Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Conan: a lament

I wanted to like the latest Conan film. I loved Robert Howard's original stories, I enjoyed the Milius-Schwarzenegger film. Watching Jason Momoa with his shirt off beating up bad guys was something I wanted to do.

But the actual film was a serious disappointment. Rewatching it recently (yes, I bought the DVD -- it has Jason Momoa with shirt off, even gratutious butt shot), I tried to work out what went wrong. The actors are fine, the production values are fine, the action sequences work.

The problem is the writing. It is utterly pedestrian. There are no memorable lines. The 1982 film had a series of memorable dialogue sequences:
Crom is your God ...
... This you can trust ...
... What is best in life? ...
... There comes a time when the gold loses its lustre, when jewels no longer glitter ...
... I am the wellspring from which you flow ...
... Flesh is strong ...

By comparison, I live, I love, I slay and I am content is the best the latest version can manage. There is also no humour. Pedestrian, monotonal writing creates a story you just don't care about much. No matter how energetic the hero, winsome the heroine, disturbing the witch-daughter or ruthless the villain--a villain that has neither mystery nor pathos. He loves his dead wife, but this is just a floating fact, with no emotional engagement. There is nothing remotely emotionally challenging or engaging about the villain, so you just don't care.

This is not Stephen Lang's fault, it is the material he has to work with. What makes Magneto such a great villain is you get where he is coming from, and it has emotional resonance. Lord Blackwood has mystery and menace. Loki is coping with one damn thing after another (and an insufferable bigger brother). (And he's Loki, he just has to go there.) Thulsa Doom had grandeur and manipulative emotional depravity.

Stephen Lang's Khalar Zym is given so little emotional resonance to work with, I had to look up the name of his character. If the villain is an emotional dead zone, so is the film.

In welcome contrast, John Carter of Mars is a wonderful action romp; an excellent adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's original Mars books. The one significant change is, where in the original books John Carter falls asleep on Earth and wakes up on Mars, and this is never explained, the film not only provides an explanation but turns it into a major plot feature. And we get Mark Strong as a villain, always a plus.

I gather the critics have not been kind: but they generally don't get genre anyway. John Carter is a film worth seeing on the big screen.

ADDENDA: Conan was a financial flop at the box office. John Carter is doing significantly better at the box office.

Prince of Persia did much, much better at the box office than Conan: how John Carter ends up is not yet clear, though IMDB users rated John Carter the better film than Prince of Persia.


  1. Agreed. John Carter is a much better film than the media would have you believe.

  2. Thanks for that. I've been wondering about John Carter. Sad about COnan - I'm a bit of a Jason Momoa fan myself.