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Conan the Barbarian was born on the battlefield. From those blood soaked beginnings, the fledgling warrior is destined to venture into an unforgiving world after his father is brutally murdered and his village destroyed. As he journeys through a world rife with terrifying monsters, sorcerers and bloodthirsty enemies, he chances upon Khalar Zym – the warlord responsible for his tribe’s destruction. And so Conan’s quest to avenge his father begins... (Taken from the Lionsgate synopsis.)

Conan the Barbarian
I have very little love for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, despite an affection for most things ‘80s Schwarzenegger, and kind of hate the two sequels it spawned. I tend to prefer the Italian brand of weirdo, fantasy sword and sandal type films, and Roger Corman’s ultra-stupid knock-offs. I also have very little knowledge of Robert E. Howard’s original pulp novels, and the apparently classic Marvel comics, but I do consider myself a connoisseur of all things Frank Frazetta, so I love the image of Conan, and the general universe encompassed in Frazetta’s amazing book cover paintings. I come to this update with little in the way of expectations outside of a hope that director Marcus Nispel would capture a fraction of the beauty and excitement of Frazetta’s work. Unfortunately, Nispel is a terrible filmmaker. Outside of his passable work on the okay, but entirely unnecessary Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, he makes movies that are entirely unmemorable outside of how unmemorable they are. Nispel claims to be a huge fan of Conan, and even made a sort of wannabe Conan flick in Pathfinder, a Viking era barbarian flick that is, like most of the director’s films, only memorable for the fact that those who have seen it usually can’t remember anything about it. Here Nispel lives up to his pedigree. Once again he takes perfectly beautiful production design, and what appears to be well-executed stunts and fight choreography, and bludgeons them with occasionally baffling camera placement, rough, almost anti-rhythmic editing choices, shaking cameras, terrible geographic sense, and dismal lighting designs.

Not surprisingly the screenplay seems to be a bit of an afterthought. I understand that the character is a pulp hero, that he is kind of vaguely defined throughout many interpretations, and these stories aren’t known for their novelty, but a Barbarian film really shouldn’t be this boring. Am I really meant to care about anything that’s happening, or am I meant to be checking the clock in hopes that I’m almost done with this series of random, weightless events? Am I supposed to ignore the befuddling and random choices these characters make, and the lack of sway most of their choices have on the plot? I’m guessing the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, and that I’m not supposed to care about anything but carnage, which is unfortunate, because even the carnage grows boring. Performances don’t really help. Jason Momoa gets away with a lot thanks to some unflappable charisma (he’s quite good playing basically the same character on Game of Thrones), but no one else in the cast appears to be even trying to step above the thin boundaries set by the script, and have some major issues with their dialogue (some actors seem to think there is a race commencing to see who can speak their lines the fastest). Steven Lang appears diminutive and unthreatening, Rose McGowan (who I really fought to like here) is more unintentionally funny than frightening, and Momoa’s scenes with Rachel Nichols are more obnoxious than charming. The love between the these ‘romantic leads’ is entirely unearned, and almost humoursly random.

Conan the Barbarian
I do appreciate the severe, grotesque degree of violence throughout the film, but also find myself wanting more. Conan is ripped from his mother’s womb, slices off an aggressor’s nose (he later sticks his finger into the nose hole), head-butts another aggressor with a severed head, somehow squishes gallons of blood from behind unbroken links of armour, and slingshots a victim into the big bad’s camp. But the graphic stuff is largely delegated to the early sequences, which leaves a lot of runtime shorn of carnage. It appears as if the production had a scorecard of violent acts, and finished checking off the appropriate acts during the first act and a half. It’s more likely that Nispel’s complaints of ratings problems are the proper cause (several bits of carnage appear to have been snipped). Still, quite often I had to just take it for grated that what I was watching was badass, and was left somewhat stumped by how little impact the brutal fight scenes carried. And the lack of wall-to-wall sexuality is disappointing given my Frazetta-based expectations, but there is at least some nudity and gyrating sex present to assist in earning the R-rating. Conan had a relatively modest budget of $70 to $90 million, and some of the sets look pretty fabulous, but anytime digital effects are an integral part of a background the film looks cheaper than similar television productions. I’m willing to forgive iffy digital creature animation, but the computer created backgrounds are often ridiculous in their flatness, and I’ve seen better digital humans in Playstation 2 games.

Conan the Barbarian

Video


Someone needs to take digital grading away from Marcus Nispel. Instead of creating otherworldly environments like those of Lord of the Rings, the computer colour correction creates a dull, cold environment for his film. Conan often appears mechanical, almost like a videogame in its mix of desaturated environments. The film, and in turn this 1080p transfer, looks much more impressive when cinematographer Thomas Kloss is capturing a more natural palette of grays and blues, though even here Nispel’s universe appears as a shadow of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. By the time the second act as rolls around the palette has devolved almost exclusively into slightly different shades of orange/brown, juxtaposed with cool blues. Stylistic issues are not the transfer’s fault, however (assuming the film looked like this in theaters), and the lame digital grading looks quite sharp and pure, with no major bleeding or blooming issues. There are some hot spots, but so little in the way of effective contrast or poppy elements that it’s hard to tell how successful the image’s extreme elements are. The more decorative design elements fare pretty well, at least when they are not lost in murky shadows, though there are some unfortunate bouts with edge haloes, specifically early in the film, for some reason. Close-up textures look the best, but wide set details are normally fine as well, minus the occasional aforementioned haloes.

This disc features a 3D transfer as well, the size of which might explain the slightly compressed look early in the 2D version. I’m incapable of viewing 3D films at this time, so am not covering this, but do wonder if perhaps the 3D helps make the thin CG backgrounds look a little more convincing.

Conan the Barbarian

Audio


This 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track starts with a really bizarre narrative spread. Morgan Freeman’s voice extends to every single channel at the same time and volume level. Assuming your speakers aren’t set exactly as they should be, this will create some unfortunate delay, and out of phase effects. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anything like this before. This problem doesn’t extend to the rest of the film for the most part, though Tyler Bates’ score is given perhaps too much rear channel separation for my taste. I also had to double check my systems settings a few times to make sure I hadn’t set the left channels louder than the right channels. Perhaps my ears were playing tricks one me, but I’m thinking this one is a little left heavy. Apart from this, I’m largely satisfied by the vast quantity of directional effects, and the success with which they move. There’s very little in the way of silence anywhere in this film – dialogue scenes feature plenty of musical and ambient swell – and despite the minor issues with balance I found the effects expertly mixed. The punches have thick impact, the sword clashes are sharp, and slashes are gushy with blood splatter. Rose McGowan’s magic tricks and the creature fights also let loose some cool directional swirl, and also often feature the best representation of Bates’ omnipresent score.

Conan the Barbarian

Extras


For the sake of time (this review disc came as I was leaving town for Thanksgiving vacation) I’m mostly going to copy Chris’ extras section from his UK release review here, specifically the dual commentaries, which take up the most time: Quote: First up we have a pair of commentary tracks, the first with director Marcus Nispel and the second with actors Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan. Nispel's track is a stop-start affair that lacks the sort of insight found in the best commentaries, but it's worth listening to at least once. The actors’ track is a bit more enjoyable thanks to the presence of two participants, which allows for a free-flowing track filled with on-set anecdotes and easy conversation.

The featurettes are brief enough that I can quickly cover them. The Conan Legacy (18:00, HD) gives some background on the character through members of the cast and crew, including writers Sean Hood, Joshua Oppenheimer an Thomas Dean Donnelly, ‘Conan: The Phenomenon’ author Paul Sammon (often seen on similar featurettes and documentaries), producers Boaz Davidson, Avi Lerner and Fredrik Malmberg, director Marcus Nispel, and actors Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols. It’s kind of sad how obviously these people love the property considering the movie they produced, but it also gives a glance at what could’ve been based on production images, and the writers’ original intent (Nispel pooped on more fantastical elements). This featurette is good enough, but I would’ve preferred a longer look at the history over information about the movie. Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan (11:20, HD) features Sammon, ‘The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard’ editor Rob Roehm, writer Sean Hood, and ex-writer/editor-in-chief at Marvel Roy Thomas running down the author’s personal history. Battle Royal: Engineering the Action (10:00, HD) focuses on fight choreography with the producers, Nispel, actors, second unit director David Leitch, and fight coordinator Noon Orsatti. Staging the Fights (5:50, HD) offers a split-screen view of pre-viz and rehearsal footage. Things come to an end with a trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.

Conan the Barbarian

Overall


I’d heard mostly bad things, and generally dislike Marcus Nispel’s work, but I genuinely wanted to like this Conan. I did everything I could to enjoy the experience, but came away disappointed, and entirely unphased by the experience. Nispel’s record of badly made movies I won’t remember a week after watching is secured. This disc has a few minor audio and video issues (I’m not sure I didn’t hallucinate these…), but overall is strong in both areas. The extras are mostly good, if not too brief.

* Note: The images on this page are taken from the UK Blu-ray release and resized for the page. They are not entirely representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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