I've never read a word written by Robert E. Howard (Creator of CONAN) and I barely made it through the Schwarzenegger CONAN movies, but I love dark, brutal fantasy and have been waiting for Hollywood to make one to scratch my itch. Today, that itch was scratched!
In a legendary time of humanity's past, a barbarian child named Conan is the only survivor of a raid that wiped out his entire village. Growing into manhood his greatest wish is to kill the men responsible for the murder of his people. As it happens, the man responsible is also trying to awake an ancient evil and plunge the world into darkness, death and chaos, so if Conan succeeds, everybody else wins too.
The action is bloody and brutal and the portions are generous. The fight choreography is cool, but not too fancy and in favor of the dark mood.
Momoa Perfectly Cast
The story isn't original by any stretch, but feels like a return to a classic framework in this movie, rather than a tired cliche. Jason Momoa (Stargate: Atlantis, Game Of Thrones) is perfectly cast as the title character. The trailers made me feel like he was trying too hard to sound tough, but the movie itself is a different story. He fits the part like a glove. Not much depth or subtext in his performance, but the character of Conan isn't about either of those things.
That said, the movie had some welcome and unexpected heart in the first 20 minutes as we see Conan's relationship with his father, played both firmly and tenderly by Ron Pearlman. This plot point also has a nice payoff at the end. If they had found ways to insert more of this kind of emotional depth into the rest of the film, it would have made it a truly unique experience. But as it is, it still offers more opportunities for emotional investment than most fantasy movies.
Visual Design is a Big Star
The rest of the cast does a fine job with what they are given to work with. These aren't Oscar-worthy performances, but the sum is a far cry from the horrible acting you'll find in most fantasy movies of the 70's and 80's.
One of the biggest stars of this movie is the visual design. Ancient temples and crumbling cities of dark design create a world that seems to jump right off the cover of the best dark fantasy novels of former decades. Costumes and props all fit perfectly in a barbaric world I would love to spend more time in. This is where the CGI effects are put to best use.
By contrast, CGI is put to mediocre effect in a scene late in the movie in which Conan squares off against a "sea monster" of some kind. I'm still waiting for Hollywood to raise the bar for CGI. CGI creatures have largely held the same amount of "realism" since the first Jurassic Park movie. I was wowed back then, but the technology hasn't moved forward much. This flick was another ho-hum example of the status quo, though still not "bad" by that measure.
I could have done without a few instances of "peripheral nudity", in which women appear topless, though not as the main focus of the camera and usually in the background. These instances can be narrowed down to about two brief scenes and were more an annoyance to my sensitivities than a problem. But they could have conveyed what they wanted to about these women and this culture without actual nudity. All of the above is also true of a relatively brief "sex scene" later in the film that is mostly covered in shadow.
A Complete Fantasy
I highly doubt that any meaningful conversation will spring from watching this movie. Although technically the movie is said to take place on our planet in the distant past, the mention of Atlantis in the opening narration and the rest of the film's story removed it so far from reality for me that I thought of this as a completely fantastical realm with no supposed relation to human history. This movie isn't presenting or suggesting any historical truth claims.
Conan is far from a pinnacle of virtue. He does what he wants, when he wants to, yet he still holds to a few moral absolutes. His brutality can't be commended, but is also satisfying in some ways for those of us who crave justice for wrongdoers.
Fans of dark, brutal fantasy simply can't miss this movie. It's what we've been waiting for Hollywood to make for years. And though it doesn't leave you with anything of value to ponder, its a fantastical adventure in a barbaric fantasy world that I hope the filmmakers will return us to very soon!
CONAN THE BARBARIAN is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity