Saturday, September 17, 2011

Conan the Barbarian in 3D

This summer saw a slate of comic book movies the likes of which we've never seen before. The sheer overall quality outstripped the numbers. Leading the onslaught was Thor, which was fun - I liked it as a comic book movie, a fantasy movie, and a Norse mythology movie. Captain America took a character I'd never had a lot of interest in and made him interesting and fun to watch. Green Lantern...well, I didn't see it. I should have, and it wasn't the negative buzz that kept me away. I just don't go to see a lot of movies.

Then came Conan the Barbarian in 3D. That was the movie I'd been waiting all summer to see. I'm a big fan of Conan, whether it be the original version by Robert E Howard cutting his way out of his pulp home, or the later comic book/comic magazine version that still sees publication today. The moody Cimmerian has remained my favorite fictional character for decades now. That's why I had high hopes for this new movie.

I didn't bother with seeing it in 3D. Most of these movies in 3D now weren't made with it in mind, and had it added in post-production. That's not interesting to me; movies like Avatar, which made the 3D an essential element, and pushed the development of the technology, are what interest me about 3D.

I think it's a shame that Conan the Barbarian did so poorly at the box office. This is the best swords & sorcery movie ever made, as far as I'm concerned. Let's not confuse swords and sorcery with fantasy - SandS is a subgenre of fantasy, that has specific tropes and conventions. It is a grittier, darker, more individualistic genre, unconcerned with saving the world. Thor is comic book fantasy; Clash of the Titans is high fantasy; Lord of the Rings is epic fantasy. Conan is the character that introduced the genre back in 1932, and it's fitting that this recent movie is the best example of that genre on film.

Not that there's much competition for such a distinction. There are few movie examples - well, GOOD movie examples - of true SandS. The first Conan movies, the well-regarded Schwarzenegger film and its sequel (for better or worse), are pretty much the only other ones of any quality. The 1980s saw a slew of almost universally bad S&S movies - fodder like The Barbarians, or even well-loved flicks like Beastmaster, are typical of what the genre has had to endure in cinematic terms. 

It's also baffling that the filmmakers have spent a lot of time and energy bashing each other over the monetary failure of the movie. This rides the crest of negative fan criticism that has washed over the film. I don't understand any of it. I can usually suss out why a film is considered bad even if I like it, but...this one I don't get.

I loved this movie. Jason Momoa IS Conan; he embodies the pantherish speed and hulking physicality of the character that Howard wrote about so long ago. He also projects the magnetism of the character, who was possessed of "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth." Conan's physical speed and prowess was rivaled by his mental acuity - he was able to instantly assess, act, and react with the speed of thought, and Momoa shows that part of the character. Momoa looms over the film like Conan loomed over his stories.

Certainly this film is not possessed of a well-honed, clever storyline...but neither is the genre. SandS is a genre of whirling action and straightforward stories, not finely-drawn character studies or meticulously-crafted plots. In this respect, this film is very representative of its genre. Could it have been better? I suppose. Like I said earlier, though, I'm not seeing what is so flawed about this movie, especially in comparison to something like Thor. I loved Thor, but it suffers from many of the same flaws as Conan the Barbarian - a rather silly plot and thin character development. Thor, like Conan, benefits most from fantastic casting of its lead. Yet Thor was a huge success, and Conan a dismal failure. It could be that the S&S genre, always fairly obscure, just doesn't have broad enough appeal. It could be that the horrendous marketing turned off much of the potential audience. It could be that I happened to like a really bad movie and can't really see its flaws.

Regardless, Conan the Barbarian deserved a better fate. I can only hope its international and DVD sales are so good that it rates another chance; Jason Momoa needs to be in another Conan movie.

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