  • Jim says:

    I’m going to go against the grain here. I loved the new Conan movie, hated the original and loved Conan the destroyer. Yes the new one was a bit wobbly, slave girls offering themselves up for conquest after being rescued, and here are my slightly different henchmen that you will beat throughout the movie even though they are now 15 years older and not as tough, oh yeah and the massive army that seemed to vanish. But I felt it had a nice swashbuckling attitude that was lacking in the original over-long bore fest, which was recaptured in Destroyer. I thought Jason Momoa did a good Conan too, even though all that is required really is to fight, be big, and perhaps raise an eyebrow at the camera. In the end though it’s all subjective, but none of the films compare to the original Howard books that really have a vivid sense of place and action.

  • Adam says:

    You’ve basically stated every reason I haven’t seen this movie yet. I am a HUGE fan of the 1982 version. Basil Poledouris, James Earl Jones, FRAKKING MAKO. Conan getting high as a mink coat on “black lotus,” Max Von Sydow basically putting a hit on the bad guy to get his daughter back, the completely relatable “let me lay some pipe to this really hot chick before finding out she’s a demon…” That movie was PERFECT.

    Look, the problem with modern cinema is that Holly-would-but-generally-won’t invest in a good writer. Why the hell do you think they keep recycling scripts and ideas?! I won’t even bother with most films based on movies I’ve already seen unless it comes with high praise from someone I know.

    Yeah, I’ll wait til this one hits cable.

  • Ranma says:

    I thought the 3D version was great! I truly enjoyed it, except for the evil king ending… and yah, the mask didn’t seem to have a big deal of power at the end (never trust old bone masks..).

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  • Karl says:

    Please promise all of us, but especially yourself, that you will remember this movie and your reaction to it when it comes time to option the First Law into a film. Please, please, please fight to retain enough control to prevent your beautiful stories from becoming anything like this Hyborian abortion. Otherwise Shia LeBeouf will play Logan and they’ll cast the Rock as Monza. And it’ll be a musical. If not for us, if not for yourself, do it for Logan. Robert E. Howard once wrote that Conan strode out of the fireplace fully formed and began relating his adventures to Howard. I’d hate to hear a prominent British author had had his skull split with an axe in a study with all the doors locked from the inside…it’s really hard to prosecute fictional characters.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    A noble ideal. But I make no such promise to anyone. To myself least of all. I think the Rock would make quite a good Monza…

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    In all seriousness, unless an author is stratospherically successful they’re going to find it extremely difficult to exercise any level of control over how a book is adapted for film or tv. When you say fight to retain control what does that mean exactly? It’s a bit like fighting to retain control of a house you’re selling to someone else. Who would buy it on that basis?

  • Masrock says:

    I don’t think any film has captured the true Conan.

    Howards Conan was smart -really smart – just uneducated and uncivilised- at first.
    Conan learned numerous languages and many fighting styles and tactics before becoming king of Aquilonia.
    Conan was never a stupid pile of muscle.
    Great intelligence, great Stamina, strength and dexterity. in that order.

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  • cesskar says:

    Yarvi watched Conan the Barbarian when he asked the gods for revenge?

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