Monday, May 30, 2016

Conan The Barbarian


   I'm not someone who fell in love with this movie the first time they saw it. I'm only 22, so I didn't see this in 1982. I didn't see it when I was young. This wasn't my introduction to sword & sorcery. I grew up with Willow, Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, Masters of the Universe and eventually the live action Lord of the Rings movies. I also grew up with just about every other one of Schwarzenegger's movies. Terminator 1 & 2, Predator, Total Recall, Commando- you name it. So when I first saw Conan The Barbarian, I expected to love it. It was going to be a balls-to-the-wall, hack n' slash flick, with untold gallons of blood spilled, and non-stop action! Only... it wasn't...

   I was bored. I was 14 years old, and found myself bored... while watching a Schwarzenegger flick. What was this blasphemy? Surely this can't be! Yet... there it was. Conan was a slog. It was not the bloody action flick I so badly wanted it to be. But, nevertheless, the movie had gotten stuck in my head- and stayed there for years. I had always wanted to give it another shot with adjusted expectations, and I finally have. While it's still not my ideal barbarian flick, it's a fine fantasy epic to be sure. It's a movie with a massive scope, and rich atmosphere. All of the fantastic production value and stunning visuals were lost on my teenage self.

   I think the stunning thing about Conan is how non-blockbuster it is. It's not a very commercial movie. It's violent and bloody, and has lots of nudity and sex, but it's not a fast paced movie. The fate of the world isn't hanging in the balance in any immediate way. So for it's massive scope and sprawling story, it's a slow and meandering one all the same. It's about Conan as a character, his journey, and his life. It's not about some magical gem, or about some apocalyptic seal that the villain is going to break. There's no magical sword of destiny, and no macguffin of any other kind. It's at times about love, and at times about revenge.

   Conan's evolution from a slave to a warrior is also at the heart of the movie. He spends so long as a slave that when he's freed, it's a weird and uncomfortable thing to him. Freedom? He doesn't know what to do with it. The movie follows his first steps into this massive world, with no forward moving plot to push him along. It's not that kind of movie. Conan is less of a brainless brute, and more like a child discovering all the things in life at once. He's chased by dogs, trapped in an old tomb, tricked by a witch, and all of this takes up a decent chunk of screentime. The only real plot we have so far is that someone killed his parents when he was young, and that he wants revenge at some point.

   In a lot of ways, it's video games that probably helped me warm up to this kind of story. In playing a game like Skyrim, there's lots of walking and scavenging. Side quests are the meat of that game, as they are the meat of the story in Conan The Barbarian. It's a movie in love with it's own visuals, the beautiful landscape shots, and the meticulously designed sets- which get pretty massive. It's only fitting that the pace of the movie reflects that. Conan isn't in a rush, he's trying to figure out how he fits into this world. As a slave? A killer? An orphan? A thief?  Movies, especially genre flicks, always take that kind of concept and nestle it away between set pieces and behind a host of special effects.

   Conan does the opposite. It's title character's quest is not one to save the world, but of self discovery. Violence is a part of who he is more than it is a necessary element of the movie. Sure, when the action scenes get going, it's still a thrill and a delight to watch Arnold hack away at Thulsa Doom's heavies with a big ol' broadsword. Much blood is spilt. But, these scenes are not the moments that the movie revolves around. Reflecting on the movie now, the images that stick in my head are of an injured Conan, crucified to a tree against a barren landscape. The scene where his friends and an old wizard try to heal him, and a host of demons try to take his soul. The massive and ornate sets of Thulsa Doom's towers and temples. It's the visuals that tell the story here, not the action scenes.

   When all is said and done, Conan is more like Stalker than it is like Lord of the Rings. It's an old soul of an adventure movie, and it's an epic in the slow, sprawling, wide-scope sense of the word. It's full of vibrant scenery, colorful visuals, and lively characters. James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom is chilling, especially when compared to real cult leaders of the era like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie this time around. I can see why it's become a genre classic, and deservedly so. The odd contrast to this everything about this movie is how simple it is. I suppose that reflects Conan himself. What is best in life? Punching a camel, hooking up with Sandahl Bergman, and decapitating the man who killed my mother. What else could one ask for?

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