Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian in 3D: "Is it really that bad?"

In a word? Yes. It's pretty bad.

In fact, a couple of times, I felt downright insulted as a Conan fan, although I suspect those moments were calculated to be nods to those of us in the audience who know the character well.

But let's start with what is intrinsically wrong with the movie. There's no real plot. Oh, there's some cardboard window dressing about Conan seeking the man who killed his father. But that's an excuse for Conan to wander from one CGI set to another battling mostly faceless minions. What it reminded most of was a video game in which the player battles from level to level, always finishing with a boss character until he meets the Big Bad. The background changes, new traps and obstacles are introduced, and sometimes elite bad guys are mixed in with the minions, but it's easy, straightforward game play throughout the game. Kill everything in sight and eventually you win.

Now, there's been a lot of critical discussion about the influence of movies on video game narrative and vice versa. Some modern games have very intricate narratives that are clearly an attempt to merge the visual storytelling of film with the first person experience of the video game. Often those games require the player to do more than shoot bad guys; they must also solve difficult problems, or even make moral choices that branch the game's narrative in a different direction. That's pretty innovative, and it derives it's power by putting the audience in control of the main character's fate.

So CtB3D is really a huge step backwards in that it represents taking the simplest form of gameplay and takes any control the audience had away right from the start.

Certainly, CtB3D is going to follow certain conventions. The audience knows he's going to reive and slay through most of the movie. And we expect he'll bed the wench. And we're pretty certain he'll kill the principal villain. But the art comes in telling a compelling story between those certainties. Reducing it to the "Kill the Level Boss" creates a pattern that destroys narrative tension.

In other words; I was very bored by the third time a new CGI environment was introduced with a title card, something like "Shaipur Monastery." Oh look, another level...

To compensate, the producers do provide a visual feast. The CGI is very creative, if obvious. Yes, no matter how far Hollywood thinks we've come with CGI, it's still pretty easy to tell practical effects from digital ones. There's at least two scene in which all the women are topless -- I assume this is an effort to make me forget about the CGI. The fight choreographer and photography is peppy. It's also pretty silly: why on earth would anyone fight with two broadswords in reverse grip? Is there a sword system on earth in which this appears as a practical technique? (XMA and wu shu do not count.) But I will overlook goofy fights in favor of visual appeal.

The movie is also brutal and soaked in blood. I can imagine the director making the "artistic" choice to do this, "It's a movie about Conan the Barbarian. BARBARIAN! We need more blood! What? We ran out? I'll add it in post-production..."

There are moments when this works, such as when young Conan returns to his village. There are times when this brutality is overwrought, such as when Conan interrogates a prison warden by inserting his finger into the warden's... Less is more. Honestly. I know it's counter-intuitive, but it's true. Yes, you need to drive home to your audience that this was a less civilized time and place, but you can rarely top the audience's own imagination. Suggestion works very well. Showing me is jarring, and takes me out of the drama of the scene by reminding me that it's a great special effect.

So there's no plot, it's boring and repetitive, and it's over-produced. What's insulting?

If you've been following my blog, you might remember that way back when the first casting and plot rumors were swirling, I made an argument that they should just film the short stories. The material is there. It's exciting, it's action packed, the character is smart, there's real drama, and there's a ready made character arc as Conan wanders out of Cimmeria, builds a career as a thief, pirate, mercenary, and eventually king. It's a ready made series with some classic moments fans would be salivating for. ("The Frost Giant's Daughter", anyone?) Instead, we get a generic sword-and-sorcery plot with Hyborian Age window dressing. Labeling a CGI set "Zinagaran Slave Post" is not setting the scene.

This movie referenced several classic Conan adventures, including his birth on a battlefield, his battle at Venarium, and his theft from the Tower of the Elephant. I probably missed some other direct references. But only his birth is shown. We are told about the other incidents, not shown. Robert E. Howard never wrote a story about Venarium, we only know about it from some references he made in outlines and correspondence. If ever there was a decent Conan origin story, this is the story to tell. From what little we know, the Aquilonians built a colonial outpost called Venarium inside Cimmerian territory. In a rare instance of solidarity, the Cimmerians cooperated to pushout the settlers. Conan participated in the attack at the age of 15, and Howard says this encounter with civilization is what sparked Conan's unique curiosity to explore beyond Cimmeria.

The Tower of the Elephant is it's own story, and has arguable links to the Cthulhu mythos, so it too is ripe for filming, and pregnant with possibility.

Hollywood: Don't tease me like this. It's wrong. It's like you recognize decent material, and then ignore it just to spite the audience.

One final gripe: I really got sick of characters punctuating the importance of McGuffins by holding them aloft. The first thing held aloft in reverence is the newborn Conan. But soon all kinds of literal plot devices are being held high in the sky. It wasn't lost on this reviewer that the subsequent use of the image reduced Conan himself to McGuffin status. Yep, this is pretty generic sword-and-sorcery.

So did I like anything about the movie?

Yes, I did. I thought most of the bit featuring young Conan was compelling and had a truly mythic quality. There's an excellent short film in this mess. The warrior test scene was outstanding, and managed to evoke Celtic Mythology, historical warrior cultures, the original Arnold movie, and even hint at the REH stories all at the same time. Since it is good, I'll wait a few days before commenting on this scene directly. But it is good.

A final thought. I am not usually such a purist. While it has been bothering me that in the post-LOTR world we're still getting crappy re-imagined adaptations of fantasy fiction, I'm very willing to make allowances. I really liked the Solomon Kane movie, for instance. I thought the film had its heart in the right place, it was well-cast and well-acted, and it was reverent to the original stories' motivating principles. I was willing to overlook some serious deviations from the REH version of the character because it was a pretty decent movie.

But CtB3D is as unsatisfying as Zamoran fried lizard on a stick...


Victor Paul Alvarez said...

"It's good!"
"You have no idea how long it's been there."

Anonymous said...

In fact i like the Novel to this Movie more. Michael A Stackpole does a good Job. You are able to Pinpoint where in the Conan Timeline this Story is set. And he describes Conan like Howard did.
Btw, Stackpole wrote about the Siege of Venarium in the Book.

jrf said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Books are typically better than movies because they do have the room to play with the material.

I'm encouraged to hear that Stackpole made an effort to fit this into the original REH timeline. Of course, you do realize that there are several different Conan timelines floating around? But that's neither here, nor there.

How interesting that he wrote about the Siege of Venarium. Of course, he's not the first to try this. Harry Turtledove made a pretty good effort in his novel "Conan of Venarium" which can be purchased from Amazon.