They Shall All Drown in Lakes of Blood, by Kyle Anderson
For a film that’s 112 minutes long, Conan the Barbarian feels like a series of clips arranged in roughly a chronological order. It’s an entire movie made up of bloody fight sequences in aid of a story we don’t get to see. In fact, during the whole thing, I can recall only two scenes that did not directly involve people punching, kicking, slashing, stabbing, burning, mutilating, or otherwise harming someone else, and one of those was the film’s lone, quite superfluous sex scene. Part of me thinks there was a much longer, more coherent and thoughtful film that director Marcus Nispel was trying to make, but couldn’t because suits were telling him it needed to be all action all the time. And in 3D too, because people like 3D films these days. To be sure, there must have been lots of hands in the kitchen; Conan has eight credited producers and five credited executive producers who probably all wanted to ensure they’d make a profit on their investments. After all, it’s much more economical not to have a plot; that way they can just film people fighting and saying things. But there were also three credited screenwriters. What exactly did they write? There are probably a total of 100 lines. This film is a mess.
The “plot,” for want of a better term, concerns a Cimmerian named Conan who witnessed the death of his father and entire clan at the hands of a ruthless warlord named Khalar Zym who is trying to rebuild an ancient magical mask (all of the pieces were strewn about the land of Hyboria and Conan’s people had the last piece) in order to become a God. But Zym also needs the pure blood of the last descendent of some ancient bloodline and it takes him 20 more years to find it. In the meantime, Conan grows up and becomes a muscular brute who kills bad guys with near impunity. Once he catches wind of Zym, he goes off to kill him, in the process finding the beautiful monk or nun (it’s not clear what they’re actually called) who is the bloodline person Zym wants. Then there’s a whole lot of fighting and blood-splattered swording of people we don’t get to see long enough to know who they are.
Everything about the story is uneven. There is very clearly a great deal more to the story of Conan that is quickly sped through. The opening of the film is a three minute prologue talking about the mask and how it was destroyed initially which I’m sure was meant to mimic/rip-off the excellent prologue in Fellowship of the Ring, but they didn’t have the time or money to make it that cool here. They did, however, find enough money to have Morgan Freeman narrate it. If there’s one thing Morgan Freeman definitely should NOT narrate, it’s a movie called “Conan the Barbarian.” There is then quite a long sequence wherein young Conan and his father (played by Ron Perlman in the only decent performance in the film) forge a sword and the father teaches him things that Conan never has to use again later. The 20 year gap between the father’s death and adult Conan’s crusade to avenge him is illustrated by four lines of narration spoken by Freeman again in about a 45 second span. Thus ends the narration for the rest of the film. The rest of the film is literally sword fight after sword fight with bare-breasted woman adorning the background for no reason other than they can. Indeed, seven women are credited as “Topless Wenches,” all of them Russian models with last names ending in “-ova” or “-ava.”
They also don’t feel the need to actually show anyone traveling anywhere. Part of what made the Lord of the Rings films great was spending time with the characters as they wandered between lands, learning things about them and their growing relationships along the way. In Conan it’s literally just a CGI establishing shot of a new city or realm and a superimposed title telling us its name. These places might as well be twelve feet away from each other because we have no idea where they are in relation to each other nor does it take anyone anytime to get there. And the names of them certainly don’t matter because we’ve never heard of these places until we see them. They might as well say “Bakersfield,” “Duluth,” “Liverpool,” and “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon” for as much as the name of the place impacts what the place is.
Where one would expect to see character development, you get nothing but more fighting. We’re expected to believe that Conan and the nun Tamara start out not liking each other, then warm to one another, and eventually fall in love, but in reality all the time they’re together they’re about to fight in a fight, fighting the fight, or celebrating the fight they just fought. When they have the unnecessary sex scene toward the end of act two, they’ve spent all of 3 screen minutes together without running or fighting. Conan himself as a character has absolutely no growth or epiphany or anything a hero normally has. He is throughout a violent braggart who faces no threat other than the idea that he might not kill Khalar Zym like he wants to. He gives up nothing, he sacrifices nothing, he has no moment of self-doubt or uncertainty and the only time we see any pathos in him is when he is forced to run away from his first fight with Zym. That’s it.
Marcus Nispel’s direction is nothing short of nauseating. The fight scenes are so jumpy and the editing so breakneck that I began to feel physically ill about halfway through. It is so disorienting and there’s absolutely no cohesion between shots. I saw it in 2D and I’m certain that had I seen it in 3D I would have vomited and had an epileptic seizure. This marks German director Nispel’s fourth feature film (and second barbarian-themed one) with the rest of his work being in the music video medium, but David Fincher or Spike Jonze he ain’t. The sound in the film is equally oppressively sickening. The music is way too loud at any given moment and the sound effects are even louder, but they have to be since 85% of all lines are shouted. I contend that if the Ludovico Treatment from A Clockwork Orange was real and existed today, the subjects would be made to watch Conan the Barbarian in 3D on a loop. Within two days, no one would ever want to be violent again.
The cast is twelve shades of terrible, with the aforementioned Ron Perlman being the only exception. He’s made a career out of being good in crappy films like this and luckily for him, he doesn’t have to be in it very long. Jason Momoa as adult Conan is passable at best but all he really has to do is be beefy, swing a sword, sneer, and yell. Stephen Lang plays the villain Khalar Zym and, believe it or not, his performance as the bad guy in Avatar was nuanced compared to this. Rachel Nichols plays Tamara and is pretty and has blue eyes, but other than that she’s just a Californian reading lines. The worst in the cast by far is Rose McGowan who plays Zym’s mystical and vicious daughter. McGowan can’t act when given GOOD material so here she’s nothing short of painful. There is literally no one else memorable or notable in the entire cast.
Conan the Barbarian is a loud, ugly, misogynist, detestable, sleazy, utterly dreadful piece of filmmaking that doesn’t even manage to be exciting or interesting with its violence. It fails on every level, even with the relatively simple task of having a plot that one can follow. The original 1982 film starring Ahhh-nold was bad but weirdly enjoyable in its cheesiness. It also felt like half a film and that’s because it WAS. They simply didn’t have enough money to film everything in Oliver Stone and John Milius’ incredibly lengthy screenplay. This remake just felt like they couldn’t be bothered to explain anything besides the bare minimum to connect one scene to the next. The original also had memorable, if silly, lines. From the new one, I can only remember one like: Khalar Zym to Conan at the end: “Barbarian, I don’t like you anymore.”
My sentiments exactly.