Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

It’s hard to think of a more inconsequential film than the new Conan the Barbarian. It’s a standard low-grade summer blockbuster, big and loud and dumb and mind-numbingly dull throughout. It lacks the kind of repulsive ideological subtext that makes movies like Battle: Los Angeles, Sucker Punch, or Transformers: Dark of the Moon stand out. It’s an awful, awful movie, but it’s the kind of awful movie Hollywood churns out about fifty times a year and three times a week during the summer. And perhaps that’s what bothers me about it. I like to pretend I’ve long come to terms with Hollywood’s general lack of daring and imagination, but I still get mildly annoyed every time they put out a terrible remake, sequel, prequel, or spin-off (especially since those don’t have to be terrible; I had very good things to say about Matt Reeves’s Let Me In, one of last year’s very best films). Or perhaps it’s because Conan is the latest illustration of Hollywood’s disgustingly cynical and opportunistic nostalgia for the ’80s in general, and 1982 in particular, which I find, well, disgustingly cynical and opportunistic. Or perhaps still it’s simply because I’ve always had a soft spot for the original Conan the Barbarian, which makes this one slightly more disappointing than if it existed in a vacuum. It’s one thing to make an awful movie; it’s another to make an awful movie when the exact same one was done right thirty years ago.

To its credit, Conan (directed by Marcus Nispel, who specializes in bad remakes) is very upfront about just how awful a movie it is. It opens with this most obnoxious of narrative devices, the expository montage, complete with vaguely ominous voice-over narration. There’s talk of an ancient evil empire, of the mystical mask on which its power resided, and of the barbarians who defeated that empire, broke the mask, and hid the pieces away (instead of simply taking a sledgehammer to the thing and smashing it to smithereens, which sounds like a much more sensible solution). More than this appalling pile of clichés, though, what makes this opening truly remarkable in its dedication to being awful is what comes next, our introduction to the film’s titular hero. Our first look at Conan is a close-up of a baby inside his mother’s womb, a peaceful (if cheap-looking) image immediately shattered when the mother’s belly is torn open by a sword. It doesn’t get much more tasteless than that. I guess that if you really want to tell people that your movie is going to suck big time, though, there’s no better way to do it than by shoving a sword towards them while they’re watching from inside a pregnant woman.

Conan’s mother, unsurprisingly, doesn’t survive the birth, so it’s up to his dad Corin (Ron Perlman) to raise him. That doesn’t last long, either, as Corin, along with Conan’s entire village, is killed by a certain Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) who, in a shocking twist, is looking for the broken pieces of the mask we’ve heard so much about. Conan’s left for dead and Zym, now in possession on the mask, moves on to the next step of his plan: finding the last descendant of the empire of Acheron, whose blood is necessary to restore the mask’s powers. (Why is it that ancient empires only ever have one descendant anyway? How does that even work?)

A few years later, a grown-up Conan (Jason Momoa) is still looking for Zym, and Zym is still looking for that elusive last descendant. Conan conveniently locates Zym just as Zym locates his target, a young monk (who we never see engaging in any kind of monk-esque activity) named Tamara (Rachel Nichols). Conan rescues Tamara from Zym’s men, and the rest of the movie devolves into a series of increasingly boring fight scenes filmed in the confusing and alienating style of what Matthias Stork recently dubbed chaos cinema. There’s a chase scene which involves Conan and one of Zym’s henchmen riding through the woods, and it’s presented almost exclusively through close-ups of either characters; the result is that we have absolutely no idea where they are in relation to each other or even, after a while, who’s chasing who. The whole thing could be edited in anachronistic order, and no one would be able to tell the difference.

We don’t necessarily expect a lot of characterization from a film like this, but we expect some. Unfortunately, all the characterization you’re going to get in Conan the Barbarian is in the title. “I live, I love, I slay… I am content,” Conan says, which shows a depressing lack of self-awareness on the writers’ part. Momoa tries his best (and anyone who’s seen him in HBO’s Game of Thrones knows he’s capable of playing a much more interesting barbarian-type character), but he’s not given much to work with. So instead he and Lang try to out-ham each other, with Rose McGowan (as Zym’s freaky witch daughter Marique) getting in on the fun every once in a while and Nichols watching from the sidelines, apparently confused as to what kind of movie she is in. It’s not enough to make the whole thing not be a terrible bore, but the few vaguely enjoyable moments all involve Momoa and Lang overdramatically yelling at each other.

The rest is blood and gore and bits flying everywhere. There’s a strange dichotomy in the way Conan depicts violence: on the one hand it looks very cartoony and over the top, with geysers of blood spurting from even the tiniest cut; on the other hand, we’re treated to numerous gruesome close-ups of realistic-looking wounds, including a cut-off nose and a torn-up face. It all feels very arbitrary, though, as if Nispel had decided to make something halfway between a Troma production and a David Cronenberg movie without first understanding the reason behind either’s aesthetics. Perhaps I’m overthinking it—I suspect I’ve at least spent more time thinking about it than Nispel did. But with a screenplay that has the strength and internal logic of that of a bad video game (at some point, Conan encounters a character who seems to do nothing but sit on a chair in a dungeon, supposedly waiting for someone to walk in so they can have a fight), Conan does little to retain one’s attention over its 102-minute running time. After a while, you can’t help but notice stuff like that, and start to wonder why a small cut will send blood spraying everywhere while a severed hand won’t, or how exactly a city of thieves can function if every single one of its inhabitants is indeed a thief, or why the mask that was supposed to turn Zym into a living god doesn’t seem to give him any special powers whatsoever.

There aren’t any answers to be had, of course. All you’re likely to get, besides a growing sense of boredom and despair at the state of what passes for creativity in Hollywood, is a headache. Especially if you were made to pay extra so that Conan could assault your senses in one additional dimension.

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