Screening Log #22: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood based on a character by Robert E. Howard
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nicols, and Rose McGowan

 

 

 

If Conan the barbarian is born in blood – as is graphically shown to begin Conan the Barbarian – this re-booting of the classic Robert E. Howard fantasy creation has to be relatively stillborn by comparison. Directed by Marcus Nispel, the man who seems to be the go-to guy for re-booting classic 80’s film properties – see: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The and Friday the 13th – and here once more proves that, while he does possess a good sense for blood-slicked action, he lacks a sense of what imbued the original films with their distinct charms.

Jason Momoa plays the titular barbarian in his adult form here, after the film takes some pain to establish the events that severs the man from home and family. Momoa has a strong on-screen presence; intense when necessary (almost always) and refreshingly light when afforded (rarely), Momoa creates a Conan that – like the film he is in – is, perhaps, guilty of taking himself a little too seriously. A large part of the charm of the original film was the campy nature of Schwarzenegger’s performance; Arnold’s charisma and the film’s winking gestures to the viewer – i.e., Conan drunkenly punching out a camel – loaned it a light touch that balanced the heavier material well. Nispel’s film focuses almost monomaniacally on Conan and his quest to revenge the death of his father and the murder of his people. To this end the film has little time for characters who are not moving in this direction or exploding like blood-filled melons at the end of someone’s sword. Stephen Lang’s Khalar Zym is given a romantic motivation for his quest for power, but does little to warrant any sense of menace beyond scowling and having a scarred face.

The film’s implicit ideas are sadly under-developed; Conan states to a comrade that “no man should live in chains”, evoking recent democratic “liberations” abroad, however, Conan, merely a few scenes later, has chained several people beneath him to aid in his quest to find Zym. One shouldn’t enter into a Conan film expecting to find an oasis of gender equality, and this film doesn’t disappoint in its cumbersome depiction of the male/female – even if it is barbarian – dichotomy. A glimpse at the credits proves illuminating, showing that a majority of the female characters are either “nuns” or “topless wenches”, exposing a certain unsubtle purview that makes rendering convincing female characters nearly impossible. The film does take steps to ensure that Conan’s misogynistic views are not mistaken for those of the film itself, however it does little to examine the antiquated and clumsy depiction of how females respond to brutally violent men (here, unabashedly aroused, even the nuns!). These issues were present, however, less systemically approachable in the earlier film’s time, however there is little excuse for them to exist now beyond the veil of nostalgia and keeping the “spirit” of the original works intact. Even a battle with a giant squid can’t compensate.

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