There were other words I could have used to start this blog, but none of them are family friendly. To say the least, I did not like, nor enjoy Conan the Barbarian. I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, I have devoured the Conan stories over and over. Conan the Barbarian ‘82 with Arnold Schwarzenegger was about as close to the original Howard stories as Mamoa’s Conan, but I loved that movie for its own sake. That film as well as the horrible pastiches by de Camp and Jordan made me seek out the original in turn allowed me to discover the rest of the great writer’s work.
First, I went into the movie with the idea that, like ‘82, this would not be Conan as Howard had seen him, but like ‘82 I would get a fun fantasy sword and sorcery movie. I didn’t get it. As a matter of fact when the credits started rolling all I could think was: ’Thank the Gods that train wreck is over’. When I come out of a movie emotionally exhausted I want it to be because it was that damn good!
The opening credits pissed me off! The opening voice over started with the famous Howard lines….. Know O Prince that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis gleaming cities and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas…… then they are corrupted to introduce not Conan but the friggin’ McGuffin for the plot! Once again, a movie maker decided that we need to waste twenty minutes of film with an origin back story to set the rest of the story. Though I love Ron Perlman and thought as origin stories for Conan go, the sequence wasn’t bad until the village was raised. Just because the whole “it takes destroying his village to make a hero” thing has been done to death!
Conan himself was okay. I get hung up on character features if they are strongly presented in the original prose. Conan’s blue eyes were made much of by Howard. They are usually a feature very prominent in action fiction because of the emotion description they can convey. Through out the film, I kept thinking that though piercing, seething, and volcanic could be used to describe Mamoa’s glare, his eyes were not the startling blue I should expect. Mamoa, a guy I like as an actor, was a good pick, physically and through his presence. He just had nothing to work with. Also, the lack of armor where appropriate bothered me. I understand that Conan is perceived as the bare chested barbarian and Mamoa spent the majority of the film that way. But Howard’s hero wore armor of various types when appropriate, there were a few scenes where a shirt of mail might have been wise.
The dialogue lacked any spark like Howard’s prose. Now I was not expecting or wanting Shakespeare, but a little more than the grunts and snarls that our protagonist issued, reinforcing the dull barbarian stereotype that Arnold had been saddled with. As with most films the villain had the best lines, but even these were so trite to the genre that they left me flat.
The costuming was not too bad. I could see the interpretation of Howard’s Hyborian races as it was presented, especially the Bossonian archers, though I was expecting long bows, not recurve designs. The make up on the other hand was ridiculous. The characters looked more like something out of Fall Out or Mad Max. I’m still puzzling over how Pictish warriors (loosly based on Native American tropes) sound like Tuskan Raiders. Now Howard had characters with some extreme features like the filed teeth of The Man Eaters of Zamboula. Often times this was a cultural thing like ritual scarring. Some of the level bosses (because that is what these guys were, but more on that to follow) looked like radiation mutants.
Certain features were well done, Messantia and the Cimmerian village both had the look of living, breathing communities, much like what was seen in the HBO series Rome and others that have learned what a good set can do for a story. The regions that were explored as ruins had the feel of being there for ages, or in the case of abandoned outpost, age and neglect. Then you have a massive mobile fortress on the backs of elephants! ARRRRGH!
The fortress (not the mobile command center) of the villain Kylar Zym, looked like a twisted nightmare vision of something Sauron would call home. Yeah, I know a twisted nightmare vision for Sauron, yes that is how over the top it was. Then the infiltration of the fortress, and the level bosses. Yes, I saw the potential for the first person Conan video game. Zym was surrounded by several level bosses, and in order to be ready to face Zym Conan had to defeat each one. It got stupid ridiculous when one of them was in the bowels of the fortress seemingly just waiting for Conan to come up so he could defeat said boss and move on to the next level.
The final fight between Conan and Zym was lack luster, no epic clash. Of course the fortress had to spontaneously exploded and tumble after Zym was defeated juuuuuuuust after the hero escapes. Now this is a pulp staple, but I was left wondering how and why when it was done.
The female lead was there to scream a lot and to give Conan someone to share his feelings with. Actually adding only as much to the story as the McGuffin, the Mask of Acheron.
This was such a lost opportunity for those with the Conan property. There was a chance to create a sweeping epic adventure that would have been part-pulp part high adventure. Stories that would have made great films still languish for adaptation. Howard has yet to be discovered by this generation of movie goers, I was fortunate enough to seek out Howard after seeing Arnold as the iconic barbarian. Others, considering the box office returns and stock pile of bad reviews will not be as fortunate.
As a post-script I would actually recommend the novel adaptation by Michael A. Stackpole. The story has elements that Howard himself could have written and makes the craptacular story of the movie work, while weaving it into the greater Conan cannon.