So, after some years, I eventually gave in and watched the Conan movie from 2011. And now I have to realize how amazing concept art, CGI and matte painting can help in killing a great story.
I don't see the fault with the art at all. It has simply been used as a disguise for the rickety construction beneath that presumes to be a plot. And the reason why this upsents me so much is that it happens over and over, not only in movies, but also in games. The reason why I chose Conan for this rant is simply that there's the old movie, the new movie, and loads of people have seen both of them; and they make a great example.
I have no idea how many times I heard the old Conan movies considered trash. Maybe they appear to be made for nerds only, with a muscular sword-wielding idol and a shallow story; but hells, all you people out there who don't have a knack for fantasy, please snap out of it for a moment and try to see that these movies are some great pieces of art which achieve exactly what they aim at. They are made for fun, not to carry a profund message or just to indulge in the, hum, slightly exaggerated characters.
No, wait. The old movies are that good. The new one is trash. I'm not even sorry to say so.
The old movie starts with the Riddle of Steel: Conan's father forging a blade and explaining his little boy how the gods lost the riddle of steel to the humans, who solved it and now are able to forge blades and shape the world. He tells his little boy not to trust in gods, because he would be deceived. He tells him to trust in the steel, and at the same time, that he has to understand the sword before he can wield it.
Message for Conan to learn: trust in your own abilities. Learn from what you find. Don't let yourself be deceived by promises that lead only to others exploiting you for their own good.
This message can be found throughout the movie, from the enslaved Conan to the sheepish procession at the Mount of Doom to the orgy in the temple where the feasters don't even notice that they are being served human meat. It's a message that obviously wasn't even noticed by many viewers, considering the very low ratings the movie got.
The new movie starts with the birth of Conan amidst battle, with his dad cutting him from the womb of his dying mother without even looking (oh, yeah, sure), actually lifting a heavy dagger and butchering away. Everything in this scene is absolutely nuts (not looking; cutting her open in the thick of battle without getting slain by someone passing by; his pinky finger between her teeth not getting bitten through; lifting his kid to the sky, yelling like mad, without anyone killing him; etc etc.) and it tells us what? That Conan has been a baby? Battle-born? He's a damned helpless baby, though a lucky one, but the whole scene has absolutely no use and no message.
Let's skip his childhood scenes (with the equally dumb quail-egg initiation scene, the absolutely unbelieveable fight, and the unfortunate implication that the bad guys from the woods visually remind of Native American tribesmen) to the nonsensical sword-forging here. What does it tell me? The whole Riddle of Steel is missing, mentioned in half a sentence, not tied into the storyline or telling little Conan anything he might use for his future. Instead, there's some hollow rambling about ohhh you need fire and ice to forge good steel! Oooh! Now that's surprising (yawn). And then it never even reappears in the further storyline, maybe as a metaphor Conan takes to gain some idea from later. It's another three minutes of movie spent to nothingness.
In the old movie, Conan's mum is beheaded in front of her child, and little Conan is taken away into slavery, first for work, then for fighting. I don't care much that the Wheel of Pain scene is exaggerated and totally dumb if it comes to the question how he could get trained all over if he only trudged along around this wheel all day. The scene carries too much symbolism to be taken as "oh, he only did this all the time".
Throughout the movie, Conan will remember how his mother died. He will treat women with respect. He hates the murderer of his parents. He's a character, and he behaves like a character. And his quest ends up as not only revenge, but also by doing what his dad tought him: rely on yourself, not in gods. He kills a god in order to restore mankind to its own strength, and also to its own responsibility.
If this message is why so many people voted so low for the movie, then ouch. I don't want to think that to it's bitter end.
In the new movie, Conan's mom dies on start, so she's outta the way when little Conan tries to save his dad from molten steel ... which, honestly, should have been cold already when they tied him to the crucible (what's the use of a crucible below the ceiling of a straw-thatched house anyways? Besides, huge droplets of molten metal burn through everything, they don't just bounce off little Conan's face). This could have been a good scene, but again, it ends up hollow, 'cause little Conan has no real choice (no conflict there) and in the end only lifts a seemingly way too heavy sword, screaming in a wannabe heroic way.
He's not even taken away as a prisoner or slave, but left behind by a thoughtlessly sadistic idiot who didn't read the Evil Overlord manual. And he does not even have to learn to fight any more, because we saw earlier that he is already a great warrior even if he's just a little boy, for whatever reason (this strikes me ten times as dumb than the Wheel of Pain could, even if it were annonunced as "yes, he trudged in a circle for ten years!"). Symbolism and exaggeration don't work if the character arc is ... uh ... not only deformed, but simply nonexistent.
Conan will hunt down the murderer of his father. His mom is never mentioned any more. Throughout the movie, he's a dick who treats women like a possession (he even says so!), a decoration, sex reward, and oh, wait, he even rescues the plot device chick, so there's even the use of them to make him look loving and heroic! Wow!
This is not about Conan's dad and not about Plot Device Chick, it's about manly pride being injured by the Evil Overlord. Conan's quest is a blunt revenge tale. That could be nice, but it tries to be more, and that attempt at deeper meaning gone wrong messes up the whole story.
I'm not sorry to be blunt as well: this story only works for viewers who want to indulge in an empty character shell who gets served the chopped up plot on a silver platter in order to seemingly restore his injured pride, including getting the girl, a lot of badassery, being rewarded for unbearable egocentrism and for behaving like a guy whom every woman should kick where it hurts because he cries out for it.
So, does it work for anyone? Or is it just a blow to the face for the bigger part of the audience?
Except for some servants (of which there are also male ones), all female characters in both old Conan movies are strong, self-reliant (usually highly, even the naive princess from the second movie makes use of her brain), they have motives, goals, background, and they are not only there to make Conan look good. When Valeria, his thievy lover from the first movie, dies, the audience goes all Nooo! because they love her as a character, not just as Conan's female decoration. As he said in the second movie to the princess: he loved Valeria because she was like that ... and the princess immediately talks the Amazon warrior into training her how to fight. With the following scenes, the message becomes clear: teach her self-confidence and self-reliance. She notices that she's terribly insecure and naive, because she never saw anything of the world. If you have never seen a certain scene from Conan the Destroyer which is sheer innuendo, watch the movie again. It is both a mirror in the face of real-life prudery, shows a young woman with the want to break free of this status, and serves a wacky dialog which is too great to miss.
I can't believe how the producers, screenwriters and directors of the new movie managed to rush past all those "Hey! Look! This is what made the old movies great!" moments which are so damned obvious. But they did, and ended up in the Lands of Modern Hollywood Boredom. While the old Conan movies are surely not No Woman's Land scenarios, the new one certainly is; it even is a Male Fantasy Dreamland scenario. Congrats, guys, you just made a movie that will piss of the female half of your audience (never expect just men to watch Conan movies), and part of the male audience too. Conan's nekkid butt in one scene does not make up for all female characters just being two-dimensional story devices, and the main character an undesirable asshole.
Movies are never great if you fail to implement characters as actual persons. I'm not aiming at a feminist stamenent here, it's just usually the female characters who end up being the story device. That sucks pretty much. Anyways, the makers of the new movie also managed to leave out the magnificent mage, and cut down the thief to a terribly stereotyped nobody who has absolutely no place in the story.
I don't know where to start prying the rest of the story apart. Actually I don't even have to do so, 'cause it falls apart when you poke it with a stick, like the sand men conjured by the Evil Overlord's witch daughter. When they brought up these, I thought: hey, finally a great idea! Wear down the edge of Conan's precious steel, make him realize he can't fight these with a sword! (Which is another message in the old movies, said aloud by Conan himself: "We need a mage. I can't fight black magic with a sword." If you can't win, get the fuck help instead of running head-first to your demise.) Instead, the sand men turn out to be mere minions, and pretty weak ones too. Thanks to the script, Conan never thinks about attacking the witch. He gets away with the girl in the end. What was the whole fight good for? Any hint? Oh, right, they needed a useless two-bladed weapon show-off!
Not to talk about the extremely stupid fighting scenes at all. ... Oh, I can't help it. Yes, the old movie actors used swords like hammers. That's typical for the time, and I roll my eyes about it, but at least these fights still carry suspense. I see whats going on.
The new movie had all the benefits of three decades of historical martial arts, sword nerdism and whatnot, and they didn't give a shit about it.
Miss Story Device makes a fancy move with a dagger like three or four times in the movie, always the same and always to exactly no effect. She screams before backstabbing her opponent's kidneys. So does Conan, always warning them to introduce another meaningless fight in which noone will die. And if that wasn't enought to topple all the stakes and kill suspense, they try to incapacitate my eyeballs by zapping from one shot to the next three times per second, showing not one move to its end.
This is not only a problem of realism in fights, it's mainly about robbing the audience of the core of any fighting scene: Why the hell are they fighting for? Ninety percent of the fighting at least are pure script dumbness (stand around and watch instead of throwing in everything you can) in both characters and antagonists, and even showing that half of the people who should fight just stands around gaping witlessly, waiting for the script to tell them that something happens.
Perhaps they tried to avoid fighting choreography. Perhaps they noticed too late that their sword designs are basically overly heavy fancy stuff you better put on a wall than in someone's hand. But then, the Sword of Crom from the old movies was even more unwieldy, and they still managed to make it look useful inside of the movie's world. I'm speaking of consistency here. The old movies were less realistic and more exaggerated all over, they knew it and they stood true to it. In the new one, the exaggerations stand out in a very ridiculous way. I tried to track down why this happens, and I guess it's the tonality, the desperate try to lift the movie to a more earnest, darker, grittier level.
Even the big battles are just lost to the audience. The first one, in which Conan is born, seems to be a victory, since his dad and he survive. But it isn't ever mentioned any more. The second, when the settlement of the Barbarians gets raided, suffers from the need for most amazing fighting scenes. While in the old movie a small village is raided by a rather small number of bandits, in the new one a small village suddenly spits out more than the ten or twenty warriors who could proably have lived there when the few riders who start the attack suddenly expand into an army who would most likely have erased the whole village in no time.
(Oh, not to forget, who would ever hide a horribly dangerous artifact below their floorboards? Please. I feel insulted just by watching this.)
The first quarter hour is symptomatic for the whole movie: a thoughtless and illogocal, inconsistent script aimed at providing one awesome shot after the other. They never got the fact that awesomeness in a picture and in a story are not the same. One can't put shiny wallpapers over a rickety frame and consider it solid.
There's so much potential wasted on this movie. The art. The costumes. Several ideas, all poof into nothingness before they ever play out as something amazing. The acting. Even the best actor can't save a nonexistent story illusioned by dialog that physically hurts me when I hear it.
Talking about dialog, there's a joke about the old movies, that Arnold Schwarzenegger got the probably highest gage for the least number of words spoken. Hey, it works, doesn't it? And it does because the story is well-done from the overall arc to the tiny aspects.
When I watch the new movie instead, I feel like I'm going to shake the screen any moment and yell at Conan just to shut up, 'cause every word he says just makes the whole thing worse.
Well, at least one thing in this move is epic, and that's this most Epic Fail.