Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Perhaps I need to say a few more words about my initial feelings on the Conan reboot movie.

I had a few catty words about the star, Jason Momoa. Honestly, I've got nothing against him per se. He's an actor and I'm sure he knows this is a much higher profile gig than his previous jobs on Baywatch and Stargate: Atlantis. I'm not going to blame the guy for ambition, or for winning the genetic lottery. I hear he got signed for the HBO Game of Thrones series, and that is a vote of confidence. HBO's cast is solid and the network seems committed to turning out a quality fantasy show.

I still think he's way too pretty to be Conan, but I'd give the guy a chance if everything else looked promising. Unfortunately, it doesn't.

Let's see the plot as outlined on that fount of InterTubes wisdom; Wikipedia:

"Khalar Singh, an old friend of Conan's father, Corin, arrives in Cimmeria seeking Corin's help in finding Ilira, the 'Lost Queen of Archeron.' When Corin refuses, Khalar and his mercenaries attack. Corin and the other Cimmerians are killed, but Conan escapes. Conan becomes a thief and eventually seeks revenge against Khalar for killing his father. In the meantime, Khalar has found and captured Ilira on his own, but her bodyguard Tamara escapes. Tamara meets Conan and the both travel to Khalar's city, Khor Khala."

This plot has next to nothing to do with Robert E. Howard. I could easily replace every reference to "Conan" with "The Beastmaster" and probably achieve the same resulting movie. It's generic Sword and Sorcery Plot #69. With the exception of "Conan" and "Cimmeria" none of these characters or places appear in the original stories. The plot is unrelated to anything that happens in the Howard stories.

Perhaps I'm ungenerous. After all, the Milius Conan film was at least as divergent. Well, call me a hypocrite because I'm giving that film a pass on two grounds. First, Milius and his writer (Oliver Stone) managed to capture the thematic tone of Howard's stories. Second, I grew up with the movie; it's as simple as that sometimes.

But we're now in the post-Lord of the Rings era. Would Tolkien fans have applauded a movie in which Frodo was a swashbuckling hero with a magic ring who, alongside his jovial sidekick, Gollum, worked to free Middle Earth from the Oppression of the Dark Riders? What if Hollywood insisted on matching Frodo with Arwen because all heroes need a love interest? Hmmm... Maybe Frodo is too short, hairy and his feet are too big. We should fix that. Maybe we can make Hobbits a bit taller, or elves a bit shorter. Certainly Hobbits should be a lot less hairy.

No. I don't think that would've worked well at all. Of course, Peter Jackson did make some adjustments to keep the running time down, but he remained faithful to the source material. Is there something wrong with Bob Howard's work that we can't do the same for Conan? The episodic nature of Conan's story is perfect for a movie series. I could easily see 3 - 5 Conan movies. Harry Potter has proven audiences will stick with a longer, but finite, series that move toward a conclusion.

Conan's story has many interesting aspects ripe for the screen. He's born on a battlefield, grows up in a warrior culture, and marches to war at the age of 15. His first battle is against an imperial invader challenging his way of life. Yet it sparks an intense curiosity in him, and he does something few others in Cimmeria dare do. He travels. At its core, Conan's story is about exploring the world. (BTW, this is great for providing exposition to the audience. Conan always needs to have things explained to him.) He builds a career and frequently changes jobs. He has a wonderful cast of supporting characters -- and many of them are strong female roles. He overcomes increasingly difficult challenges, and eventually achieves great fame.

There's no reason to discount Conan because he is a pulp character. If treated with respect and dignity, the source material could yield something every bit as rich and insightful as the Nolan Batman films.
So, it's not Jason Momoa I have a problem with. But I think his casting is symptomatic of the production. We're being given generic stuff under a Brand Name. I can't shake the feeling that casting Momoa was less a case of finding the right actor to portray Conan than it was a casting director thinking, "He looks fabulous with his shirt off!" Because that's all Conan is to the production: Branded, Grade-A Beefcake.


MommyBabou said...

Finally! I've been hearing the script was bad but this is the first time anyone sheds any light as to why it sucks. Having never read the Howard books, I just didn't get what was wrong with the story line. Your LOTR remarks finally made me understand.

I must confess I am an adoring Momoa fangurl but I am certain this movie is gonna make me cringe... if Pathfinder is anything to go by, Nispel isn't a man I would trust with anything beyond commercials and music videos.

Taranaich said...

I think the main difference between this film and Conan the Barbarian is that Milius is a great filmmaker, while Marcus Nispel... isn't. Likewise, Oliver Stone was a talented writer, while Doppenheimer are wretched blights on the film industry. There are a few great actors in the new film, but much as I love and admire Stephen Lang and Ron Perlman, they aren't James Earl Jones or Max von Sydow. The film just doesn't have anything going for it that CtB had.

Though I disagree that Milius successfully captured Howard's themes (personally), I will happily champion its cinematic merits. When one separates it from the source material, it's a good film. I don't see that being the case with the upcoming one.

I do have to agree that a lot of the bad decisions regarding Momoa are based on furthering the "brand." They gave him a "cool" hairut, they made sure he looked good without a shirt (there's a notable lack of scars in all the pics I've seen so far), and he's just muscular enough to be dreamy without being intimidating to the teenyboppers. Depressing.

jrf said...

Now might be a good time to confess I didn't do in-depth research on the production team behind the new Conan. I didn't feel like I had to given the rather obvious shallowness apparent in the bare facts I did know.

Momoa is an easy scapegoat, so I did feel a little bad when TexanBeauty gored me in the previous post. I felt I needed to explain why I considered this movie to be an instant Epic Fail when I heard about it.

There's a larger "chicken & egg" issue going on here. Is the Entertainment Industry Juggernaut churning out crap because we, the paying audience, really is dumb; or are we dumber and dumber as the EIJ churns out more and more crap?

Conan is not Shakespeare. But he is a pop culture icon and he's achieved that status because he says something about our societal id. And we need to remember that even Shakespeare was once pop culture. There's no reason to dumb the Conan Brand down.

Actually, let me rephrase that: There's no EXCUSE to dumb the Conan Brand down.

Especially when there's a smart attempt to revitalize the equally venerable John Carter of Mars Brand going on simultaneously. The Princess of Mars movie sounds respectful to the source.

@Taranaich: I wouldn't say CtB captures all of Howard's themes, but I do think it focused on some of the most prominent ones. For example, the ability for a strong-willed man to make his own destiny. But You're probably right; the success of the movie probably owes more to the director's and writer's skill in the artform. I'll have to think about this some more. Maybe I'll write a whole article on it sometime in the future.

How do we convince Christopher Nolan to pick up the Conan franchise pieces???

jrf said...

Did I just write: "because we, the paying audience, really is dumb..."?

Huh, maybe we ARE that dumb...

Damn that EIJ...

Taranaich said...

JRF, I think the problem with the idea of Milius' Conan being a strong-willed man making his own destiny is undermined by Doom's own words at the climax: Doom made Conan who he is. Doom took him from his homeland and family, Doom set in motion the circumstances that would allow him to become strong, Doom gave him the drive for vengeance. Conan is only a literal slave for the first third or so of the film (and 20 years of his life), but he's a slave to his childhood trauma for virtually the entire film. Only when he kills Doom is he finally free - and he still owes Doom.

It's a powerful, mythic character arc, but it isn't one REH's Conan undertook. That said, Milius' own themes are well worth ruminating over. I'd certainly read your article on CtB, though.

jrf said...

Oh, boy! A debate.

You could choose to believe that. But you are forgetting that Thulsa Doom is a charismatic cult leader who is well-used to distorting the truth to convince people to see things his way. There's a reason he is a snake cult leader -- like the Biblical snake, he twists truth into lies.

If Conan believed Doom was right, he would've cast his lot with Doom after the woman jumps from the rampart. But he didn't, and he ended up on the Tree of Woe.

Why do you believe Doom?

Taranaich said...

Why do you believe Doom?

Because he speaks the truth. The only reason Conan leaves Cimmeria is because he was forced out; the only reason he's strong is because he's tied to a wheel; the only reason he's a great warrior is because he was thrown into a pit, etc. All these things happened because of Doom.

However, I wouldn't say Conan acknowledged any of this: he's too obsessed with vengeance to even consider Doom's demagoguery. Hhence how the only time he became a free man was the moment he killed Doom.

jrf said...

I can't, and won't, deny there is an element of truth in the assertion that Thulsa Doom is the prime mover in Conan's journey.

But all the best lies have a degree of truth.

Once Doom cut down Conan's mother and left with the sword, he didn't spend a second thinking about Conan. None of what happened between their meetings was related to Doom.

Conan wasn't the only Cimmerian child forced into slavery, but because of his strong-will, he survived, and even thrived (Yes, that's somewhat perverse, but true) on the new path of his life.

Conan always made the best of the situation he was given. Even situations that would break far lesser men, because he always chose his way (at least when he could).

No person has 100% control over the circumstances in their life, but they always have a choice in how to face those circumstances, and they can seize opportunities to make it better. Conan did that. Thulsa Doom was too busy holding orgies to think about Conan.

JRH said...

Right on, man. Thanks for stating what I felt after hearing about this.