Sunday, 21 August 2011

What the hell happened?

So not only is Conan: The Wrath of Zym 2011 a critical failure, but it looks increasingly likely that it's going to be a commercial disaster, too.  It shames me to admit I feel a small measure of shadenfreude: see, Lionsgate?  This is what you get when you try to remake an Arnold film without Arnold, and more importantly, without the things that made the 1982 film a cult classic.  See, Millennium?  This is what happens when you try and build a story around the sets you have available instead of the talent.  See, CPI?  This is what you get when you try to compromise, when you try to make a film that tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of making something bold, challenging and different.

But frankly, all those feelings of "we told you so" are utterly submerged in a deeper, darker feeling of regret.  So many people worked hard to make this film work: seamstresses working their fingers to the bone, production designers having nervous breakdowns trying to make everything work, SFX engineers trying to wring every drop of quality out of their rendering software, actors sitting for hours in makeup chairs.  Even the people I hold directly responsible for the mess the film became - the producers, aside from Fredrik Malmberg (though I do think he made some decisions which didn't pay off) and especially Avi Lerner, and Marcus Nispel - didn't try to make a bad film. I may feel vindicated that another example of people monkeying around with REH and thinking they know how to make a better story than one of the founders of 20th Century fantasy fiction has failed... but I'm more angry that this happened.  After everything that's happened, I didn't want the film to fail.

What to make of this?

See, I didn't go into this expecting Howard.  I didn't even go in expecting Michael Fleisher.  I went here expecting nothing less than "a terrible film that had some redeeming values which balanced out enough for me to find it enjoyable."  I was expecting the live-action Fist of the North Star, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Dungeons & Dragons.  Even the likes of good fun action films that do what they do extremely well like Predator, Die Hard and Rambo were below my anticipations, let alone ones with symbolism and depth like those of James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven.  And I didn't get that.  I enjoyed those films listed above - even the first three - more than I enjoyed Conan: The Wrath of Zym.

People who think I couldn't turn my inner Howard fan off, or think I'm wanting to hate the film, or that I simply couldn't turn off my purist sensibilities - again, I found immense enjoyment in this film:

Conan: The Wrath of Zym was less enjoyable for me than a film in which these things happen:

So please, don't assume that I'm a snob who cannot enjoy films which desire nothing more than to deliver action, excitement, sex and adventure.  I gave this film a chance to measure up to these films.  And I found it wanting. Obviously others disagree: even Den of Geek gave the film 4 stars, and plenty of Howard fans professed to having a rollicking good time.  But don't presume that if I had just "turned my brain off" I might've enjoyed it - because that's exactly what I did. Obviously others are seeing something that I'm missing, but by Crom, it isn't through lack of trying.

Let's look at this review by John R. Fultz:

Sex and violence were common ingredients in a good pulp tale, and Howard’s work is definitely full of both. However, what was considered obscene in the Pulp Era seems rather tame compared to the graphic sex and violence we see in today’s media. You can look at this in two ways: Either we as a society have gotten less uptight about certain subjects, or we have become a more depraved society. It’s all a matter of perspective. And as many philosphers will tell you, perspective is reality.

Frankly, I would disagree with this assessment that we've become "less uptight/more depraved" than Howard's day, simply because Howard wasn't living during the era of the Hayes Code, and the Moral brigade hadn't taken hold.  As such - actually, I think there are a great many things in the Conan stories that would be too racy for nowadays.  For one thing, Belit is topless for near the entirety of "Queen of the Black Coast," and the female characters are entirely naked for most of "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," "The Pool of the Black One," and a few others I'm doubtless forgetting.  There's no way you'd get a film made nowadays where the leading lady was naked for the entire film runtime: it appears people are still a bit uptight about nudity.

As for violence... seriously, John?  You're calling Howard's violence tame compared to modern standards?

Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm, the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson. Silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson. In silent heaps lay war-horses and their steel-clad riders, flowing manes and blowing plumes stained alike in the red tide. About them and among them, like the drift of a storm, were strewn slashed and trampled bodies in steel caps and leather jerkins – archers and pikemen. The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the hoofs of the victors crunched in the breasts of the vanquished.
- "The Scarlet Citadel" 
In an instant he was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and lashing clubs. But he moved in a blinding blur of steel. Spears bent on his armor or swished empty air, and his sword sang its death-song. The fighting-madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls, smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast"

There was a frenzied instant when the blades flamed like summer lightning; then the group fell apart and Conan sprang up the stair. The oncoming horde tripped over three writhing forms at its foot: one lay face-down in a sickening welter of blood and brains; another propped himself on his hands, blood spurting blackly from his severed throat veins; the other howled like a dying dog as he clawed at the crimson stump that had been an arm.
As Conan rushed up the marble stair, the man above shook himself from his stupor and drew a sword that sparkled frostily in the radium light. He thrust downward as the barbarian surged upon him. But as the point sang toward his throat, Conan ducked deeply. The blade slit the skin of his back, and Conan straightened, driving his saber upward as a man might wield a butcher-knife, with all the power of his mighty shoulders.
So terrific was his headlong drive that the sinking of the saber to the hilt into the belly of his enemy did not check him. He caromed against the wretch’s body, knocking it sidewise. The impact sent Conan crashing against the wall; the other, the saber torn through his body, fell headlong down the stair, ripped open to the spine from groin to broken breastbone. In a ghastly mess of streaming entrails the body tumbled against the men rushing up the stairs, bearing them back with it
 - "Xuthal of the Dusk"

He caught the sword of the first man on his ax-head and crushed in the wielder’s breast with a murderous counter-stroke before he could step back or parry. The remaining Nemedian, missing a savage swipe, had his brains dashed out before he could recover his balance... The ax fell in a devastating arc, and the Aquilonian cried out and went to his knees, grasping the severed stump of his right arm from which blood spouted. It had been shorn away at the elbow, and the ax, unchecked in its descent, had gashed deeply into his side, so that his entrails bulged out.
- The Hour of the Dragon

He saw men lifted bodily and their heads cracked open against the stony altar. He saw a flaming torch, grasped in a monstrous hand, thrust inexorably down the gullet of an agonized wretch who writhed in vain against the arms that pinioned him. He saw a man torn in two pieces, as one might tear a chicken, and the bloody fragments hurled clear across the cavern. The massacre was as short and devastating as the rush of a hurricane. In a burst of red abysmal ferocity it was over, except for one wretch who fled screaming back the way the priests had come, pursued by a swarm of blood-dabbled shapes of horror which reached out their red-smeared hands for him.
- "The Servants of Bit-Yakin"

To be frank, the violence in Conan the Barbarian 2011 was nothing short of pale and wan compared to the veritable carnage depicted by Howard.  Very few films I've seen these days outside of Rambo and the excesses of zombie films have anything approaching the sheer horror of Robert E. Howard's action scenes.  This film had a lot of phantom blood bags exploding, but it didn't feel like people were being cut to pieces: it just felt like somebody cut open a bunch of juice cartons.  There was no real sense that people were being murdered, and as such, I was disappointed.

However, much as I hated the film, it's utterly insignificant compared to the disdain shown by Leo Grin:

Saw Conan the Barbarian last night. Revoltingly stupid, incomprehensibly plotted and edited, and overflowing with the kind of quasi-erotic torture porn (seemingly pulled wholesale out of a serial killer’s wet dreams) that’s become a staple of both fantasy literature and Hollywood films this century. Easily one of the worst films I’ve seen during decades of painfully slumming through mediocre genre fare — I daresay even Uwe Boll (the ham-fisted director commonly seen as the modern era’s answer to Ed Wood) has never made anything this irredeemably rotten. As you know, the best of Robert E. Howard’s pulp tales of the 1930s — which in recent years have been reprinted everywhere from academic presses to Penguin’s prestigious Modern Classics imprint, and which the various silly comic books and movies resemble not a whit — cry out for the cinematic talents of a Akira Kurosawa or a Sergio Leone, men possessed of  the same operatic poetry, grandeur, heroism, and thematic depth found in Howard’s original stories. Perhaps someday. Until then? Well, the audience I saw the movie with seemed to have cheerfully low expectations, yet even they didn’t so much leave the theater as recoil from it. You’ve been warned.

Whoa.  I may agree that it's revoltingly stupid, incomprehensively plotted and edited, and that the torture scene was pointlessly sadistic, but it's still not the worse film I've seen in decades.  That honour still goes to Kull the Conqueror, and I hated Clash of the Titans 2010 a smidgen more than I hated this.  And it's not as bad as some of the Uwe Boll films I've seen.

So why did it fail not just critically, but financially?

Boy: Hey girl, want to go to see a film?
Girl: Sure, what do you want to see?
Boy: Well, I was thinking Conan.
Girl: .... Well, why don't I go and see that chick flick with the girls, and you and your pals can go to Conan?
Boy: Aye, alright.
Weeks later
Girl: We've been to that chick flick three times, when are you going to Conan?
Boy: No, some of the dudes are organizing it, we'll get around to it!
Girl: Ok.
Boy: Did I mention Jason Momoa is Conan?
Girl:... I'll come with you this week.
They go to the film to find it stopped showing weeks ago.

Many things may have contributed to the film's downfall: parents taking their children to Spy Kids 4 or Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead of paying money they can't afford in this economic climate for an adults-only treat; female viewers choosing The Help instead of Conan; the horrendous publicity backfiring; early critical reviews utterly panning the film; word of mouth from disgruntled Conan fans, be they Arnold fans, Milius fans or REH fans.  I doubt the perception of it being a "remake" did it, otherwise why would Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Clash of the Titans succeed?  Nor could it be the lack of Arnold in a film series normally dominated by the man, otherwise how can one explain the success of the Arnold-less Predators? Of course, we can't purely say whether it's a failure or not until the international numbers come out.  Domestically, though, the film looks like it's going to be a flop.

I'm not happy about the film's performance.  In fact, I'm furious.  We Howard fans were hoping that this film would get all that silliness about origin stories for a character who doesn't need an origin story out of the way.  Get the film franchise started, establish Jason Momoa as Conan, set the foundations for a real adaptation.  Now we're not getting it.  Remember how we were hoping for a real Solomon Kane film after Bassett had his fan-fic origin story? Well, that didn't happen, and it looks like it never will - not to mention the likelihood of Bassett's film getting a US theatrical release going down the drain. But that's not all we'll have to let go.

Pay your respects to the stillborn Conan: Red Nails. Say goodbye to Sean Hood's Queen of the Black Coast.  Bid farewell to Blackman's adaptation.  Wish Jason Momoa the best of luck on his film career beyond Conan.  Because if this film really does fail at the end of the day, then that's going to be it for the Conan film franchise for another 29 years.  We didn't even get a chance to see if a true Conan adaptation would sink or swim on its own merits.  The only possibility I see is that Avi Lerner manages to tempt Arnold back for Crown of Iron, and you all know how I feel about that prospect.

A couple of people wonder why I still hold out hope for a true REH adaptation, when after 5 films with little to nothing to do with Howard, I should've gotten it by now.  Surely after Destroyer and Kull I can't have expected anything good, right?  Well, perhaps it's a mixture of youthful belligerence and not having the optimism beaten out of me by cynicism and world-weariness, but I still hope.  If you don't have hope, what's the point?

This is why I'm thinking of throwing my hat into the REH adaptation arena.  I've already been working on my origin story for Conan, Out of Shadowed Hills, but I might follow Doug "Kortoso" Sunlin's lead and do my own adaptation.  Maybe a Conan story rendered in CGI or hand-animated, maybe another Howard story.  But it's clear that while we can only hope for a proper REH adaptation in the future, if you want something done the way you want it, you have to do it yourself.

Everyone has different interpretations of the Conan stories.  That's the beauty of fiction.  So even a complete, faithful adaptation of a Howard story wouldn't be perfect for every Howard fan.  I know I'd probably find *something* to criticize.  So the best way to make a Howard adaptation that would please me is to make my own Howard adaptation.  (After Encyclopedia Hyboriana and all the other stuff I'm doing.)

Or... just make film versions of my hypothetical trailers using clips from other films.  Take this live-action fan trailer for Thundercats using clips of Vin Diesel, Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman and others, but using digital makeup to make them resemble Panthro, Lion-O and Tygra:

This fan-film does an interpretation of a Death of Superman trailer/fan film using clips from various films:

Take Vladimir Kulich and darken his hair, and you could use clips from The Thirteenth Warrior and Ironclad for a Conan film.

Look at these pictures:

Don't those images, sans black hair, just fit grizzled veteran warrior era Conan to a tee?

Whatever I decide to do, I'm fairly sick of the 2011 film.  There's tons of news I haven't posted on Conan Movie Blog simply because I've lost any sense of energy or even duty, be it the reviews, box-office numbers, or even stupid links like "Did Conan O’Brien’s Influence Make the Barbarian Change the Pronunciation of His Name?"  The most I'd be able to muster are a list of links to reviews.  My inbox is straining with film reviews via Google Alerts I've simply lost the patience to read.  I just... I just can't be bothered with the film's garbage anymore.  I spent thousands of words analysing it, looking over every nook and cranny to divine something, anything, worth note.  And for what?  A film I can no longer stand the sight of.

I don't know, folks.  This film's broken a fuse in my brain, and everything I thought I was over came crashing back like a ton of bricks.


  1. "cry out for the cinematic talents of a Akira Kurosawa or a Sergio Leone, men possessed of the same operatic poetry, grandeur, heroism, and thematic depth found in Howard’s original stories."

    Wow, this is the same argument I made in 2001 or 2002 to my friends about the perfect Conan movie. :) I even suggested a collaboration between the two (although by then, they were of course both dead). Leone, specifically, got the right balance between flashy spectacle, hard-bitten realism and a sense of nostalgia that would be perfect for a Conan movie. And he had a good eye for lawless wastelands and the kind of shady figures who would feel at home in them. Modern Hollywood is incapable of that; they cannot think in those images because they live in an artificial world completely divorced from reality, and can only produce thrice-removed carbon copies of the "intellectual properties" they put their hands on.

    So, uh, spot on!

  2. An HBO-type series would seem to be ideal for Conan's adventures. I'm not holding my breath, mind you, but it would seem to be more workable than yet another origin story. A man can dream.

  3. well sadly being that the film appears to be a bust, i think the way to go is the way the hplhs has gone. the call of cthulhu is a masterpiece of an adaptation ,and the whisperer in the darkness looks to be a winner as well. finding the resources, talent and money to do such efforts will be the challenge as the passion and drive is there. and buliwyf over there makes an exceptional king conan era cimmerian too btw!keep your chin up Al,perhaps the nietzchean qoute that shouldve been at the beginning of the movie as opposed to the milius ( and mind you this is not serious nietzche doesnt really belong in a conan movie ) " out of chaos comes order"
    and it doesnt have to be limited to conan, there should be some sort of rehhs too, that would be open to all of howards work. imagine getting a handfull of artists and animators to do almuric?
    And yet I cant wait to see this on saturday still, I hope its still playing in theatres by then!-mario

  4. Of course it is a commercial disaster. It deserves it. This movie is PURE CRAP.

  5. I saw it yesterday in a projection at open air in a turistic town in the coast of Almeria and the capacity was at its middle, later in summer you can see two films for 4 €, we see Captain America, the first avenger and althought it was released three weeks ago or so there were much more people

    the film itself, if you give the character other name and forget about Conan and Robert E Howard you can enjoy it, lots of action, the physique power of Jason Momoa and the beauty Rachell Nicholls, her firt shots the best of the film for me, but nothing more, the other people see no character development in Conan and the story was so confused for them, by the way some dialogue of Conan are dumbest than the ones by Arnold in the other film, get up, you're my woman, I'm gonna kill you...

    by the way as kike said in his blog Vladimir Kulich on Ironclad is pure heavy metal!!!

    more things talking about Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone take a look here

    and by the way, Rachell Mac Nicholls is much more sophisticated, smart, pretty and sweet as a dark brown haired than as a standard blonde bimbo


  6. Sorry Al. I still haven't seen the film yet, so I'm reserving judgment, but nothing you've written here is making me feel good about my prospects.

    If there ever is another big screen Conan, perhaps The Wrath of Zym will convince the next company that "reimagings" of popular, enduring works aren't necessarily the best idea. These screenwriters need to cease with the idea that they can tell a better story than Robert E. Howard.

    To quote Max Von Sydow: "What outrageousness! What insolence! What arrogance!"

    I don't salute them, though.

  7. I was waiting for your critique and not disappointed at all. Awhile back you commented on a post I made about Red Sonja (Oct 2010) and I respected your opinion and advice to read REH before making a judgment. I'm still in the process of reading Howard and Sonja continues to be more my speed than Conan (partly because of the pin up factor and that I dig the fighting babe archtype)> But we probably both agree that both of these characters are far more deserving of the writing attributed to their re-launch efforts by Dark Horse & Dynamite (though Dark Horse did fairly well with Conan's Road of Kings ... the art just sucked, IMO) and in the theater (assuming a Sonja movie is ever made ... maybe it's better if there isn't one after the Conan 2011 flop:

    But regarding your post:

    "This film had a lot of phantom blood bags exploding, but it didn't feel like people were being cut to pieces: it just felt like somebody cut open a bunch of juice cartons."

    I had this exact thought throughout. The only question in my mind was if it was Kool Aid or Juicy Juice. On a related note, I was even disappointed with Rose McGowan's character. Not much of a sorceress when all she can do is summon sand people and brew semi potent neurotoxins.

    "I'm not happy about the film's performance. In fact, I'm furious. We Howard fans were hoping that this film would get all that silliness about origin stories for a character who doesn't need an origin story out of the way."

    Agreed. 150%

    "But it's clear that while we can only hope for a proper REH adaptation in the future, if you want something done the way you want it, you have to do it yourself."

    I had this same thought not about REH or Conan, but about Red Sonja (the bikini clad version) and that I need to write a novel worthy of her before someone destroys her character on the big screen.

    I look forward to future posts and appreciate your opinions and blog content. Cheers


  8. I've been pondering the idea of a Conan animated series for a little while, one that would adapt all the stories (with some shuffling around to accommodate the varying length of the stories), with The Hour of the Dragon released subsequently as an animated film. The episodes would stick to the stories as written, with maybe a few additions like some kind of frame story of Conan recounting tales of his life. Ambitious, but hey, we can always hope.

    Then again, The Hour of the Dragon has enough elements from all the Conan stories on its own and is already long enough to be feature-length, so maybe that on its own would be doable?

    You're not alone in wanting something faithful to Howard, and if we really want it to come to fruition maybe we will have to do it ourselves. Makes me wish I had some way of getting my own ideas for The Nemedian Chronicles animated.

  9. I left the theater thinking that Conan 2011 was a very good adaptation of a very bad Lancer era pastiche.

    We're having to confront the issue of adaptation for a hostile market, here. The same thing has happened with other films. When Dragonball: Evolution flopped, I had similar thoughts as I'm now having about Nispellized Conan. Why bother? Why bother attaching your film to stories that you don't respect enough to adapt properly? Why do you think that fans, the built-in market, will bother to pay to see your film when you've given no indication of giving them what they expect? Why do you think that people who already don't like or don't have preconceived notions about this property will care about your film? And why would you not try to bring to the screen what has enchanted a relatively large audience in paper and ink?

    The answer, of course, is that the people who make these films don't understand what it is that made these stories stand out. They don't believe that they're worthy of that sort of treatment. Marcus Nispel, assuming that he actually read any of Howard's work, looked no further than violence and naked women and decided that that must be what people like about the Conan stories.

    We know he's wrong, but nothing will convince him, or anybody else, that of the depth that he has sorely missed in Howard's writing. And with each new iteration that misses the point, for whatever property it is that is butchered in celluloid, the original work suffers by association. That's the part that infuriates you, me, and likely a good number of others.

    Leo Grin seems especially incensed. While I can't say that Bro-nan is Uwe Boll bad, I certainly can't disagree with his general assessment.

  10. If it had been Albert Pyun's long awaited sequel to the "Sword and the sorcerer" I would have said..."Well its ok I guess." It has more in common with that original movie than Conan. Indeed with a little humour and a three bladed sword it could have virtually been a remake. Except of course that "The sword and the sorcerer" paid homage to Howard's original Conan stories where as this-didn't.