Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

With the family out in Japan, a small bit of free time opened up for such luxuries as movies. Or, at least, movies targeted at a demographic over age ten. I’ve had a promo DVD of Conan sitting around since my brief fling in film-related work and figured it was time to give it a try. A good thing the children were out as well, since this quickly earns its R rating. (One would certainly expect that, considering the source material.) Keeping in mind that I don’t watch many movies anymore and am not qualified to be a “film critic,” I had a few thoughts.

I haven’t read the entirety of the Conan canon, but enough of the Robert Howard stories to respect them for being more than their pulp origins might suggest. It’s not Sarte, but there’s a touch of philosophy, social criticism, and, to be honest, some troubling attitudes in the stories underneath the kinetic action. The original film adaptation strips out most of the former, doubles down on the latter, but still finds itself a deserved cult classic. It also led to pale imitations like The Beastmaster and Krull, for which we may praise or condemn; mileage may vary, possibly in direct proportion to viewer alcohol consumption.

The 2011 version of Conan utters a sentence or two that might be construed as sociology, but mostly he just glares. Smolderingly so. This version is even more gleefully violent than the last, with bewilderingly inventive ways to obliterate characters and less story between the bloodletting. Finally, there are nods towards diversity and gender equality, but they are Hollywood nods. We’ll talk more about this later.

To give the film some credit, the scenery is fantastic. The villages, cities, camps, castles, and nature in between are diverse and beautiful. One might even suspect that parts of the screenwriting budget were requisitioned for props and locations. Unfortunately, all of the eye candy feels like it’s in the same neighborhood; somehow the sense of a vast world is completely lost. I don’t know how exactly one would change this, but the something about the pacing or editing gives the feeling that one location is a quick hike from another. Desert slave camp today, mountain monastery tomorrow.

There isn’t much to say about the plot. It is utterly predictable and riddled with holes, but anymore, I expect nothing less from Hollywood. To be honest, I don’t know how one would cram a coherent, large-scale story into just two hours, and clearly, not many writers or directors do either. We can give movie makers a pass and acknowledge this, but I don’t think that’s fair. With the budgets the go into these projects, Hollywood should be able to afford the very best writers. After all, isn’t storytelling the foundation? If I excuse Conan because making a tight, consistent, and epic plot is difficult, there’s really no point in ever watching movies. I want to hold these to a higher standard, just like I demand the best from the books I read.

As for diversity, we’re looking at another Hollywood token effort. There is a black dude, but not only is he a sidekick, he’s not allowed to come along for the good parts. I don’t know why this decision was made; Conan says that he must go it alone and his friend agrees. At least he isn’t killed, which I guess is progress. There are two prominent women. Both are allegedly strong and independent, and both demonstrate this by killing people. Hooray. Conan’s love interest starts out with promise, but it isn’t long before she is doing as Conan says, getting herself in trouble, and being fought over by the men while screaming in terror. It feels very mansplain-y. “Yes, she has no agency, but it totally makes sense in the story. Also, check it out, she stabs this dude.”

Of course, reading this, many people would respond with one of the following: “It’s just the way things were back then,” “What did you expect from an action movie for guys?” or possibly, “Why does everything have to be about this anyway? Can’t we just have fun without worrying about feminists?” Just like plot issues, accepting these excuses forces us to devalue our opinions and expectations. I prefer to reverse the questions: Why NOT imagine a world where one group isn’t subjugated? Why NOT expect more from an action movie for guys? Why NOT build fun around feminism, equality, and diversity, rather than declaring it not fun? The fact that we are still fighting for this exceedingly low bar is depressing. I have to remind myself that things were once even worse.

At this point, I refuse to say that I’m thinking too much about this. I’m not angry about Conan, or even disappointed. The film was entertaining for what it was, I spent nothing but some time on it (not even fully engaged), and I don’t think anything in the movie was actually harmful to people. Well, real people. An awful lot of imaginary people suffered horrible demises. But, cries my heart, it could have been so much better. I rarely watch movies anymore not because of time, but because the reward is rarely worth the investment. I don’t read many crappy books because there are so many brilliant ones out there. I don’t listen to bad music because I have hundreds of jazz and classical albums at my disposal. I don’t watch many Hollywood productions because they fall so short of the entertainment I can get elsewhere. It wouldn’t take much to change that though. More attention paid to the underlying messages in the film, someone with actual writing credentials to work over the script a little, and the simple courage to strive for a sheen of originality, and Conan could have at least risen to cult hit status.

I am guessing that the film came and went with little impact. Had it made money or received critical acclaim, we would no doubt be seeing a train of sequels. Instead, it washed away in the sea of franchises and remakes, possibly to re-emerge some twenty years hence with yet another reboot. This time around though, I wasn’t ready for the next chapter, the only feeling I had at the end was a desire to see the Arnold version again. As someone or another said when teaching me about jazz, “If you’re gonna sound like Miles, people are just gonna go put on a Miles CD and forget about you. You gotta do your own thing.”