Friday 2 September 2011

A Tale of Two Remakes

A very interesting little link that perfectly illustrates what I'm talking about when I say Conan really needed more than Grog, Girls and Gore to succeed.  This article talks about the differences between Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Conan the Barbarian: obviously I don't agree with everything, but it's still very well thought out, and the description of the form in particular rings true.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really more of a “reboot,” to use the preferred terminology of an entertainment industry that has real trouble coming up with fresh ideas, and has therefore taken to devising a whole new language for retreads.  Actually, since Tim Burton already tried rebooting the Apes franchise with his lavish but unloved 2001 film, this is technically a re-re-boot.  It makes a few cute nods toward the original films through repurposed dialogue, but it sets up an entirely new version of the POTA universe, which was originally (spoiler alert for those who somehow missed the earlier films!) a massive temporal paradox.
Despite its copy-of-a-copy pedigree, the new Apes film is terrific, because it found something fresh and original to do with its venerable material.  The rise of the Apes is now a result of bio-engineering run amok, rather than time-traveling chimpanzees giving birth to their own predecessor.  Within this framework, tough moral questions are asked about the nature of loyalty. 
James Franco gives his best performance to date as a scientist whose enduring love for his father, and resulting determination to cure Alzheimer’s, leads him to cut some corners that should not have been cut.  He’s right and wrong, admirable and worth of censure, in equal measure.  In fact, all of the human characters in the story make the epic mistake of underestimating a technology that has the power to rewrite not just DNA, but history itself.
This technology leads to Caesar, a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee brought to life with an astonishing motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis – the undisputed grand master of an entirely new form of theatrical performance.  Caesar’s loyalty to the humans he sincerely loves is pitted against his sense of duty to his species, and his growing hunger for personal dignity. 
What results is a tragedy that becomes all the more powerful because it seems so horribly inevitable.  Great special effects and stunt work are placed in the service of a solid, thoughtful script.  It’s great science fiction, because it takes a single hypothetical – and not entirely implausible – bit of technology, and weaves an entirely believable story around it.  

This is exactly what I'm talking about. The trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed a compelling story: the tale of good-intentioned science leading humanity down the road to hell; the battle an oppressed minority wages in order to achieve dignity, equal opportunities and fair treatment; a man realising the unforeseen consequences of his work. You wanted to know what happened to the characters you see; you want to know how the story will unfold, even if you know it'll eventually end with the Apes dominant; you are invested, interested, piqued by what you're seeing. And that's just the trailer!

Again: who saw the Conan trailers and thought "wow, I wonder how this story's going to end up?" "What's Khalar Zym's story, what does he want, what will he do?" "What is this movie about beyond the lizard-brained thrills of Grog, Girls and Gore?"  It sure wasn't me.  If there were, then all power to them.  But I wasn't seeing any. This is as much the fault of advertising as it is the film, of course.  When you think of the many ways a Conan film could be just as provocative and meaningful to modern times as Apes - think about how the barbarism/civilization dynamic could be applicable to the modern world, how the treatment of faith could be mirrored by modern interfaith dynamics, how Conan himself could be a different kind of hero - it really drives home what a colossal failure Conan was from a creative standpoint.

It's perhaps inevitable I'd find issue with their discussion of Conan, but although they're there, most of their criticisms are entirely valid.

There was no need to retell his origin story.  This was not a franchise that needed its own Casino Royale or Batman Begins.

On the contrary, I think it did - because the 1982 film's origin story is completely and utterly different from what Howard told us.  Conan's village was never wiped out, his parents never killed, there was no quest for revenge against an evil warlord, he never had some special sword, he was never trying to retrieve his father's sword - virtually anything that the 2011 film shares with the 1982 film has nothing to do with Howard's work.  The Conan franchise needed to start from the ground up and completely forget about the 1982 film, incorporating the elements that Howard DID mention.

Imagine a Conan origin film that doesn't have a revenge plot at all, where Conan isn't enslaved - be it literally, or metaphorically - nobody kills Conan's parents or destroys his village, nobody steals his father's sword, he doesn't have to learn some ludicrous riddle or mystery of steel.  What about an origin story that's nothing like the 1982 or 2011 films, with young Conan breaking a wild bull's neck, hunting mountain-beasts with a spear, slaying chieftains, climbing the cliffs and crags of his homeland, culminating in the battle of Venarium; then going north to fight alongside the Aesir, being captured and escaping the Hyperboreans, experiencing the civilized wonders of the Hyborian Kingdoms, and ending up in Zamora in time for "The Tower of the Elephant." Then imagine how the barbarism/civilization dynamic comes into that, as Conan goes from a near-feral barbarian boy to a curious and awestruck thief.

Obviously I would prefer an actual adaptation of one of Robert E. Howard's fantastic stories than yet another origin story, but considering the 1982 film is so contradictory to Howard's creation, a new origin would establish once and for all that this is new, different and not a remake.  Pretty much like what Rise of the Planet of the Apes did.  Sadly, that wasn't the film we got, because Avi Lerner and Joe Drake are imbeciles.

She can scarcely hold her own against Conan’s bland love interest… who would have been a voluptuous damsel in distress in a real Conan story, but feminist Hollywood has strict rules against those, so she’s soon taking down the front-line warriors of the ancient world’s most formidable army.

Or she would be an actual action heroine like Valeria, a female warrior who's the closest anyone - man or woman - in any story comes to Conan's equal. Or she would be a dominant, independent, strident queen who's mistress of her domain like Yasmina or Yasmela. Or she would be a cunning, intelligent schemer like Belit or Zenobia... You get the point. Even the voluptuous damsels like Olivia and Sancha manage to be proactive: those two actually save Conan's life at some points in the story. Howard was actually very ahead of his time when it came to female characters.

Rather than any of those, Tamara was that most odious of modern action cliches, the "faux-action girl," where she's only as competent as the script demands.  If the script calls for her to be badass, she kills foes left and right: if the script calls for her to be captured, she screeches like Willie Scott and does nothing to save herself. In one scene, she's taking down entire groups of soldiers with clear finesse in her swordplay: in another, she's cowering in a corner in terror. No consistency.

Another strange aspect of the new Conan’s bloody, but bloodless, adventure is the decision to jettison its fantastical religious trappings.  One of the most memorable scenes from the original film was Conan’s up-yours prayer to his grim war god Crom, but the new film makes a point of having the villain declare that Conan’s people have no gods.  The Lovecraftian demons who frequently orbited Howard’s tales decided to take this adventure off.

The new film says the Cimmerians have no priests or churches, not that they have no gods.  You hear Ron Perlman say "by Crom."  It's true Conan never discusses his spirituality in the film, but at least he doesn't do it in a contradictory manner like the prayer to Crom (Howard's Cimmerians didn't pray: they figured any god worth their salt gave a man all they needed to prevail at birth, and that asking for further aid was a grave insult and sign of weakness and dependence). It would've been nice for him to say Crom at least once, though.

"Caesar the chimpanzee got a reboot, while Conan the Barbarian got a retread."

That, sad to say, says it all.


  1. Here is another view comparing the two films in case you havent seen it yet.It is from the COOL ASS CINEMA Blog, one of my faves. I'm interested in your thoughts on this one.

  2. "Arnold Schwarzenegger was the literal embodiment of what the character represented and in some ways, was a bit more faithful to Howard's creation than most people give it credit for. Liberties were taken, but the spirit is far closer to Howard than NEW CONAN, at least in my view."

    No, no, and no.

  3. Yeah, I thought the film should have just ditched the whole origin thing and just have been CONAN AND THE MASK OF ACHERON. No explanations, no apologies.

  4. I don't know about the remake of Apes, but unfortunately I have to agree with your takes on this latest Conan film, Al.

    If the lottery someday behaves, I'll help produce a true REH Conan film. One in which the trailer will flash an image of Conan, and the first thought in the viewer's mind will be, "Damn, I'd hate to tangle with that guy."