Monday, August 22, 2011

Sword in Hand, Brain in Neutral

There's no getting around it. We're living in the dark ages of theatrical exhibition. The last two big films I saw in the multiplexes were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II and Captain America. In both cases, the films were projected on the same equipment used for their 3-D showings and in both cases, the film was too dark to enjoy. It was like watching them through a welding glass. In a perfect world, there would be a blog post for each of these films, but I don't think I can give either of them a fair shake based on how I saw them. "But why didn't you just go see them in 3-D?" I can hear someone asking. Because 3-D gives me a headache and I don't like paying the upcharge. So congratulations, Hollywood, you've finally found a way to drive me from the theater. In another era, you would have had my money twice over this past weekend, because I certainly would have gone to see the new Fright Night and the new Conan the Barbarian. Because I couldn't find a reliable 2-D showing of either film, I stayed home. I soothed the hurt by watching the original Conan the Barbarian's idiot sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984, directed by Richard Fleischer), a film I originally saw at a drive-in in South Dakota on a triple bill with Red Sonja and Iceman and never saw again. It turns out, that that wasn't an optimal way to see this film, either, and, indeed, it turns out that I didn't give it a fair shake all those years ago.

Conan the Destroyer is a weird movie. It's closer in its plot and imagery to Robert E. Howard's original stories, but it misses Howard's weird, neurotic existentialism. Say what you like about John Milius's first film, that's an element that it absolutely nails. In its place, you get a more straightforward quest narrative, complete with colorful traveling companions and a comic-book approach to the material. This should be no surprise given that comic book writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway provide the story. Thomas and Conway glom onto Howard's tangential participation in H. P. Lovecraft's circle of writers and provide the film with an elder god at the end for Conan to send back to the void, which is a lot less interesting than the first film's villain, but what can you do? In their defense, both Thomas and Conway hated the screenplay that was actually shot and they later took their material and made a graphic novel out of it.

The story here finds Conan recruited by the sinister Queen Taramis of Shadizar (Sarah Douglas) to accompany her niece, Jenna, on a quest to retrieve the horn of Dagoth, the Dreaming God. Taramis proposes to bring the god to life and harness his power for her own. That this involves sacrificing her niece is just collateral damage. She sends her captain of the guards, the ginormous Bambaata (Wilt Chamberlain) to safeguard Jenna and kill Conan at the appropriate time, should he interfere. Conan, understandably, doesn't like being double crossed. Mayhem ensues...

Two things I hadn't remembered about Conan the Destroyer: the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff shot this film and it retains composer Basil Poledouris on the soundtrack. These two facts should not be discounted, because on the whole, the movie LOOKS and SOUNDS fantastic. Cardiff and Fleischer have a history, and this is a project along the lines of The Vikings, where they aren't taking things very seriously. And yet, in spite of the incredible beauty that Cardiff tries to impart to the film, portions of it STILL manage to look cheap. The castle of Thoth Amon, for instance, looks a lot like similar settings in De Laurentiis's Barbarella, complete with obscuring mists. Carlo Rambaldi's creatures are behind the curve, too. I mean, the state of the art in 1984 included things like Rob Bottin's creatures for The Thing and Legend and Stan Winston's robot assassin in The Terminator. The Terminator was made for a fraction the budget of Conan the Destroyer and still manages to look more refined. At least, the special effects do. Rambaldi's creatures for Conan are very much poorly articulated rubber suits. They're disappointing.

Perhaps the most vexing thing working to undermine the legitimately good qualities of the movie is the acting. I mean, you're dealing with a film in which key roles--including the lead--are cast based on what the actors look like rather than how well they can perform. In some ways, this works. I can't think of another actor with the physique to play Conan of Cimmeria. The only other candidates for the role would be other bodybuilders and you're not going to find one with the same charm and acting chops of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lou Ferigno's turn as Hercules should dissuade any arguments along these lines. As imposing as Arnold can be, he meets his match in Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain isn't much of an actor, but my god, he's a physical presence the likes of which I've never seen before. He swallows up whole scenes with his sheer size. Arnold looks like a child next to him. Grace Jones as one of the other sidekicks deserves mention, too, given that she's an interestingly queer presence in the film. Jones played up androgyny as part of her public image, kind of like Annie Lennox did during the same period, but she brings a ferocity to her role that makes it leap off the screen. Mind you, she's not much of an actress, either, but this isn't a film about acting. Of the actors qua actors, Sarah Douglas is milking her dominatrix-y image from the Superman movies here, which turns out to be all of a piece with the material. The only really out of place actor in the whole enterprise is Tracey Walter's comic relief, who is more annoying than funny.

Conan the Destroyer is very much of its time. In a lot of ways, it's an upscale sword and sorcery rip-off along the lines of The Sword and the Sorcerer and Deathstalker. Seen in that light, it's a terrific example of its genre. It's certainly a lot more watchable than the various sword and sorcery movies the Italians were cranking out during the same period. But as a mainstream blockbuster fantasy, it leaves a lot to be desired, especially given that it appeared during a kind of golden age for blockbuster fantasies that deployed then emerging special effects in much more creative ways. It's certainly a better film than I remembered, but that's really faint praise. It's not great. It may not even be good. But it has its pleasures.

My Fantastic Fest fundraiser, is poking along. At this point, I've almost covered my airfare, but there's a ways to go to cover the festival pass. Here's the button, again, if you've got a mind:

I still have awesome readers, however this turns out.


Lauren Hairston said...

I've never seen Conan the Destroyer, but I do have to admit to rather liking the original Conan the Barbarian. I haven't seen the new one, either, because I'm not going to pay double to see a 3D movie when I don't even know if I'm going to like it! Thus, I still haven't seen a 3D movie. I'd like to think that if Hollywood were putting out really high-quality movies, they wouldn't have to be in 3D anyway, but maybe I'm just a crank.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Lauren. I don't think you're a crank. Or if you're a crank, then join the club.

ClassicBecky said...

Really good article - haven't seen the movie because I didn't think I'd like it, but I might just give it a try when, as your fabulous title says, I need something fun when my brain is in neutral. (Happens more often than I like to admit!)

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: I hope 3D passes quickly into the dustbin of history, as did the first pass of this hideous technology in the 1950s. Yet, like some flesh-eating ghoul, it has risen again. I think the problem with 3D is that it is one more layer of gimmick in an already gimmicky (read CGI) film-making environment. It offers another shiny object for folks to oooh over.

A good film can only be diminished by this gimmick, which turns everything it touches into a "spectacle" at best. I am reminded of actors in those 1950s films suddenly needing to throw things at the camera just to show off the effect. Bleeech.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal. I'm pretty much done with 3-D. I hope it goes away soon. Fortunately, the marketplace is beginning to turn on it, so it may not be a vain hope. I may stick to arthouse releases for the near future, given that my local art house has never shown a movie in 3-D.

Hi, Becky! Conan the Destroyer is interesting if you love cinematographers, because Jack Cardiff is a mighty god among the. Plus, you get Arnold answering the question, "I suppose nothing hurts you?" with, "Only pain." It's in the pantheon of great Arnold quotes.

J Luis Rivera said...

3D ruined my watching of "Red Riding Hood". Not that it was a good film to begin with, but my girlfriend saw it twice, and she noted that the cinematography was outstanding when seen on a normal projector.

Anyways, what I wanted to say is that you nailed what was Grace Jones about: ferocity. I have never been a fan of her singing nor her acting, but she can do wonders with just being there, displaying her animal ferocity. It's not something related to acting chops, I guess it's more of a "some have it, some don't" thing. Few actors can do that. Bruce Lee is one of them. Christopher Lee would be another.