For better or worse, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Sadly, much of the badness seemed to come from the fact that the writers couldn’t really figure out what Conan was all about.
I mean, was he a mercenary fueled by money? Or a hoity-toity do-gooder who just frees slaves because it’s “morally right”? You can probably guess my answer to this (and the answer of pretty much anybody familiar with the source material). But for some reason, these guys were really working hard to make him ruled by both instinct and… morality?
Things seem to sort of happen randomly here, and I got the impression that there was some kind of internal war in the making of this film about who the hell Conan really was. It almost felt like they were going for the “noble savage” thing (popular concept in pulp like Howard’s, offensive as it may be), but you know… Conan is not noble. He is ruled by base instinct and the “Now.” This is, to me, what makes this character so appealing to modern day folks, even though the books are spilling over with sexism and racism and great gouts of poor writing and sneering heads. The appeal of Conan is that he drinks, fucks and fights with no care for tomorrow. Everything is about getting through right now – the pleasure of the moment. For people so caught up in the desperation of trying to ensure a roof over their heads and screaming every time they look at their 401(k) portfolio during shitty times, Conan’s utter disinterest in anything but the pleasurable moment (whether that’s the high of fucking or fighting) is really appealing.
Yes, there are all sorts of other things Conan is – gratuitous sex and violence and magic and more violence – but at the core of it, I think, the true appeal of Conan for those of us stuck in societies where civil behavior consists largely of sucking up and controlling our natural wants and desires while endlessly plodding along at jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need so we can “enjoy” ourselves in our decreptitude for twenty years of failing health and hospital visits, the barbarian life, passionately lived, looks very pretty on paper (dying of gangrene or dysentery is less interesting, but that’s why we enjoy living it fictionally).
This Conan teetered very close to the edge of that, and very close to the edge of not sucking. But, well. Yeah.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) It opens with Conan’s birth on the battlefield. His mother – heavily pregnant – has been mortally struck down on the battlefield, where she is fighting. Before she dies, she wants to see her son, so her husband eviserates her with a sword, and poof, Conan is born and his mother dies. Which was a better botched Cesarean scene than I was expecting, but ultimately ill-thought-out. See, later on, Conan notes to his “love” interest that Cimmerian women dress as warriors. Which is cool. But here’s the worldbuilding fail and one of the schizophrenic moments– during the first 20 minutes of the movie, in which we see Conan growing up into a warrior, we don’t actually SEE any women dressed as warriors. For that matter, during the pivotal scene when he’s running out with the group’s other warrior-hopefuls, every single one of the other “warrior” hopefuls is a guy.
So here we have this nice update (because really, if you thought women in small tribal groups didn’t know how to defend themselves, you’re stupid. Hence the recent hullaballoo over the discovery that, in fact, many of the Viking folks buried with their swords were not, in fact, men [as assumed by male archaelogists. If women didn’t know how to defend themselves while the guys were gone, Vikings would have died out pretty quickly), but that update is all hosed up because the rest of the worldbuilding just doesn’t jive with what’s *said.* You can *say* something is true all you want, but until you *show* that actually playing out in your world, it’s just so much talk (remember, your audience comes to a show with their own biases, just like those archeologists. It means working harder to remind people that hey, yeah, really, things are DIFFERENT here).
This schizophrenia continues with our first view of the adult Conan, who randomly decides to free some slaves because “no man shall live in chains” despite the protestations of his partner, who reminds him that freeing slaves doesn’t win them any money or serve any real purpose. But Conan does it anyway, because he is just a moral person (?).
Anyway, it gave them a chance to surround Conan with some bare-breasted slave girls, so maybe that’s what it was about anyway. If he’d done it to get gold and freeing the slaves was an afterthought, that’s one thing, but since when was Conan all about doing things just because they’re “right”? There is no “right” in Conan. There is only “right now.”
But anyway, the schizophrenia continues when we meet our heroine for this romp, who is in some kind of monastery, all dressed in white like she’s some kind of Vestal Virgin or nun or something. When the bad guys come to the monastery to kidnap her, we find out she’s actually some kind of fighting monk, who is passable with a knife and kicking people. Trouble is… well, again. Is she a Vestal Virgin or fighting monk? She vacillates between maiden-in-distress and passable-with-a-knife the whole time. To add further confusion, we learn that she’s the last of some bloodline, and is going to be delivered “Home” by Conan (per some prophecy) but we never learn why she was there in the first place, if she even knew her parents or even remembered “home” or if it had any significance whatsoever to her. In fact, she had no real goal or ambitions at all except to go home as her master had decreed would happen via his prophecy. She was, in essence, a blank slate around which the rest of the plot (such as it was) moved. She was, basically, just a McGuffin, and a very badly fleshed out one. It probably doesn’t help that Hollywood is moving more and more toward casting female leads who all look alike. She could have been anybody.
Her non-desires-except-as-dictated-by-plot were also on display when she goes ashore at one point and just randomly has sex with Conan. OK, it’s Conan, I realize we need a sex scene, but there is no lead up to this and no real serious interest given on either person’s part (except Conan’s statement that she looks like a “harlot” I guess, which is apparently as close as he gets to foreplay). It’s just like, “Hey, ship isn’t sailing until morning, so we might as well have sex!” And here’s the deal with that. She’s, like, a Vestal Virgin/Monk, right? So wouldn’t sex be a big deal for her? Wouldn’t there be more angst/talking about it, like “Hey, now that I’m not a Vestal Virgin/Monk anymore I want to get it on” or some crazy lame crap like that? Can she have some kind of desire/motivation for anything at all besides, “Well, you’re here… and I’m here… and the plot dictates that Conan gets some action, sooooo….” One of my favorite scenes in the first Conan was between Conan and Valeria after they’ve had sex for the nth time, and she waxes on a bit about perhaps abandoning the life of thieving and excess and maybe, you know, hooking up for realsies, because she’s gotten envious of those couples would have somebody to come home to every night. And though this could have been a typical she wants to commit/he’s a barbarian thing, it ended up being a nice little moment – she was a hardened thief with a hankering to settle down, you know, maybe. It happens to the best of us. It gave her a little more depth.
In this one, the female lead isn’t given anything to want or wish for at all, not even a for realsies relationship with Conan, which is never even broached (in fact, it would have been a great conversation where she was all like, “You know, dude, I just want to have some sex! I’m a Vestal Virgin! No strings attached!” and she really meant it). At the end of the movie, he just dumps her off in front of a city somewhere, and she looks wistfully after him.
Anyway, there’s a plot in here about bringing this McGuffin love interest to some place and spilling her blood into a mask so she can be possessed by some demon Queen. Ho-hum. Rose McGowan is underused here as the daughter of the main bad guy who’s less than interested in her mother coming back because she feels she’s powerful enough to rule the world with her dad. But, just like our other female lead, she doesn’t really take actionable steps to get what SHE wants. She just says she wants something (which is nice – at least she HAS wants) and then backs off and once again backs dad’s plan. Which is not only lazy, but bad storytelling, because it reduces a lot of tension at the end.
At any rate, Conan cuts off some heads and hands and gets revenge for the death of his father and village (not his mother, this time, as she was already dead). Blah, blah, you know the rest.
In the end, I thought maybe they would do something with the sword stuff they were doing throughout, about Conan not being ready to pick up a Cimmerian sword, and then he gets back his dad’s sword at the end, and revisits his village, and I thought for SURE he was going to put the sword back, implying that he was not yet ready, and giving us something unfinished for another day. But instead he just picks it up and yells a lot, and The End.
And I was kinda left with this weird feeling like, “Um, what did I just watch?” Was this a story about a barbarian, or a do-gooder? A fighting Monk or a vestal virgin? An evil witch child or jealous daughter? It was like they were trying to merge these archetypes into actual fleshed out characters by simply smooshing them together – but it just didn’t work. You can’t take complete opposite archetypes and just slap them together and call it a character. They just don’t smoosh right. You have to sit down and create real, fleshed out people with real wants, desires and motivations that spring from the world and situations they’re involved in. If you just throw a bunch of crap in willy-nilly to please everybody, you end up pleasing no one.
If I had to guess what happened, I’d guess it was this: trying to please too many people. Trying to make Conan progressive/yet traditional, without having any clue about what drove him or the people he associated with. Trying to make the female lead both a damsel in distress/fighter, without creating an actual person (they even randomly threw in this thief character who didn’t become a companion, just was there briefly, basically said, “Come find me for the climax of the movie!” and then appeared later to break him into a fortress… for the climax of the movie).
And the problem with trying to please too many people is that you end up with something mediocre. During the final epic battle scenes, I found myself kind of spacing out. I realized I wasn’t really attached to any of the characters – not Conan, not the Vestal Virgin, not the witch girl, and not the big bad guy. I just really couldn’t care less about what happened to them, because I wasn’t allowed to be truly invested in their stories because they really weren’t invested in them either. About the only interesting character was Conan’s initial fighting companion, who – again – just kinda showed up randomly throughout the movie instead of acting as a constant. I was more interested in the first 20 minutes of the movie where we’re actually learning about Conan and his world than the other 2 hours or so in which we’re just kind of running around after McGuffins without doing any kind of character work (in some ways, I think pairing Valeria and the thief with Conan helped in the first one, as both were allowed to emote – another good scene is when Valeria and his thief companion try to save him from the wind demons. They are allowed to feel things and be invested in them because he is not – but SOMEBODY has to feel things. Remember when the thief says, “I cry because he cannot?” Pure gold, there).
This is a classic pairing when you want to do a character as unemotional/distant as Conan. It’s like Holmes/Watson. SOMEBODY has to be there for the audience to relate to, or to help us sympathize with our rather unsympathetic lead. But Conan in this movie just kind of wandered around randomly, sometimes alone, sometimes with other folks, but with no constant, nobody with any drive, and certainly nobody I could care about (again, the closest being his warrior-second, who was really underused throughout).
To sum up, no amount of schizophrenic storytelling will make us love a Conan who is not even fleshed out well enough to be truly loved by his cardboard companions.