Friday, June 29, 2012

Conan the Barbarian - 2011

"Conan the Barbarian" - 2011
Dir. by Marcus Nispel - 1 hr. 53 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In an ideal world, I suppose I'd have to judge a movie like "Conan the Barbarian" on it's own merits, regardless of any other version of the character that might exist in cinema or in print.  But I reject that notion; literally the only reason that you'd go see this Conan movie is if you were already a fan of some previous version of the character.  For me, that would be mostly because of the first Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and then because of some pretty well-done comic books by artists like John Buscema or Barry Windsor-Smith.  If you didn't already have some awareness of this character, I find it impossible to believe there's anything present at all that would pique anyone's curiosity.

Screw a plot recap; the plot's stupid.  That's not necessarily a barrier to a decent Conan film, but as I started to type up the plot, I had a sudden urge to kill myself.  I lived through this film once, and that's enough.  If you want to know what happened, you'll have to go through the same pain I did for one hour and fifty three minutes.

My basic problems with "Conan the Barbarian" are two; the first problem is director Marcus Nispel's inability to grasp basic visual story-telling, and the second is a matter of aesthetic taste.  To give credit where credit is due, there are a few good visual ideas within this film.  Unfortunately, Nispel doesn't have the slightest clue how to present them.  I'll focus on one scene, where Conan (Jason Mamoa) has captured an enemy soldier, Remo (Milton Welsh), who is after Conan's main squeeze, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) on behalf of the big baddie, Zym (Stephen Lang).  After finding out why Zym is after Tamara, Conan straps Remo into a chair of some sort, and literally catapults Remo at Zym's land-boat (don't ask).  The idea is good, and it's a visual that I haven't seen before.  But Nispel botches the scene on a couple of fronts.  First, he routinely gets the least mileage out of his ideas through his inability to build tension in any meaningful way.  Things just happen with no warning, which is the equivalent of some jerk coming up behind you, jostling you in the ribs, and yelling, "Boo!"  In this instance, it's not clear at any point until Remo is already in the air that Conan's strapped him into a catapult.  Rather than allowing the audience to anticipate the cool-looking thing that is about to happen for even a second, the event happens before it's even clear what's going on.

Nispel's inability to tease out tension plays out over and over and over through the film.  There are a number of exotic (fictional) locations presented, and they're all introduced the exact same way: cityscape shot with the name of the place as a subtitle.  Not once, and I mean not even once, does Nispel work any of these locations up into a functional reveal.  It's frustrating watching a film that, if handled with a little more respect for the ideas contained within, could have been pretty good.  I should have mentioned a third problem that I had with the direction of this film, but it'll have to settle in as problem one-b.  It seems that someone should have a better idea of what to do with the 3D technology by now, seeing as how it can give an enhanced illusion of depth.  Now, I'm not expecting "Conan the Barbarian" to lead the way, but the lazy shot that has come to define shitty 3D direction was on full, nearly infinitely repeated display here: stuff either pointed at or flying at the camera.  That's fine (if played out) if you're watching a film in 3D, but most people aren't going to see any given movie in that format.  It just looks dumb (and patronizing) whenever that shot pops up while watching in normal formats.  If you've got the ability to separate planes of depth, and all you do with it is point swords at the camera, it's an abuse of the technology.

My other big gripe is an aesthetic one.  And it also has a lot to do with the Schwarzenegger films that I enjoyed.  This entire movie looks like a computer crapped it out.  Everything from the monsters to the locations look digitally-clean and designed.  As a result, there's no definite sense of place present in the film.  I could gripe about how I like the grain of film better than high-definition pixels, it's a matter of preference.  But there's no excuse for doing a movie set however many hundreds of years ago and not having it look even vaguely plausible.  I know that there's a standard look for these kinds of movies right now, mostly gleaned from Zack Snyder's version of "300," but this movie looks like a really bad version of that, occasionally crossed with some "The Scorpion King" for flavor.

I don't know what else to tell you.  If you've seen any other incarnation of the "Conan" character, it's guaranteed superior to "Conan the Barbarian."

1 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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