Some films should be left alone. Some because they are simply good; some because they carry to marks of cinematic legacy and some because they occupy that special place called cult. Mostly, those that are cult are not good, and those that are good are not cult, by definition. And the trouble is, it is invariably those films that fall into that last category of cult which end up being remade by what is called the Hollywood machine for its uninspired perpetual mechanics.
The original Conan was a celebration of everything that would go on to define Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early career: it was brainless, muscle-bound and silly. But most of all, it was bloody terrible. But time, and the cult that has formed around Arnie, and indeed the film itself, have been kind to Conan and there are those who love it, and a lot more people than really necessary were upset when Hollywood started throwing around the idea of remaking the fantasy sans Arnie.
It wasn’t that great in the first place, why not have another bash? After all, it couldn’t be any worse could it?
Well, things don’t start particularly well, with Ron Perlman professionally grimacing his way through a horribly cliched opening sequence in which a nightmarish fake baby takes way too much attention. It’s a silly starting point, and it doesn’t really bode well for the rest of the film (but then, silliness is as typically Conan as furry pants and over-acting), but it turns out to be something of a misdirection, since the rest of the film is so relentlessly bland. Rather than revel in the opportunity for fun and fancy that remaking something like Conan inevitably offers, the film-makers have instead chosen to get a little too serious with numbing results.
The film lacks any magic, and indeed any of the spirit that grabbed a cult audience for the original: the direction lacks any kind of showmanship, and the script is a dilluted version of what it undoubtedly could have been. For an action film to have such a fascination with inaction is rather fatal, and the over-riding feeling is that all of the fun has been sucked out in a misguided attempt to marry the cult status of the original with a po-faced gravitas that simply doesn’t fit.
This is most obvious when you consider the difference between the action sequences, and those more dialogue-heavy which bridge them: the set-pieces look good, and are full of the kind of vim and vigour you could ever wish for in a project of this nature, but when it all quietens down and players and director are charged with telling story more subtly the cracks show terribly. Conan is a case of brawn over brains, but in such a fatally unbalanced way that the lack of brains detracts from the brawnier elements: there is no finesse, no eye for detail and when you scratch off the expensive surface you discover that the film is roughly on a par, in terms of execution, as a straight to SyFy fantasy.
Part of the problem is the casting of Jason Momoa, who definitely isn’t a terrible actor, but who unfortunately suffers here because of a poor script and poor characterisation that make his Conan curiously lacking in any sort of charm. And when you’re the titular hero that is something of a problem. Arnie’s charm, in every one of his earlier, sillier roles (even as the Terminator) was that he effused charisma and likeability in his very on-screen presence (which is eventually why he’s go on to do so many comedies), even as a villain, but Momoa simply doesn’t have that about him. Yes he has some mystique about him, and you get the sense that with the right material he might have made a much better Conan, but he is hobbled by awful direction and that anemic script.
It’s also incredibly difficult to devote any attention or effort to a film so lazily riddled with cliches: surely the only objective for a remake that matters is to offer a new look at old material, otherwise what the hell is the point? Instead of a new take, informed by more modern story-telling techniques and technology, Conan is a cliche-by-numbers mess. Almost every character feels like they’ve been taken from another film, including the Waterworld meets Battlefield Earth costume and make-up design, and the acting talents of Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman and Stephen Lang – who all have the potential to be B-Movie legends, with every connotation of the term – are underused rather cruelly.
Had this new version of Conan breathed a little life into the original material, we might have been talking something worthwhile, but that objective never seems to have occurred to director Marcus Nispel, and his final product is a bland, entirely forgettable, and totally pointless rehash.
Post-production conversion to 3D usually spells disaster, and here it’s no different. In comparison to the fine-looking 2D print that comes as part of the 2 disc set alongside the 3D version, the print is way too dark for the 3D to really work, and the dimensional design is largely unspectacular anyway, so it’s hardly a demo-worthy film to show off the medium. What baffles me about this sort of film, converted to 3D in post-production, is that the potential of the medium is just never realised, so you have to wonder why they even bothered? I’m not usually one for a gimmicky approach to the technology, but surely an action film offers the opportunity for 3D to flew its muscles in set-pieces – and Conan does hint at as much with a few good-looking 3D tricks, but the majority of the film just feels like it was designed to be a 2D. So why spend the extra money?
There is no depth to the image, and again the design carries the marks of the general lack of inspiration that seems to have informed the entire project. Had the film been filmed completely in 3D from the outset, the overall darkness of the print and the artificial pallettes wouldn’t have had such a flattening effect on so much of the image, but as a post-production project little works.
The encode itself is very good, there are no compromises in the way Lionsgate have ported the print to high-definition, and the only limitations and problems come from the decision to convert the film in post-production, which you might have already gathered always comes with problems. Black levels are very good and consistent, contrast likewise is consistent, and both texture and detail are fine, when there’s enough light to show them off. There is little sign of artificing on Lionsgate’s part, which is a blessing considering the problems already thrown up by Nispel’s post-production fiddling, and the studio can proudly proclaim that they undoubtedly did the best with the material they had.
With the sound transfer, Lionsgate can again be proud of themselves: the audio design and mix are wonderful, adding back some of the magic that the film’s bland material strips away. Sound effects, especially in action shots are great, and dialogue is as clear and crisp as possible, even in heavier action scenes.
Not much to shout about. Two commentaries appear, one from a slightly melancholic sounding Nispel, and the other from much more animated actors Momoa and Rose McGowan, and the latter is probably the best thing about the Extras package. The rest of the content is made up of promotional feeling featurettes and brief glimpses behind the scenes and a profile of Conan creator Robert E Howard, which lacks the weight or engaging depth fans might have preferred. It’s not a bad package, but again, it’s just not easy to get excited.
- Audio Commentary #1 with Director Marcus Nispel
- Audio Commentary with Actors Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan
- The Conan Legacy (HD, 18 mins)
- Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan (HD, 11 mins)
- Battle Royal: Engineering the Action (HD, 10 mins)
- Staging the Fights (HD, 6 mins)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 mins)
This article was first posted on December 14, 2011