Conan the Barbarian (2011): 3D Film, 2D Characters

Conan the Barbarian (2011 film)
Conan the Barbarian (2011 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With no less than three writers and a cheeky credit given to Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard I would have expected more from the most recent version of Howard’s creation. Directed by Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw MassacreFriday the 13th), who appears to make a habit of remaking horror films, Conan the Barbarian features enough CG blood to drown a Cimmerian village. Unfortunately the focus on the 3D aspects of the film leaves little room for character development.

Okay, I will admit that you aren’t going to get too much in the way of in-depth characterization in a film with ‘Barbarian’ in the title but a little depth would have gone a long way.

If you are old enough to have seen the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan at the cinema you will no doubt remember the ‘heavy hitters’ that appeared in the film with Arnold. Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones and Mako (who had the dual task of narrating the film) not to mention the huge William Smith who played Conan Sr in the original. And the romantic interest was Sandahl Bergman who at least looked athletic and capable compared to the re-make’s Rachel Nichols as the new Conan’s love interest. Yes Nichols is very pretty but those matchstick arms don’t even look capable of lifting a sword, let alone be able to kill someone with it.

The film opens with the birth of Conan, ripped from his dying mothers womb by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman) after a battle. We then see Conan make his first kill, well, kills actually and then we see the young Conan (Leo Howard) training with dad and making his first sword.

This training period does not last long as Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, Avatar) and his warriors ride into Corin’s village in search of a bone fragment that is the last piece of a powerful talisman that will bring back Zym’s dead sorcerer wife. Zym’s daughter Marique (played by Ivana Staneva as the young Marique and by Rose McGowan as the ‘grown-up’ Marique) has magic powers just like her dear departed mother and she finds the last fragment.

Zym tortures Corin and has set him up to die by having molten iron pour on him. Conan holds the heavy metal beaker until his hands bleed. After telling Conan that he loves him, Corin kills himself by pulling the chain attached to the beaker and covers himself with the hot liquid. Full of grief and rage the young Conan goes out into the body strewn village and grabs a sword.

The master of gravitas  Morgan Freeman, who opens the film, then goes on to tell us about the grown up Conan (Jason Momoa) and his travels and exploits in the pursuit of his father’s murderer. This ‘narrative’ obviously saved the producers from having to film more footage and special effects thus giving them more money to film in 3D.

The film then follows Conan’s attempts to thwart Zym’s rise to power and Conan’s falling in love with Tamara (Rachel Nichols). The plot dealing with Conan and Tamara is quite simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Oh and boy has gratuitous sex with girl before losing her to Zym and co.

Conan calls in a favour from a master thief, Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui) who helps him get into Zym’s stronghold. After much carnage and the death of pretty much all the bad guys, Conan gets Tamara back. Presumably they all live happily ever after until the sequel, if there is one.

The film has been said to be more like Robert E Howard’s Conan books and that may well be true, but, what they made up for in ‘loyalty’ to the books they lost in believability of the characters.

Now I have to admit that I don’t remember too much about the 1982 version. I remember Mako as some sort of ‘magic man’ and James Earl Jones who was bigger than life itself. I also remember special effects that have not aged well at all. I do know that I thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan made perfect sense, The man looked like the strongest man alive, all brute strength and massive powerful muscles.

Jason Momoa has a good enough physique and a very deep voice but I never believed for a minute that he was Ron Perlman’s son. Perlman is a big man, Momoa looked more like a tackle for a professional football team.

The real surprise to me was Rose McGowen. I didn’t recognise her at all. I did keep thinking though, that if you took away that freaky hairdo, she looked so much like Judy Garland that she could star in a biopic of Garland’s life. She even sounded like Garland. Well she did when she was doing that hissing syllable thing which was slightly irritating and  a bit off-putting. I had to watch the end credits to find out who Rose McGowen was playing.

Conan 2011 took a long and bumpy road on it’s journey to being made into a film. Directors changed and then changed again. Actors were cast, re-cast and cast again. The script had three writer’s not counting Howard’s posthumous contribution. The end result is entertaining enough, despite it’s shallow characters and it’s shaky main plot. But even a Morgan Freeman voice over was not enough to push this film into anything other than just entertaining.

It’s definitely more of a Netflix or ‘free trial DVD’ than an owner or expensive blu-ray rental. I got to watch it free on a Netflix special deal. It’s just as well, if I’d actually paid money to see it? I would have been annoyed.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

6 thoughts on “Conan the Barbarian (2011): 3D Film, 2D Characters”

  1. Good review Mike. I didn’t love this film, but I still thought it was a fun enough guilty pleasure that I may check out one of these days when me and my buds are a little tipsy one night and want to laugh our asses off at something dumb and random. Maybe I went a little too in depth with that explanation but you get what I’m saying.


  2. Hey Mike, I’m definitely with you on this one. I’ve been a Robert E. Howard fan for many years, and his books are by far the best version, which I suppose is a common enough statement with most fiction. I mean it more so in his case. There has never really been an overly faithful adaptation of any of his works, including those featuring his famous barbarian. I never really liked the Arnold versions because they were incredibly different from Howard’s original stories, but at least they were great fantasy films for the time, and pioneered the genre into film in many ways. This new Conan film I really had high hopes for, and that was probably my biggest mistake. It definitely attempts to follow ‘some’ of Howard’s lost world lore, but the film is left with a decidedly empty feeling. Momoa felt like Conan, if a bit young and a bit too handsome for the part, but the delivery of the role was much closer than Arnold’s back in the 80s. The biggest issue I think by far, is where the main plot device is concerned, namely that stupid (and apparently useless) Crown of Acheron. Such an artifact was never mentioned if I recall in the fiction, which is fine, but it served no purpose other than to painfully give the villains reason to slaughter everyone while searching for its fragments. Then, when Zym succeeds in gathering and reforging the pieces of the crown, it does virtually nothing for him during his ‘final boss battle’ with Conan, save make his head look like it was attacked by a blind and misguided facehugger. Everything just felt really shallow. Sadly, I’m one of the suckers who paid to see it. As irony wound have it however, there was an extremely mild tremor near the theater, and it closed because of it. We all got our money back. LOL


    1. Brilliant story Josh! And I loved the ‘blind face-hugger’ comparison. Yeah, as a villain, Zym kind of let the side down for all the “hugger mugger” about the mask, as you said, the final battle was ridiculously easy. Almost as if the director looked at his watch and went, “Whoops, time to wrap this up guys!”


  3. This film was the most bitter-sweet experience for me when it came out. I am a fan of Conan (Arnold’s version) and I read the book before the film came out. I also like Jason Momoa (he totally plays the roll correctly as we see in Game of Thrones). With all of these aspects, how could it go wrong? Not too bad of an over all story, better actors than Arny?

    I loved the beginning (though I agree with your opinion on Momoa and Perlmen looking different) but the middle and end of the movie seemed to be going at hyperspeed, leaving little room for retention and a poor story pace. That is my major issue with the movie; the pacing. There is a healthy amount of gratuitous violence, and interesting story, it was just directed very poorly in my opinion.


    1. I agree that the pacing was also off, I did feel that the film could have done with more “journeys” with Conan rather than talking about them via voice-over. Thanks for commenting and sharing your opinions


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