Saturday, August 20, 2011

Film Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Rated: R
Running Time: 112 min
Genres: Action | Adventure | Fantasy

Jason Momoa as Conan (Our Hero)
Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym (Our Villain)
Rachel Nichols as Tamara (Our Heroine)
Ron Perlman as Corin (Our Hero's Father)
Rose McGowan as Marique (Our Villainess)
Leo Howard as Young Conan (Our Hero as a Boy)
and a host of others.

I watched both Conan and Fright Night the same day, and I saw Conan first.  Like Fright Night, I was undecided as to whether or not I should spend my money to put up with the rude commercials and ruder audience found in any theater these days just to watch a multimillion dollar turkey, but it was a week day matinee and besides, Roger Ebert gave it a bad review.  I was glad I went, and here's why (without spoilers).

Barbarian is defined as:
A. n.
1. etymologically, A foreigner, one whose language and customs differ from the speaker's.
2. Hist. a. One not a Greek. b. One living outside the pale of the Roman empire and its civilization, applied especially to the northern nations that overthrew them. c. One outside the pale of Christian civilization. d. With the Italians of the Renascence: One of a nation outside of Italy.
3. A rude, wild, uncivilized person. [emphasis mine]

b. Sometimes distinguished from savage (perh. with a glance at 2).
c. Applied by the Chinese contemptuously to foreigners.
4. An uncultured person, or one who has no sympathy with literary culture. [emphasis mine]
5. A native of Barbary. [See Barbary.] Obs.
B. adj.
1. Applied by nations, generally depreciatively, to foreigners; thus at various times and with various speakers or writers: non-Hellenic, non-Roman (most usual), non-Christian.

Consider the title: Conan the Barbarian.  Not Conan the Philosopher, Conan the Peace Prize Winner or Conan the Diplomat.  Now, what do you expect the film to be like, given the title?  Never mind the character created by Robert E. Howard, an author which most film critics and theater attendees haven't read. Just reading the title strongly suggests that this is not the story of a government employee who raises a family and retires quietly to sell high quality antiques in upstate New York.  This illustrates a large part of my objection to Ebert's unfair criticisms.  What did Ebert expect?

Conan the Barbarian relies heavily on Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) to pull off the story successfully.  The nice thing about CGI is that the unfortunates who are tasked with designing the sets and finding a suitable location to shoot the film have an easier time of it.  The rest of the good news is that such things as geography and civil engineering can be safely dispensed with.  This is especially convenient when the producer demands a fantastic city that can't be built because it violates the principles of engineering and physics.  And, having built one such city, others can be constructed without difficulty.  The enemy can take on a whole new look, and finding a giant squid or something similar for Our Hero to chop up no longer involves trick photography and a squid wrangler.  The good news is that all this CGI makes for a visually enjoyable film.  There really isn't any downside to this unless you can't see the film on a large screen.

The plot to Conan is simple, which is nice in an action movie.  Conan is a barbarian unleashed on a civilized world, meaning he doesn't hold with local custom very easily, and since gunpowder hasn't been invented just yet it is safe to say that might makes right - or at least, immediate rightful authority.  Conan, generally speaking, tears around drinking, fighting and looting with a complete disregard for local criminal law and law enforcement, and during all this manages to misquote himself:
Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content. — "Queen of the Black Coast", Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales, May 1934.
Howard developed Conan as a brooding philosopher of sorts who would contemplate the meaning of life during quiescent periods while in his cups.  Conan in the film does not, which is just as well I suppose.  In between periods of looting, Our Hero is searching high and low for The Villain who orphaned him, and after tedious search finds him.  Then there's a big fight.  See?  Don't expect more.

The acting in Conan is good, but it is not the main reason to see the film.  Again, if you and Roger expected to see a complex plot driven by Casper Milquetoast's altruistic motivations, you'll be in for a rude awakening in the first five minutes or so because it ain't happening.  What a relief, right?  My real complaint about the acting begins with casting.  Conan is played by Jason Momoa, who is too pretty to play the part effectively and acts like a Nancy Boy from time to time - which I find deplorable in a character like Conan.  As a case in point, the man shaves his chest.  Just what kind of man shaves off his chest hair and expects to be taken seriously escapes me completely, but any man who would has a serious identity crises involving his wedding tackle and just how he wants to use it.  In modern parlance, how gay is that?

In spite of my criticisms I enjoyed the show.  It's a film about violent, over the top heroes and heroic action, and that appeals to me.   The CGI is high quality and the plot is easy to follow.  The producer and director miss the original character of Conan by a wide margin, but that doesn't spoil the film.  I'll give the film a seven out of ten on the Mad Jack Scale of Screen Excellence.  

1 comment:

Stephanie Lorée said...

Going to see this tonight. It's gotten horrible reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but I'm not sure what the critics were expecting. This is Conan: The Barbarian, not some deeply moving drama.