Saturday, August 20, 2011

The barbarian

Kimberly Rae and I went to the Marcus Nispel movie Conan the Barbarian as our first full date since our little Conan was born, and we had a great time.

Now, I should say, if you tore 11-year-old Neil up from an issue of Savage Sword of Conan and said that 40-year-old Neil would come home and griped about a Conan movie and then showed him that movie, he would assume I got a lobotomy in the years since.

So for my initial review, I'll try to stick to basics and not get too deep into the details of how it compares to the Robert E. Howard stories, which 11-year-old Neil would have only begun to read.

I recently experimented with a few episodes of Conan the Adventurer. In theory, I was kind of pre-vetting them for Conan to watch when it's age appropriate. The result was somewhat frustrating.

On the one hand, it has too many moments where Conan says things such as "Conan does not steal!" for me to consider it any kind of introduction to Howard's Conan.

On the other, it may be the best children's sword and sorcery I've ever seen. So, I'll almost certainly start him out with those in a few years, before he's ready for Howard books, "Savage Sword" reprints or movie adaptations, but I can still wish there was a less compromised alternative.

That's certainly come to be my adult view of the John Milius movie Conan the Barbarian. The one that 11-year-old Neil did step away from his "Savage Sword" magazines to see and fall in love with.

Trying to decide, as it goes, which of the two, very different, Conan the Barbarians 11-year-old Neil leads to an interesting thought. Milius's movie is a movie aimed at adults. Nispel may very well have been imagining a similar 11-year-old Marcus as his target audience.

And yet if 11-year-old Neil gave an edge to the Milius movie, it would be because of the sense of an epic being created. The story is framed as an origin and everything is done to suggest that this epic will be expanded and Conan's great destiny would be fulfilled.

Howard stated that he told the Conan stories out of chronological order on purpose, that his intention was to mimic the quality of a warrior sitting around the fire recounting his various adventures. As an adult, I much prefer this approach. It fits the quality I most enjoy about the stories very well.

On the surface, the Nispel movie uses the same formula as the Milius movie. It seems de rigueur for such things now. In fact, technically, the entire plot of the story is driven by many of the same ideas and a voice over by Morgan Freeman at the beginning seems to reinforce the idea.

And yet, after the opening sequence, this seems not as driving a point as one would expect. I'm guessing most will count this against the movie, and not without some core logic on their sides.

As an aside, let me mention that Kim and I, on our first extended evening away from our son Conan were quite certainly moved by elements of the opening sequence in ways that the average viewer simply won't be and shouldn't be. For me, having a tall father with a red and grey beard who actually is a blacksmith didn't hurt in connecting some of that together emotionally more than any person with a normal existence wouldn't imagine.

In saying this, I want it noted that no one has more right to expect - Nay, demand! - that the emotions of this sequence get properly carried through.

And I am the one saying, this works better. Yeah, the surface bits say that Conan was an exceptional warrior among his own tribe of Cimmerians and that he is seeking revenge for the wrong done to him, his family and his tribe during the opening.

Yet the tone once the action is in motion is entirely of that of one more adventure undertaken by a man of many adventures. There are some cursory nods to it being personal, but it's never given the energy to resonate. In fact, we're even given examples of adventures that took place in between, including The Tower of the Elephant.

Is Nispel undermining a dictum from On High to tell an origin, a revenge story and a personal story for Conan or is he simply failing to capture a story as it was provided and passed down? From my previous experience with Nispel's work, I'm inclined that it's almost certainly the latter, and yet I enjoy the possibility that it could be the former.

And yet the idea that he succeeded through failure has its appeal as well.

The cast here is terrific. I was even pleased with the cast of characters and extras.

The standouts, however, are a very creepy Rose McGowan and, of course, Jason Momoa, who absolutely owns as Conan.

If there's a single element that may make it difficult to go back to the Milius movie, it's Momoa. Arnold Schwarzenegger has his moments as the sword and sorcery hero named Conan that Milius created.

Momoa, however, looks, and somehow acts, like he stepped out of a John Buscema panel, adapted from a Howard story, even if a bit too "freely" adapted.

If nothing else, I hope this succeeds in order to justify sequels. Possible plot hints on Conan II? and More hints on Conan II express that a second in this series could well be a real adaptation. A genuine Howard story with Momoa back in the lead? I'm there with bells on, kids!

I haven't even begun to consider the complexities of my feelings on this. I'm a big, bad, deep Conan fan with a lot of feelings.

I know Kim and I had a blast spending grown-up time together. And felt even better getting home to our Conan and giving him all the kisses we could!

I think I've spent a lot of time talking around any basic point. Conan the Barbarian: The Conan Movie Blog Review and Movie Review: Conan The Barbarian cover a lot from fairly different perspectives. They're both better considered from a movie review perspective than mine was, for whatever that's worth. I'll definitely have reviews such as these in my mind when I get around to returning to Nispel's Conan. Probably when I buy the Blu-Ray.

UPDATE: I think the answer to the question of whether I "liked" Nispel's Conan the Barbarian came with the help Stephen Bissette, oft mentioned of late. He described it as a "standard issue" of "Savage Sword of Conan" by Buscema, Roy Thomas and Alfredo Alcala.

Having, as noted above, grown up with "Savage Sword", that makes for a perfectly grand movie experience for me.

I suspect people coming at from the perspective of wanting it to be an epic in the nature of The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones (or my impression, as I've not read the books or seen the series yet) or even Milius's Conan the Barbarian will be setting themselves up for disappointment.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I don't think I prefer that expectation of the epic. There's something about a good old fashion adventure story that I think should be valued substantially more.

Mind you, this is a reiteration of the fact that the origin story/revenge storyline that the movie is structured around is a complete and utter failure.

I'm not sure if that was a producer or executive who was developing it that insisted on that or it was one of the original screenwriters who took it upon themselves.

However, everything that doesn't work in the movie - that has been poorly received by audiences, to the extent it has been and critics - is a direct result of that decision. Whoever that moron was, they fucked this movie commercially.

When that person reads What's it like to have your film flop at the box office? by co-screenwriter Sean Hood, they should think, "That's my fault. I am wholly responsible for the commercial failure of this Conan movie."

(Ok, yeah, I'm sure it was really some kind of dumb committee decision, and no one person should go to bed flagellating themselves over the poor decision making involved in the basic story format. Most likely quite a few people should go to bed flagellating themselves. No one in that group should go to bed feeling relieved or innocent in their part in that failure.)

This probably sounds like I'm continuing to debate my feelings and not settling in, but it's not.

Done correctly, a Conan movie should have been just a terrific fantasy adventure yarn. This was always going to be one of those things that required explaining to others. This is how Conan stories are supposed to be. One tale out of the eventful life of one traveling adventurer.

Framing the story as an origin in which the villain is the target of a years old grudge over the killing of Conan's village and his father...

Just to note - for all who don't know, because it's important - the original stories have no reference at all to Conan taking revenge for the murder of his village or his family. This doesn't exist within his mythology until it was brought in by Oliver Stone and Milius for the Milius movie. This is part of an attempt to shoehorn Conan into an epic character, which is, in fact, antithetical to the basic nature of his stories.

... creates a really big useless counter-argument to have to deal with.

The fact that the movie really does work on the smaller level and fails completely on the larger level will only make that discussion more frustrating for everyone.

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