I have a week-long break between summer movie reviews, the gap between Prometheus and Brave, so I have chosen to return to Ghosts of Summer Pasts. Not long past. Just last year. Ladies and gentlemen, Hyborians and Hyrkanians, the 2011 Conan the Barbarian! [Insert tepid Monty Python and the Holy Grail “yeah!” here.]
Many movie websites do play-by-play reviews, essentially a one-post blog-thru of a film, providing comments along with time stamps. I’ve wanted to try my hand at this for years, and this short summer break opened up the opportunity to exercise this review format on an awful film that sword-and-sorcery fans don’t want to talk about. But if I can find a way to wrench some entertainment from the Blu-ray of this movie (yes, I bought it — but used at a bargain price), then let it be so.
It was August of ’11 that saw the release and immediate flop of the Marcus Nispel-directed Conan the Barbarian. Critics savaged the movie, but most fans of Robert E. Howard saw the dire writing in the ancient language of Acheron on the wall long before the release. I gave up hope for the movie when I heard that Nispel was attached to it. Nothing I had seen of the man’s previous work indicated he had any notion of theme or subtlety — or even how to stitch together a comprehensible action scene. The guy came across as a refugee from an awful ’80s metal band who decided to get into directing so he could show “awesome!” stuff on screen. In other words, he was picked for the job because of a superficial resemblance to sword-and-sorcery, not because the man has any affinity for filmmaking or Robert E. Howard.
The casting of Jason Momoa met skepticism when first announced, but among all else that went awry with Conan the Barbarian, Momoa was one thing that went right. More about that on the play-by-play.
I enjoyed the movie more this second time viewing it, but that isn’t because I found any new appreciation for it. Conan ’11 works simply better on home video, where its limited scope and poor VFX feel more appropriate. Also, watching at home meant I could take breaks to go get a drink or read Shakespeare or call my sister in Munich. I could live my life around the film, and the film benefits from my ability to ignore it whenever I want to. The only downside to home video is that the 3D in the theater, terrible as it was, did hide some of visual flaws and clunky special effects.
Okay, queue up your disc or streaming or whatever, and let’s drink Atlantis….
0:42 After a scorching of CGI flames, our movie begins with narration from … Morgan Freeman. This is a terrible portent of what else will go wrong: misguided and lazy creative choices. Freeman has a great voice, but as narrator for sword-and-sorcery fantasy he is dead wrong. This is a voice for penguin love stories. The producers picked Freeman because, hey, famous voice.
1:30 By Mitra, this is an awful prologue. An overlapping mash-up of magical artifact babble and Freeman hardly giving a damn (does he even know what this movie is about?), all filtered with an “aged” effect that presages how murky the rest of the film will look. It also sets up a plot-coupon story: collect all the pieces of the mask and win an ending!
2:21 Look, the Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey! Oh, wait: that’s Conan in his mother’s womb, setting up a goofy “cool” CGI scene as he’s ripped out. Besides, I kid Marcus Nispel. He doesn’t know who Stanley Kubrick is.
3:15 Conan’s birth on the gore-streaked battlefield isn’t terrible, since there is some passion between his mother and father. Take what you can from this movie now, folks.
4:40 The film’s title appears against a field of embers to provide a cheap 3D effect. There are only a few other obvious 3D ploys throughout, thankfully.
5:05 This version of Cimmeria looks too bucolic for my tastes.
5:40 “When a Cimmerian … feels cold, it is the cold edge of steel.“ Oh, what a waste of Ron Perlman. Speciously a great bit of casting to play Corin, Conan’s blacksmith father, the stupid lines and Marcus Nispel having no idea how to direct them defeats the actor.
7:00 The egg-chase among Cimmerian youths is a clever concept, and it shows young Conan (Leo Howard) operating with stealth and strategy, setting up the adult version as not only strong, but pantherish.
8:15 Scouting Picts show up in the snow, a call-back to Milius’s film that is unnecessary and an unfortunate reminder of a much better flick. But I kid Marcus Nispel. He doesn’t know who John Milius is.
9:55 Middle Grade Conan slays a pack of Picts (much like Peter Piper), and I don’t buy it at all. So far, the film only sells me on how much gore it can show, and that it won’t mean much when it happens.
11:32 The first image of Milius’s film, molten steel flowing into the mold of a sword blade, shows up to again remind me: “Wow, that was a great film. This thing stinks.”
12:10 Nispel, stop with the Milius-reminders! Now you’re doing your take on “the Riddle of Steel.” And it sucks.
12:51 Perlman says “Fire and Ice” to the camera. Ah, another much better sword-and-sorcery film. But I kid Marcus Nispel. He doesn’t know who Frank Frazetta is.
12:56 Oh, it’s “The Mystery of Steel,” not “The Riddle of Steel.” Okay, totally fine, you’re not copying the Milius movie.
13:05 Training montage. Nothing new. Perlman doesn’t seem to want to be here. Oh, rip-off of the ice-breaking tactic from Batman Begins as well.
14:13 Conan, on his own, hears the approach of the horsemen who will sack his village. Nope, doesn’t ring a bell with me.
15:30 I’m not expecting Basil Poledouris magnificence, but this is such a generic score. Composer Tyler Bates has done good work before, and he is a Jerry Goldsmith acolyte, but nothing feels inspired here. Of course, can you blame him?
16:40 Lots of slaying and slashing; Nispel apparently thinks this is his “specialty.” Har-har.
17:08 Conan using an attacker as an arrow-shield. That’s pretty neat.
18:18 Hello, Stephen Lang as “Evil Wizard Guy” Khalar Zym! I’ll have more to say about this horrendous miscasting later. It’s a mystery to me why the screenplay didn’t make use of actual REH sorcerer Xaltotun, who would fit well into this plot.
19:04 Wait, Khalar Zym already has all the pieces of the mask but one? What’s the damn point of dividing it up into so many segments in the first place if they only need to find one piece?
19:43 Here it is, people: the worst moment in the film. The place where all hope dies. Where we realize that Marcus Nispel has no damn clue what he’s doing. Young Conan leaps from the shadows to save his father from his captors, and slices off the nose of one of the guards. How do I know he cut off his nose, aside from, you know, having seen it happen? Because the guard screams, “Ahhhh! My nose!“ It’s hilarious and astoundingly terrible. The movie never recovers from this absurdity of unintentional comedy.
20:00 Too many people are shouting “Die!” as they fight. Yeah, “die!” is the general idea in combat.
21:07 Ivana Staneva, the actress playing the younger version of Marique, the silly witch-woman with the Freddy Krueger glove ,is much better at the part than Rose McGowan will be. The kid is genuinely creepy.
24:15 The mask is complete. So can I go now? Oh, not yet … now they have to find “the pureblood.” So, more plot coupons.
25:22 I like the torture of Conan’s father with the boy forced to hold onto the chain to prevent molten steel from getting dropped onto his dad’s head. But when the hot steel does fall, the CGI insta-head-melt effect is hysterical.
25:50 I should mention this whole sequence is shot in a boring murk. I seem to remember that the photography gets better, but so far it’s generic “gritty fantasy“ with even less money spent on bulbs.
26:30 Kiddie Conan holds aloft the sword! Bland music swells! I wonder if I ran out of bread for dinner tonight!
26:37 Morgan Freeman is still hanging around? The power of a paycheck for one day’s work.
26:55 What a yawner of a shot to introduce Jason Momoa as Conan: a slow pan and tilt to our hero sifting dirt.
27:25 We’re in Zingara. At least somebody looked at a Hyborian map.
27:32 This Zingaran slave colony looks bizarrely like the slave market from the cheesy John Norman adaptation Outlaw of Gor.
28:00 The next ten minutes count as the film’s best stretch. Detached from the boring revenge storyline, our Xaltotun stand-in, and before the movie can grind itself to a halt with boring action scenes, the movie lets Momoa flex his Conan muscles and give us something like the character we love. There are a few moments here that would have become iconic if the rest of the movie were soil for anything iconic to grow. Alas, it is barren.
28:05 Could those rocks look any more like Styrofoam?
28:32 Nonso Anozie as Artus, Conan’s pirate buddy, is the second best performance in the film. He thankfully never turns into a full-on comedy sidekick, an REH-appropriate choice. Unfortuantely, there’s a thief character, Ela-Shan (Said Tamghmaoui), who will fill this annoying slot.
28:46 I like Momoa’s reaction to the thrown axe missing him. It’s got a “Whoa, what’s up with that?” feeling that’s actually damn funny.
29:00 That was a fun fight, and it concludes with naked breasts. There is definitely a good “violent pulp” aspect here, but bland movie paint-by-numbers plotting will soon kill off any thrill.
29:22 Momoa is dead-on as Howard’s Conan in these moments after the fight. With a better film, this guy might have ended up playing Conan for ten years and we would all have loved him.
29:43 We’re in Messantia now. Boring, indistinct CGI establishing shot.
30:44 Reference to “The Tower of the Elephant.” Now that was what should have started to movie. Oh, throwaway mention of Zamora.
31:20 The guy who screamed “My Nose!” is back, wearing leather prosthesis that makes him look like Jake Gittes in Chinatown (accidental, I’m sure, as Marcus Nispel doesn’t know who Roman Polanksi is). The character’s name is Lucius, but to the Stygian pits with that. I’m going to call him “My Nose!”
31:56 Here’s generic comedy thief sidekick, Ela-Shan.
32:16 Hell, Momoa just has too much damn charisma for this movie, and he’s really trying. It’s sad.
33:00 Nice push-in shot of Conan contemplating killing some folks while pretending he’s “imprisoned.” As I said, this is a good stretch of the movie.
34:25 Conan using a decapitated guard’s head as a “password.” Good stuff.
34:42 The poor photography is failing us again; I can barely see what’s happening.
35:24 Conan jabbing his finger down My Nose!’s empty nose hole is pretty squirmy and gross. I have no objections to most of the extreme violence in the movie, but this goes a bit far.
37:37 Conan forces My Nose! to swallow the prison key and then sends him out to the prisoners to, ahem, retrieve it. Another great idea, and I wish whoever directed this part of the movie directed the rest of it.
38:19 “Shaipur Monastery.” And, sad to say, this marks the end of the good stretch of Conan the Barbarian ’11.
38:30 People milling about waiting for a production of Julius Caesar to start. You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
39:00 Rachel Nichols, completely miscast as Tamara. She’s flawlessly beautiful, like the cover of Cosmopolitan. What the hell is she doing in the Hyborian Age?
39:26 Rose McGowan enters the film as the adult Marique, and botches her very first line with a delivery that fits a sitcom far better. Not a good sitcom, either.
41:00 There’s a constant disconnect between the production shoot and the CGI shots; here Conan rides his horse through an obviously digital creation that does not match at all the location where we just saw him. The light is wrong, the landscape is wrong, the digital artwork is hyper-realized. This will happen throughout the film, and it’s incredibly jarring.
41:20 Tai chi, huh? That’s what this monastery teaches?
42:07 Stephen Lang is back. Because if you want an evil decadent sorcerer for your Conan movie, cast a guy whose specialty is modern military tough guys. Lang is utterly out of place in this. Maybe R. Lee Ermey wasn’t available?
42:28 Tamara breaks an attacker’s arm, completely out of keeping with everything else we’ll see from her character.
43:34 Khalar Zym’s symbol is the tentacled mask, and it looks almost exactly like Marvel’s HYDRA logo. This allows me to pretend that the Red Skull is actually behind Khalar Zym, a far more interesting prospect.
43:45 Now we have a stagecoach chase. Apparently Marcus Nispel is aiming for some John Ford love. But I kid Marcus Nispel. He doesn’t know who John Ford is.
44:45 I don’t have much to say about this carriage chase and its obvious Raiders of the Lost Ark origins, because there is little to say about any of the action scenes. They’re blandly executed with confusing choreography, and never offer any reason to get excited about what occurs. Conan is chasing this carriage because it has Khalar Zym’s HYDRA logo on it. Khalar’s thugs chase it because they need this “pureblood” girl, which hasn’t been explained yet. I don’t care what happens. At all.
46:50 Wait, these are the exact same dual ruined pillars we saw earlier on the Shaipur Monastery set!
47:07 “I have a claim on you.” “And what claim is that?” “Death.” Yes, nobody revised these lines. They went ahead and filmed them.
47:27 “When you fight a Cimmerian, even a boy, you best kill him.” Ripping off a famous line from Hang ‘Em High.
48:15 Cripes, Rose McGowan’s line delivery is just painful. I like the idea of a crazy witch-girl with iron-clawed hands, but this feels like community theater level over-acting. I really want that little girl who played Marique earlier to return.
49:00 This search for the “pureblood” is such a sloppy plot-device that it undermines everything that follows. Why add another plot coupon on top of the mask pieces? Why have the mask abruptly finished at the start and then jump into this pureblood nonsense? This is so lazy.
50:10 Groan… the villain explanation flashback. The death of Khalar Zym’s wife Maliva is hurled into the story too late, and with no weight, to have it be anything other than a distraction. Oh, “Ophir” gets name-dropped. Maliva’s death has some vague connection to these monks, but again this is haphazard story-building that should have been fixed in early pre-production. It turns out the mask is supposed to resurrect Maliva or something else that hasn’t been mentioned before. My apathy escalates.
51:40 Khalar Zym screams “Die!” as he smashes the high priest’s head. Second time this has happened, let’s not do it again.
52:00 “Remo is searching for the one who got away.” Hey, aren’t we all?
53:00 Rachel Nichols literally sounds as if she’s reading off cue cards.
53:45 The night scene between Conan and Tamara shows how Jason Momoa got screwed over. Nichols’s performance feels like she’s in a contemporary Lifetime movie, so no matter what Momoa does, he can’t save the scene.
54:11 Tamara is surprised that Conan only has one name. Why? That’s typical of the Hyborian Age and all early cultures. But it does lead to one of Conan’s better lines: “How many names do I need?”
54:50 Momoa, sick of Nichols ruining his scene, stuffs a cloth in her mouth.
55:25 Nice elephant tusk decor, Khalar!
55:55 Khalar, it’s too late to back-fill your motivation. The audience stopped caring two reels back.
57:05 The hints of incest between Khalar Zym and Marique are interesting, and the film should’ve had the guts to go farther with it; it would give them more menace, and they desperately need it.
59:06 This is an awful composite shot. Momoa might as well be standing in front of a 1950s rear-screen projection. I’m surprised at how ugly the film is on this second viewing. Maybe the 3D obscured it the first time.
59:42 The VFX for the catapult launch is also horrendous. This is embarrassing.
1:00:40 “Shaipur Bay Outpost.” Another CGI establishing shot that looks nothing like the rest of the movie. The glittering-pretty pictures do not match the dour photography of everything else, and the set of the outpost has no connection to the image we just saw.
1:02:15 Milius’s Conan the Barbarian didn’t have the resources to mount much in the way of monsters, which are one of the great beauties of REH’s work. But considering the CGI possibilities in 2011, this movie also flops in this regard. The only monsters are the tentacle creature near the finale and these magic sandmen Marique summons. That’s inexcusable. I want crazy monsters, dammit! I want some big apes! Gimme my damn monsters!
1:03:00 These sand monsters are imitations of the mummies in the 1999 The Mummy. The effects haven’t improved in twelve years.
1:03:30 I’m beginning to realize another problem with these boring action scenes: they’re basically riffs on the action from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nothing feels fresh about them.
1:06:00 Khalar Zym’s double-bladed hinged sword is far too gimmicky for the Hyborian Age.
1:07:52 What a chintzy squib of an explosion. If you’re going to have an explosion at all, go for it!
1:08:15 Conan and Tamara’s escape from near-death in this fight scene is so fast and easy that it seems the movie merely gave up and hit the chapter skip button on the Blu-ray player.
1:10:10 I’m glad to have Artus back in the film.
1:10:30 Artus’s speech here about the nature of barbarians is the nearest the movie comes to Howard’s theme of barbarism vs. civilization. It’s not much, and I would rather Conan speak it, but the film has been sinking for a long time, so I’ll grab onto this driftwood.
1:11:30 I completely forgot this shipboard fight happened. I have no memory of it from my initial viewing. That’s how much a generic “Pirate Fight” it is. I’d mention something about homaging the ship fight in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but at this point it is clear that Marcus Nispel doesn’t watch any other movies aside from the horror films he’s assigned to re-make. And I have my doubts about him watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
1:13:50 So the good guys triumph in the shipboard fight against the boarders, making the shipboard fight pointless filler. Generic pointless filler.
1:14:25 No, Artus! Don’t leave the movie! Don’t leave Conan with just Tamara for company!
1:15:17 Nichols reading off the “philosophical core” of the film is hilarious in a pathetic way. She seems as bored as I am at this point.
1:15:32 “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” A terrible faux-REH line, but Momoa puts all of himself into it. I admire that.
1:16:00 Shadowy sex scene, generic writhing, zero passion. Pretty sure Nichols has a body double here.
1:16:55 So, Tamara came ashore to give Conan his map, spout empty philosophy, have sex with him, and then go back to the ship. Why didn’t she make a choice to stay with him? That would have actually been a bit of drama, a character change. Instead she turns into kidnap fodder.
1:17:50 Foul! Foul! Those are the same two pillar stumps again. The third time!
1:18:08 “Khor Kalba“ i.e. Barad-dûr with a bit of a Mughal touch.
1:18:13 But the interior of Khor Kalba is completely Roman. Once again, the CGI crew and the production crew are not reading each other’s memos.
1:19:00 “Argalon — City of Thieves” Why not Shadizar? Why not Arenjun?
1:19:45 “Argalon is a city of thieves.” Uh, yeah. That was just established. A few seconds ago. Either cut the line or cut the subtitle. Crom, these are such easy fixes!
1:20:00 Oh hey, it’s this guy again! Uhm, who are you? Your earlier scene left no impression. (Checks notes: oh, its Ela-Shan, the thief Conan rescued from My Nose!)
1:20:44 Nice that Argalon is a short walking distance from Khor Kalba, because the finale is being held there.
1:21:23 A scene between Nichols and McGowan. I’ll have to give the win to McGowan here; her bad performance is at least an energetic bad performance.
1:21:38 Here is Khalar Zym’s full explanation of the combined “mask/undead wife/pureblood” scheme: “Your death shall herald a new age of Acheron. The spirits I raise will melt flesh from the bones of kings, and my wife will make me a god, and we will cast all rivals into oceans of blood.” The movie has shown me nothing to believe Khalar Zym can do any of this, and it feels as if he’s simply making this up as he goes.
1:23:05 Ah, the trash compactor monster grabbed Ela-shan!
1:23:37 Great, another dank, underlit, poorly decorated set.
1:23:57 Oh, the trash compactor monster is called “The Dweller.” The first time I saw it, I thought Skin Art Thug #5 said it was the “Doo-ella.”
1:24:10 Here’s the only other monster in the movie, a rip-off of the Watcher in the Water that inspires no wonder, horror, or tension. Even if this were a decent action set-piece, it is too late in the film to make me care.
1:26:22 [Insert joke about boredom here.]
1:27:13 “You scream like a woman.” This is the best taunt Conan can come up with. Nobody involved is trying anymore. I think even Momoa is starting to surrender.
1:27:40 Skull Cave? Hey, that’s from Peter Pan!
1:28:07 I can’t see a damn thing. Did the cinematographer forget to pay the electrical bill?
1:28:40 Oh, please don’t tell me our finale is going to be in this boring, featureless cave. There’s no majesty, no wonder to any of this.
1:30:00 Good unintentional laugh: the mask feeding on blood looks like a sphincter.
1:30:36 “Behold, and despair!” Happened already. Put the damn face-hugger on and let’s get this over with.
1:31:00 And thus the exiting fight finale begins.
1:31:25 Tamara caught on the wheel in the pit is yet another riff on a Pirates of the Caribbean action scene.
1:32:25 “Barbarian, I don’t like you any more.” Yes, Khalar Zym actually says that. This is his “zinger.”
1:33:00 I can’t see anything that’s happening. The movie is stuck in an abysmal gloom, maybe a way to save money on visual effects.
1:35:45 Crom, did Tamara just scream “Die!” as she pushed Marique over the precipice? Yeah, yeah, she totally did. The film at this point doesn’t care that I don’t care.
1:36:30 Invoking Conan’s father now does nothing for the story. He has had no thematic relevance to the plot except as “man who must be avenged.”
1:38:38 “Well, what other obstacles could we throw at the hero to make the finale more exciting?” “Uhm, let’s just have Tamara trip and fall, and Conan has to hold onto her.”
1:39:10 Khalar Zym now decides, even though he’s had the mask on for a good stretch already, to summon his dead wife Maliva. Yes indeed, he was completely making this up as he went along. The mask gives him no powers at all.
1:39:23 “Drop me, Conan, please!” Yes, do it, Conan!
1:40:00 Conan as a character no longer exists at this point, no matter what Jason Momoa may do. Conan merely acts as the muscly mechanism of the action mechanics. (Alliteration!)
1:40:30 Conan solves the dilemma and kills Khalar Zym in the most unexciting fashion possible. This was the best the filmmakers could do. Keep in mind, this was Nispel’s “dream project.”
1:41:25 Abrupt cut gets Conan and Tamara out of Skull Cave in seconds and onto a horse. I’ll bet some footage was hacked out here in a desperate attempt to get to the end of the movie as fast as possible.
1:41:47 Minas Tirith? What’s Minas Tirith doing here? The art department wasn’t told what movie they were working on. It’s supposed to be Tamara’s “home” (looking nothing like Shaipur, by the way) and yet the city appears completely deserted.
1:43:20 I think this is meant to be Cimmeria again, but the geography and movements in this film, as well the visual consistency, are so askew it’s hard to tell.
1:44:00 A connection to “the Riddle of Steel” that has never had anything to do with the rest of the movie. Conan hold aloft the sword — stupidly grabbing it by the blade — and this sad chapter in REH history comes to an end.
1:44:09 But look at it this way: not counting credits, it’s only 104 minutes long. Imagine if this were as long as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End—169 minutes! Ugh.
1:44:13 Marcus Nispel’s credit. You know who should’ve directed this? Neil Marshall. Watch Centurion and you’ll see what I mean.
1:44:20 Turn your eyes away now! It’s the credit you don’t want associated with this film!
Okay, that’s enough. I have nothing to say about the rest of the credits.
Conan the Barbarian in summation: Nothing could salvage the film with the story they started with. Doing another “Conan origin tale” was a waste of time, and the revenge plot is woven with a dull and sloppy plot-coupon narrative that elicits no interest. Except for the ten-minute stretch in the first half, which works because it exists on its own without the terrible story, Conan the Barbarian is thoroughly boring, generic modern fantasy filmmaking. Jason Momoa puts in the effort, but everything else is slathered with thick layers of “Who cares?” This needed to be a passionate event, and passion is exactly what the movie lacks. Maybe when Marcus Nispel said this was a dream project, he thought he was going to do a movie with Conan O’Brien.
The only pieces of Robert E. Howard to get on screen are flashes in Momoa’s performance. If the man got the chance to act in a Conan film adapted from Howard’s work, such as a film version of “The People of the Black Circle,” he could have emerged as the Conan for a new generation. Instead … oh, I’m done with this. I can’t imagine I’ll look at this Blu-ray again for another ten years.
Ahhh! My Nose!
Still can’t believe that.
Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author. He received the Writers of the Future Award in 2011 for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and has two stories forthcoming in Black Gate, as well as a currently available e-book in the same setting. He also knows Godzilla personally. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.