Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian: A Review

I'll preface this by establishing my "credentials" before moving forward: reading Conan in the original 12 book series featuring Howard's edited tales in conjunction with new stories by de Camp and Carter was what got me into both fantasy and reading in one fell swoop as a kid. The seventies were, for me, a time when I could manage to get the novels with ease, but trying to get the non-CC Authority approved "Savage Sword of Conan" comics was out of my reach. As a result, I felt strongly that Conan was a literary character, and that the comics were fun but pale imitations.

I got to see the original Conan the Barbarian movie when it was released in 1982, and I had cool enough parents and uncles that they were all there watching and enjoying it as well. It was a profound movie to see as a kid, and I have always considered it the kind of film that was unique to that period in film history....the idea of a movie laden with nudity, violence, sorcery and lots and lots of hippie extras was a singular convergence of films in the late seventies and trailing into the early eighties. It was a good film, and Arnold did a pretty good job, this despite the fact that the movie was not a true adaptation of Conan's tales but rather a sort of spiritual re-imagining of the character. For one thing, it managed to take Conan's key defining trait in the tales --his natural development into a warrior through years of fighting and adventure-- and changed it into this sort of angsty "my family is dead" theme that made him more a victim of circumstance and a hapless pawn for years before he is unexpectedly given an unwanted freedom. It's not bad as stories go, just not Conan. Not the real one, anyway. The sequel is barely worth mentioning, as far as I'm concerned; it's tragic misdirection of tale and intent derailed by focusing on something more PG-friendly and taking too many qeues from the comics (or so I've felt, at least until recently).

So anyway, I've been with Conan as a source of interest and inspiration for a long time. I wrote some of the supplements for the role playing game in recent years (Tales of the Black Kingdom and books 2 and 3 of the Messantia boxed set) as well, which was a real pleasure, and also in interesting insight into the nature of professional freelancing in the RPG business. These days I've been enjoying the resurgence of interest in Conan and Howard especially, with purist-driven anthologies of his works, with all editing and politically incorrect adjustments restored to the original texts. I've also at long last been able to catch up on the surprisingly good Savage Sword of Conan collections Dark Horse has been releasing. In short, I've read a lot of Conan, and a lot of Howard.

So now I've seen the new movie, which I honestly had only nominal expectations for. I was fully expecting it to be a spin-off of the original films, with maybe a modest nod to the current MMO and possibly, just possibly, a bit of recognition of the original stories. Instead, I was treated to one of the goriest films I've ever seen this side of the zombie subgenre, a movie which portrays a Conan who is a naturla born killer both in youth and adulthood, setting the opening act of the tale with Conan as a youngster who has Ron Perlman for a dad and later cutting to the chase with Conan in his mid twenties, set sometime after he has likely done his time as a thief and a wanderer, met Belit, and gone through a number of adventures (and a few references, such as to the Tower of the Elephant, are provided as indication of his exploits).

The movie establishes right off that it's not related to the previous films, starting with the more accurate depiction of Conan's birth on the battlefield and converging only briefly with what now must be the traditional "massacre of the home town" event that is apparently necessary in the minds of screenwriters to motivate the hero to go forth. It then cuts forward several years to a Conan in the middle of his adventuring career, as he stumbles on a clue that leads him to vengeance against his village's destroyer. This time it's a cruel warlord and his sorcerous daughter, seeking to use an ancient Acheronian artifact to resurrect his mad and quite dead wife, using the blood of the last pure Acheronian woman in the world. Good stuff, nice to see a new villain and not wonder why Conan is fighting Kull's nemesis, for one thing! They also didn't decide to recycle Thoth Amon or another villain from Conan's tales, who might not have been specifically appropriate for a new tale as this one weaves.

So I'll avoid any more spoilers, but state the film's strengths:

1. It pulls no punches, and this movie shows off gore, violence, depravity and naked slave girls as often as it can. The violence was seriously over the top. This is all a good thing. This film earned its R.

2. The story is original, but it studiously avoids violating the canon of the original tales as much as possible. Where it gets muddy (such as the periods of time that are not specifically addressed in traveling across the length and breadth of the continent) it glosses over, and one must be reminded of Howard's own interpretation of his Conan tales: as the stories of a man you are sharing an ale with in a tavern, told out of sequence and sometimes not quite accurate, as they are recalled from memory of the old warrior telling you about the highlights of his long career. This movie manages that just fine.

3. The new actor for Conan works out better than I expected. He's got the lithe, panther-like quick movements and speed that Conan was always described as having, but which the slow and lumbering Arnold couldn't manage. He looks more "Frazetta-like," to me. He's good eye candy for the ladies as well, my wife has informed me.

4. The set pieces, scenery and costuming for this film was impeccable. I loved it, and need to watch it again just to pay closer attention to all the little details. It was scenery porn all over the place, and really looked and felt like Hyboria. Great stuff.

Now for the bad bits:

1. The 3D was unnecessary and of mixed value. Sometimes it stood out, and other times is was obviously flat or missing. It was actually kind of distracting at times. If you can see it without 3D, I would suggest that option instead.

2. I don't know why Conan's fellow villagers keep dying in movies. I guess it would explain why Conan in his long career never meets another Cimmerian with whom he grew up, but this is clearly some sort of perceived plot necessity by Hollywood screenwriters....still, it was done well, and Conan the younger kicks a lot of ass for a kid.

3. The movie is a quality B film, a lot of fun, but anyone watching it will notice moments where the story is sacrificed for the effects, or occasional spots where maybe some additional dialogue or a slower and more purposeful effort at focusing on the slow moments may have better served the mood of the film.

4. The special effects are by and large amazing, and I loved the sand demons, but there are a couple moments where the film really fell flat due to the effects. The most outstanding moment of this problem was (for me) with the kraken/hydra tentacled thing toward the end. I wish they'd taken the time spent rendering that and put it into a more impressive finale....speaking of which....

5. The finale was fun, but missing something: specifically, something demonstrating the decidedly Mythosesque Acheronian Mask's powers, such as....oh, I don't know...some actual sorcery? It was a perfectly decent ending, but still, if the sorceress can summon sand demons, why on earth does she decide to tackle the monk woman herself at the end? Still, a minor quibble.

So in the end, this is a fun movie, and closer to the Real Conan than the 1982 Arnold Conan. It's getting brutalized by the film critics who are clearly taking the film to task for being a continutation/reboot of the 1982 movie, and demonstrating a lack of awareness of its broader literary context. Is it a perfect adaptation of the books? Not hardly, but its a pretty damned good pastiche, and I don't think Howard is spinning in his grave. In fact, I think he'd rather enjoy it.

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