Conan the Barbarian

If you’re anything like me, you might have seen the old Schwarzenegger Conan movies and enjoyed them immensely. But in all honesty, did you know that Conan existed before those films? I had no idea until this past week that there was more to Conan than what Schwarzenegger portrayed and that had been developed into comics since then! No idea at all that Conan stretched back to the 1930s!

So, as you might guess, I was afraid of this new Conan film. I was afraid that it would be a parody or an attempt to continue in the tradition of the Schwarzenegger films, but I made up my mind to see it when I discovered Jason Momoa was playing the title role. I’m something of a late comer; I didn’t know Momoa existed before his portrayal of Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis. I loved that character! I loved Momoa’s performance so much that I only started watching Game of Thrones (which I now love) to see him as Khal Drogo. (Thanks to Jewel Staite for mentioning that on Twitter at just the right time!)

Earlier this week I read a preview article on some site that made me more comfortable about the film, and especially when I saw the preview clip that was attached to the article. That convinced me that this was no attempt to recreate what Schwarzenegger did, and that this was no re-imagining or reboot of the franchise. In fact, the article pointed out that this, if anything, is a re-adaptation of the original stories. “Original stories?” I thought, and did some digging. Yes. Conan goes back to 1932 to Robert E. Howard’s original stories. Perhaps even older still when you factor in that the first Conan story was a retelling of one of Howard’s Kull the Conqueror stories. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is more to Conan than most of us ever knew!

So I was prepared to accept this alternate Conan, even though friends of mine were complaining that he speaks too much. (When did that become a bad thing?!?!) After watching this film today, what do I think? In all honesty, I like this vision of Conan better than Schwarzenegger’s! I love the intelligent, calculating brutality of Momoa’s Conan better than the brute strength of Schwarzenegger’s. In my opinion it fits the character better, and even makes better sense of the endings of Schwarzenegger’s where the voice over proclaims that this is but one of the stories of how Conan got to be king, then implying that there were others. This “new” Conan was proclaimed as being kingly by another character in the film, and I think it was completely accurate and that it felt better.

Of course, that brings me to the only two things I think were flaws in this film. First and foremost, this Conan was far too likable. He had no bad habits per se, and was likable from the first moments of the film. At no point did I feel that he had any character flaws or issues that needed to be resolved in order to triumph in the end. As much as we might want perfect characters in our stories, it’s these flaws that bond the audience to them. Did I dislike Conan? No. I just think he was too perfect, too heroic through out the film. Give him some self-doubt, or perhaps make him too reckless resulting in the death of a friend, or make him a drunkard… Give him something significant to overcome to make me want to root for him rather than making him perfect because he’s the hero we always knew him to be! Throughout the film, I kept seeing Conan as a middle ground between Momoa’s Ronon and Drogo; he had the apparent moral code of Ronon yet was able to get down and dirty like Drogo when it came to combat and sex. While there were definitely some things that were clearly Conan, I kept seeing these other characters, and it wasn’t because of Momoa’s acting. It was the script, which I think was tailored to capture fans of those other performances. I didn’t dislike the script and story, mind you, I just think that Conan was written too much like Momoa’s other characters.

Unfortunately, that ties into my second point: there isn’t a single enemy in this film that really compares to or challenges Conan. Yes, the chief antagonist does pose some trivial challenge to him, but in truth I felt like it was just a matter of time before and a question of how Conan killed him. Throughout the story, it was obvious that Conan was superior to every opponent in the film. There was no obstacle Conan couldn’t surmount, and so, again, another character development and audience bonding opportunity was passed up. It’s like watching the favored team steamroll an up and coming challenger: you know who’s going to win and there’s not much in the way of thrills as a result.

The movie was good, and I liked it, but it wasn’t epic like it should have been. Much as I despise Schwarzenegger these days, his version of Conan felt epic. Momoa’s was far more realistic, brutal, bloody, and intelligent, but it lacked that epic feel despite the fact that the overarching story takes place over decades if not centuries. I would love to see that corrected in a sequel but I seriously doubt there will be one. Part of the reason is that despite the presence of Momoa, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman, and narration by Morgan Freeman, there weren’t very many stars or even recognizable faces in this film. It seems to me that the studio committed to the film only as far as honoring a contract rather than being really invested in the success of this film. I may be wrong, there may be a dozen sequels planned for all I know, but felt that the studio really wasn’t interested in this film.

So, what do I have to say about this film…? I’m not sure. If you’re a Conan fan, give it a shot; I think you’ll be surprised at how much you like it even if you don’t like the fact that he talks more in this film. If you want to watch an entertaining film, you have one here, and I can think of far worse ways to spend $10-12 than on this film. If you are critical of films, expecting to have certain emotional triggers set off, then I’d recommend you pass on this. I found it enjoyable, but it wasn’t exciting. I liked this interpretation of Conan, but I didn’t establish an emotional bond with him like I normally would with a film’s hero. There’s nothing technically wrong with the film, it’s just not what it should have been.