Favorite Cult Classics (Part The First)

It might be that I’m feeling nostalgic, or it might be that since my wife and I sprung for Netflix, I’ve been finding my way back to several of my favorite old movies. Hard to say exactly. All I know for sure is, I want to talk about the cult classic movies that I like best. You know what I’m talking about! Those rare gems, those diamonds in the rough, the movies that few seem to know about, but those who do always seem to love.

Yes, THOSE movies! Sure, we’ve all seen plenty of big hits, but these movies are the ones that occupy a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because they are not so widely known, like the Star Wars’ and and Indiana Jones‘ of our time. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t get the recognition or the money they deserved, at least in their own time. Or it could be that they were simply the kind of things that got better with time.

In any case, I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 favorite cult classics, movies which I saw during my childhood, teen years and even in my twenties, and keep coming back too. Some were adventurous, some were funny, some were downright cheesy. But all have two things in common: One, none of them are known beyond a select group of appreciators, at least in this country. And two, those who like them, like them a lot! Check out the list below and see if you agree, and feel free to tell me your own favorites as well. I know we all got em!

Akira:
One of the greatest animes I have ever seen, and with a very poignant and intriguing story to boot, Akira starts this list off right! The movie adapted several volumes of manga to screen, and did so in such a way that didn’t skimp on either story or detail. Even shortened, the plot still manages to convey the sense of awe and dread of atomic war, revolution, and evolutionary cataclysm. And the fact that the bulk of it is told from the point of view of disillusioned orphans who are all part of a bier gang only heightens the sense on confusion and angst of little people being thrown into situations far greater than they can handle.

And then there was the quality of the movie itself. Having seen this movie several times now and different versions thereof, I can tell you that no matter what the format, every single frame was animated in such a way as to be saturated. And not with digital effects, mind you, but with hand-drawn animations that really manage to capture the post apocalyptic and cyberpunk feel of Katsuhiro Otomo’s original graphic novel.

All in all, I consider this movie to be compatible in many respects to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that they both deal with grandiose of questions of existence, biological evolution, and both managed to blow my mind! And having first been exposed to both of them in my teen years, they are partly responsible for kindling my love of science fiction.

Army of Darkness:
Here’s a movie I kept being told to see, but did not get around to seeing until I was in university. And truth be told, it took me two viewings to really get the appeal of it. After that, it grew on me until I finally found myself thinking it hilarious, and quoting from it whenever I could. “Come get some!” “Groovy!” “This be my BOOMSTICK!” and “Good? Bad? I’m the one with the gun!” All classic lines!

Yeah, this movie is definitely filed in the guilty pleasure section, the space reserved for movies that are deliberately cheesy, over the top, and have a robust sense of humor about themselves. It’s also one of the many that gave Sam Raimi (director of the Spiderman trilogy) his start, and established Bruce Campbell (who appeared in all three) as a gifted ham actor.

Taking the position that decapitations and flesh-eating demons can be funny, this movie tells the story of a blue-collar, rough and tumble, one-liner spouting man named Ash who’s been sent back in time to fight an army of the undead. Automatically, hijinks ensue as he tries to convince people he’s not a demon himself, but instead chooses to establish who’s boss by demonstrating the power of his chainsaw and “boomstick” (aka. his sawed-off double-barrel shotgun).

But predictably, this anti-hero rises to the challenge and becomes a real hero, and does so with as little grace as possible! And of course, there’s a love story as well, which is similarly graceless thanks to Ash’s lowbrow romantic sensibilities. Nothing is left untouched by the ham and cheese! And all throughout, the gun fights, duels, and confrontations with creepy, evil forces are hilarious, made possible by Campbell’s hammy acting, facial expressions, one-liners and some wonderfully bad cinematography. Think Xena: Warrior Princess, but with guns and foul language!

Blade Runner:
Another personal favorite, and one which I wish I had come to know sooner. But lucky for me I was still a teen when I saw this movie, hence I can say that I saw it while still in my formative years. And today, years later, I still find myself appreciating it and loving it as one can only love a cult hit. It’s just that kind of movie which you can enjoy over and over again, finding new things to notice and appreciate each time.

And once again, my appreciation for this movie is due to two undeniable aspects. On the one hand, Ridley Scott created a very rich and detailed setting, a Los Angeles of the 21st century dominated by megastructures, urban sprawl, pollution and polarized wealth. It was the picture perfect setting of cyberpunk, combining high-tech and low-life.

On the other hand, there was the story. Loosely adapted from PKD’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this version of a future differed greatly in that the artificial humans, the antagonists of the original story, were about the only sympathetic characters in the story. The result was not a cautionary tale on the dangers of creating life in our own image as much as a commentary about the line between the artificial and the real.

The question it asked was: if you overcome all boundaries, if machines possess memory, feelings and a fear of death, is there anything at all to separate them from the rest of us? Will their lives be worth any less than ours, and what will it even mean to be alive?

Conan The Barbarian:
Here’s a movie which has appeared in some friends “guilty pleasure” list, usually next to Predator, Commando and other Anrie classics. But I am here today to tell you it really doesn’t belong. Unlike many 80’s Arnie movies that were so bad, they were good, this movie had some genuine quality and depth to it.

Examples? Well, for starters, this movie was a faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s original concept, Conan the Cimmerian, which was first published in 1932. This franchise, which went through countless adaptations over the ensuing decades, wove real history and myth together with fantasy to create a tale of a bronze age adventurer who traveled across the ancient world, seeking fortune and glory.

One can see this in the movie as well. To create the setting and the various people that make up the universe, imagery, mythology and even names were borrowed from various real sources. For example, the Cimmerians (Conan’s people) were inspired by Celtic and Norse sources. The followers of Thulsa Doom, black-clad warriors from the East, were meant to resemble the Huns, the Goths, and other Eastern invaders. There are also several scenes showing a warlike people meant to resemble the Mongol Hoards, and much of the setting was made to resemble ancient cities of lore – Babylon, Jerusalem, Antioch, et al.

Add to all this some pretty damn good writing and good storytelling, and you can see why this movie has remained enduringly popular with many people over the years. Arnie excelled as the stone-faced barbarian of few words, but who made them count when he chose to spoke. James Earl Jones was exceptional as the amoral, Nietzschean warlord Thulsa Doom, and the production value was surprisingly good for a low-budget flick.

Serenity:
Yeah, I get the feeling everybody knows what I’m talking about with this one! After losing the wonderful show in the midst of its first season, every fan of Firefly was pleased to know that Joss Whedon would be making a full length movie. And personally, I th0ught he did a pretty good job with it too!

Picking up where the show left off, we are reunited with our favorite characters as they continue to work freelance jobs and try to stay one step ahead of the law and the expanding Alliance. From the outset, it is clear that things are getting desperate, as the jobs are proving more risky, and the Reavers are moving in from the Outer Rim. At the same time, a new threat has been thrown in in the form of an Alliance agent known only as the “Operative”, who has made it his business to bring River in at any cost.

And I personally loved how all these threads came together in a singular way, showing how the Reavers, River’s condition, and the Alliance’s ultimate agenda were all connected. Not only was it a tight and entertaining plot that captured the same sense of loss and desperation as the show, it also gave a sense of closure to the series, which ended before its time.

Yes, for myself and many fans, this movie is a way of commemorating a truly great show and idea that faltered because of insensitive boobs couldn’t see the value in it. But that seemed thematically consistent with the series itself, which was all about rebels in a hopeless fight against an evil empire. Take a lesson from this Fox Network, sooner or late,r the bad guys lose!

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For brevity’s sake and the fact that I’m a busy man, I’ve decided to divide this list in half. Stay tuned for entries six through ten, coming up tomorrow! Happy Thanksgiving y’all!

Conan (Cont’d)

Conan (Cont’d)

And we’re back! Last time, I got into Conan (ca. 1982), the Milnius/Stone/Laurentiis version that effectively made Arnie’s career. Now, it’s time for the remake, the one directed by Marcus Nispel and starring Jason Momoa. Having just sat through it, I can tell you that the impressions it left are fresh in my mind, as is the bad taste it left in my mouth. I suppose that’s the inevitable result of seeing something that comes with high hopes, only to find out that it really isn’t that good. But I’m getting ahead of myself again, here’s Conan, the remake!

Conan The Barbarian (2011):

For some time now, producers have been trying to do a remake/re-imaging of Conan. Perhaps its the nostalgic appeal of the original or maybe its just a retro thing: sooner or later, fans grow up and pay good money to see something that reminds them of their youth. Just look at American Graffiti. But these attempts can always be messed up when studios spend forever fighting over rights and trying to come up with a plan, and then slap together a product hastily. That’s apparently  what happened here.

After spending  seven years in development with Warner Bros, the rights to shoot this film were shifted to Nu Image/Millennium Films in 2007, with a clause wishing for immediate start on production. It then took another two years before they found a director, eventually settling on Marcus Nispel, a man who’s made his career shooting remakes for guys like Michael Bay, and the critically-panned movie Pathfinder. A big-ass writing team was then assembled to come up with a passable script, and Jason Momoa (hot off playing the role of Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones) was cast as the hero.

Not a very encouraging start, but there were signs of promise. Momoa seemed like a good fit, having already done the badass barbarian thing as Drogo. Stephen Lang also seemed like a good choice to play the villain, having performed the role of the dubious military man in Avatar. And Ron Perlman, hell, he’s always good as a dirty, hairy, hut-dwelling man! One look at Quest for Fire and you can see how he seemed like a sure thing to play Conan’s father. All that was left was the story.

Plot Synopsis:

The story opens with narration by Morgan Freeman. Okay, bit of miscasting right there, but whatever. He explains how its the Hyborian Age, and gives us the bare bones of what’s been going on in this vague, adventurous period of historical fiction. And unlike the first movie, the back story here is kind of extensive. This story, we soon learn, has to do with a magic mask that gave evil witches and wizards the power of Gods. They are known as the Acheronian necromancers, and as the name suggests, they could resurrect the dead and… do other scary things I guess. Okay, seems a little Dungeons and Dragonsesque, but the movie’s just starting…

We also learn that this mask was broken when the evil people were cast down and divided amongst the Cimmerian tribes. And now, predictably, some evil dude is going around and collecting them, hoping to put the mask back together so he can have godlike power. All he needs is one final piece, and guess who’s got it… Conan’s people, naturally! We also get to see how Conan was born, on the battlefield of all places when his pregnant mother was stabbed and his dad had to perform a battlefield C section. Thus, in keeping with his legend, we get a boy who was “borne in battle”. Again, kind of over the top, but things are just getting started.

What follows are many scenes showing Conan as a young boy. After eviscerating a war party of rival tribesmen, we see him helping his father forge a sword, being told all about the Riddle of Steel. And wouldn’t you know it, they even tell us what it is! “What’s more important, Conan, the fire or the ice? Both! It’s the two that make steel hard. That’s the Riddle of Steel.” Really? That’s the riddle, fire and ice make it hard? Gee, I thought it would be something more complicated, not a user’s guide to smithing. If knowing this is all it takes to get into Valhalla then the damn place must be overflowing!

And then, Conan’s people are attacked by some big, bad warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). Hmm, Khalar, Khal? Do I detect a slight similarity (aka. ripoff!) there? Anyhoo, he beseiges the village, Conan’s people die, and he tells Corin that he can bend the knee and give up the last remaining fragment, or he’ll burn him alive and take it anyway. He also lets him know its okay to submit to him, since he’ll soon be a living God. But of course, Corin says no, and tells him that God or no, he’ll still fall! Conan of course comes to his aid, but it captured and tied up with him. Zym takes the last fragment, completes the mask (which looks like some kind of dried octopus, all tentacly-like), puts it on and has his evil moment. “Bwoohaahahahaha” and all that.

Conan and his father are left chained to a pot of molten iron which is suspended above them. In short, all they can do is stand there, or risk dumping it on one of their heads. Conan does his best to release his father, but Corin eventually sacrifices himself and causes the pot to dump on his head. Hmm, getting another deja vu moment here. Golden Crown anyone? Conan then goes out into the killing fields that were his home, grabs a sword and does the avenging hero thing. He raises it high and yells!

At this point, we’re about half an hour into the movie and the differences are becoming glaring. For one, in the original movie, Conan was the focus of things. Sure, its about his quest for revenge, but its also a big-time bildungsroman, the telling of how he came to be a powerful warlord who would go on to become a king. There was no magic MacGuffin to incite the plot and keep things going. Second, a great deal of time, far more than was necessary, is dedicated to Conan’s childhood in this movie. Whereas in the original, we get a brief glimpse of a rough, honest and in some ways idyllic existence that was interrupted by tragedy, here we get a full-on preamble that kind of overdeveloped things.

I mean, was it really necessary to show how Conan was a badass even as a child? Wasn’t it supposed to be his hard life that made him so rough and ruthless? Here we see him cutting off the heads of multiple warriors before he’s even hit puberty! And not at the neck, which would have been more civilized; no, he hews their heads off at the jaw! With blunt instruments! Forget Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Psychopath would have been much more appropriate! Don’t get me wrong, I was pulling for him, but it still seemed over-the-top.

What’s more, in spite of that fact Conan brutalized some of his men (he cuts off one of their noses), Zym decides to basically leave Conan alive. Sure, he chained them up to a pot of molten metal, but doesn’t that seem a little super-villainy? Instead of killing the father and selling the child into slavery, I’m going to put them in a situation that at least one of them can escape and pray they never find me. Doom at least had the foresight to sell the boy into slavery, and he seemed relatively helpless by comparison. But with this little psycho, seems to me the sane thing would have been to make sure he died in that village. He chops heads in half at ten, how bad do you think he’s going to be in twenty years?

And of course, the movie then cuts to Conan as a man. He’s part of a group of Aquilonian Mercenaries led by a big burly dude named Artus (Nonso Anozie). He and Conan are close friends and are dedicated to piracy and making trouble, but in truth their ultimate goal is to free slaves and find the man that killed Conan’s people. We get a scene where they are doing just this, killing slavers and setting the captives free because, as Conan says “No man shall live in chains.” After taking the slaves to party in Messantia, Conan is chanced upon by a man named Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui), a thief who is being pursued by one of Zym’s men: Lucius, the man who lost his nose to Conan as a boy.

Conan recognizes the man and decides to let himself be captured. Once in his prison, he breaks free and begins torturing him for answers. He reveals Zym’s identity to Conan and tells him of his plans. Basically, they involve him capturing a “pure one”, aka. a descendent of the Acheron necromancers, so he can unleash the mask’s power. Taking this information, Conan makes Lucius swallow the prison’s master key and hands the slaves a knife, telling them their freedom lies in Lucius’ belly. I suppose this is meant to be a kind of comic relief, “You swore you’d let me live!” “I swore that I wouldn’t kill you!” Mainly, it just seems cruel. However, Conan is told by Ela-Shan (who is a clear remake of Subotai) that if he ever needs a favor, to come looking for him in the City of Thieves. And of course, he will…

We then cut to Zym and his daughter, the dark sorceress Marique (Rose McGowan), as they cross the land looking for the “pure one”. This journey brings them to a monastery where we see a woman named Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who is being told her future by the head priest. He tells her that she will meet a warrior, a man who will change the course of history. However, the lesson is cut short when Zym’s men attack and seize the place.  A totally overdone scene follows where Marique, after they’ve rounded up all the monasteries ladies, tastes their blood with her claws and then kills them, one after another, once she’s determined that they are not pure.

We also learn that Zym’s ultimate goal is to resurrect his wife, a witch herself who was burned alive by monks, and that he’s quite bitter about it. And of course, there’s also the obligatory scene where Zym smashes the head of the head priest on the stone steps after he tells him his wife was evil and got what she deserved.  Okay, we get it, these guys are really, really bad! Moving on… On the plus side, Tamara got away, and it just so happens that Conan sees her fleeing and recognizes the men that are chasing her. After saving her, Conan pretends that he is going to ransom her to Zym for gold, but his real goal is to lure Zym into a trap.

Conan manages to catch up with Zym as his land-ship (a sea vessel which, for some reason, he’s having pulled across land!) where Zym and his daughter are talking about their plans. Marique tells Zym, in a speech heavily laced with incest, that she could be her mother and he wouldn’t need to bring her back. But naturally, in a response laced with abusiveness, he shoves her away and tells her she will never be her mother. Okay, if the goal here was to make these two seem more evil, then mission accomplished! Otherwise, all I can say is ew! In any case, that’s when Conan delivers his message via a catapult (yep, you read that right!): he hurls Zym’s man at his ship with a note attached. “Meet me at this abandoned trading post at midday”, it says. “Come alone!”

But of course, he doesn’t. He comes to the post with Marique, and Conan confronts them and demands Zym’s head! This is the first fight scene between these two, and naturally it goes against Conan. Using her dark magic, Marique sends a whole bunch of sand people at Conan while he father and him exchange blows with their swords. Conan is forced to flee, taking Tamara with them, by jumping off the edge of the cliff into the water, where Conan’s buddies happen to be waiting. They get on board, sail off, fight off some of Zym’s men, and Tamara and Conan get better acquainted. She learns that he’s incredibly noble, in spite of his rough and tumble exterior. And Conan tells Artus that he’s found the man who murdered father, his family, his people, and of course Artus pledges to help him get his revenge. They’re buddies, remember?

So Conan is dropped up farther along the coast, where he will make his way to Zym’s fortress. However, Tamara decides to tag along for a bit and the two have rough sex in a cave nearby. Yes, the timing of this seems stupid, the dialogue is quite awful, and there’s absolutely no chemistry between them. But what’s even more odd is on the following morning, Tamara wanders out of the cave before Conan awakes (guess she wasn’t too impressed!) somehow finds herself wandering deeper in the wilderness, and is captured by Zym’s daughter. Wait, weren’t they doing it in a cave near the shore? How did she wander into the forest here? Was she totally turned around, or was the sex just that good? In any case, Marique tastes her blood (as usual) and determines she’s the one! Shortly thereafter, Conan wakes up, follows Tamara’s trail to the same wood, and finds one of Marique’s claws which she carelessly left behind. It’s on now!

He then, as previewed, travels to the City of Thieves (guard your pocket book man!), finds Ela-Shan and tells him he needs his help breaking in to Zym’s stronghold. They arrive just Zym is preparing the sacrifice, which consists of making Tamara wear some tight, revealing outfit, cuffing her wrists and ankles, strapping her to a big wheel and… I’m sorry, I got lost there for a second. Were they going for some serious visual innuendo here? Somehow, it seemed like they took a wrong turn on “damsel in distress” road and got lost in S&M junction. But predictably, Conan and El-Shan battle their way in, fight some bad dudes and a big tentacled monster, and Conan is set for his big finale with Zym.

And I can say without reservation that the final fight was totally anti-climactic! For one, they seem to be fighting in front of a poorly animated green screen for all it. It looks like a scene from Mordor, but only if the people from Xena had designed it! And invariably, Tamara must be saved repeatedly (which is annoying), the fight scenes get both ludicrous (they fight on the wheel as its suspended on two rocks over a chasm!) and there’s really no tension to speak of. But alas, Tamara needs to be saved again, as she falls through a plank on a walkway and Zym’s spell is taking effect. Slowly, she’s being invaded by the evil spirit of Zym’s wife. She tells Conan to drop her, but he can’t! Not even with Zym standing before him ready to deliver a death blow.

He and Zym then delivers their final words to each other, which is really just a rehashing of the words he and Conan’s father shared years before. Zym tells Conan that there’s no shame in kneeling to him since he’s a living god. Conan replies, “You forgot what my father told you. God or not, you will FALL! He then knocks the planks out from under Zym’s feet, he falls to his death, and Tamara is saved from being taken over by the spirit of his dead wife. They make it out, he drops her off at a new monastery, then carries on the remains of his old village site. There, he finds the remains of his father’s forge, raises his old sword, and yells!

Strengths/Weaknesses/Impressions:

Okay, I’m going to start with what I didn’t like about this movie, because its a far more important list. Strengths, I got few to mention, and as for impressions, practically none! So here goes… First of all, having Morgan Freeman do the narration was a serious case of miscasting. Yeah, I love Morgan as much as the next person, and he is like THE guy when it comes to voice-over work, but not for this movie. This is a fantasy and historical fiction epic, it requires someone who sounds bad-ass and foreboding. Someone like Mako, Keith David (Spawn), or Tony Todd (The Crow), not the man who narrated Shawshank Redemption, played God in Bruce Almighty, was Driving Miss Daisy, and played Neslon Mandella. It’s just not a good fit!

Second, as mentioned, Conan’s backstory. The original did the best job of this, in my opinion. When it comes right down to it, Conan is characterized by a few simple things: his strength, his cunning, and his feral wits. He’s tough in a way that speaks to hard living and smart in a way that speaks to a life of survival and living on the edge. By taking that away, the remake made his less believable, presenting him as a guy who was just badass from the day he was born. This might have seemed cool to some, but in my opinion it made him way less believable.

Also, in this remake, the character of Conan seemed poorly executed and somewhat confused. With his many overdone antics, we’re made to believe he’s a real bad dude. But then they kind of go out of their way to make him appear good, loyal and loving. And when I say out of their way, I mean they just come out and say it. “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” “No man shall live in chains”. “He has the loyalty of a dog”, etc, etc. In the original, Arnie needed barely any words at all to convey this, he just played the part. People could tell from his mere presence he was bad, and by his friendship with Subotai and his romance with Valeria that he was loyal and loving, and by his determination to find Doom and avenge his parents on his own that he was brave. Nobody needed to say anything out loud.

The same is true for the villain, Khalar Zym. I was surprised, to be sure. Ordinarily, Stephen Lang is an effective actor who lends a certain dignity and strength to his characters. This was true even in Avatar, where in spite of a weak plot a cliched characters, he still managed to give strong performance. But here, he is both overdone as the bad guy and really not scary at all! Mainly, he just seems like a creepy old dude who’s looking to get smashed! I’m not sure where all those muscles he built up for Avatar went, but in this movie, he looked pretty damn scrawny and emaciated. Might have been the costume, but gone was the picture of the brusque and burly old dude who can still kick your ass! And that tuft of grey hair on his chin? Didn’t help! Neither did his cheesy lines: “Behold… and despair… your new master!”

In addition, the supporting cast is pretty weak. Ron Perlman did a good job of portraying Conan’s father, but the role really didn’t seem like a challenge for him. Mainly, he just looked the part and phoned the rest in. Then there was Rachel Nichols, who people might recognize from GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra or as the new blonde lady on Criminal Minds. To call her acting wooden would be too kind! Seriously, I haven’t seen blank stares and cardboard acting like this since… well, GI Joe! The romance between her and Conan was also totally unbelievable. At one point I asked myself, isn’t this woman supposed to be a nun or something? Why then is she shagging the barbarian? And the way he just drops her off at a monastery at the end. Has she not broken her vows at this point? Wouldn’t there be some kind of moral conflict in them having an affair?

Rose McGowan (from Charmed and clealrly one of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s favorite people to work with)  filled the role of the evil daughter quite well, but the character itself was quite weak. Mainly, she’s just creepy and dark for the sake of being creepy and dark, and the incest thing was clearly just thrown in for added vileness. And Ela-Shan, a clear homage to Sobutai’s character, felt like he was just penciled in out of duty. He shows up near the beginning to advance the plot, disappears, reappears as needed, then disappears again. In short, he’s the friend you call when you need a ride but have no intention of hanging out with. That’s mean!

Jason Momoa, who I admire the hell out of for his performance of Khal Drogo in the HBO Game of Thrones miniseries, also had some issues adapting the role of Conan. Sure, he looks the part. A tall, dark, ripped dude with long dark hair? Hell, he IS the part! But he’s a long way from Khal Drogo in this one. Much of the time, he can’t seem to decide if he’s going to go with the deep, raspy voice (a la Christian Bale in Batman), or just use his natural, deep voice. The latter was far better, but he kept doing the raspy thing, sometimes switching in mid-sentence. And when he does the evil stare and threatening words, he just sounded kind of silly! Momoa said he wanted to steer away from Arnie’s version of Conan, which was totally respectable. But at the same time, I think he should have taken a lesson from Arnie’s performance: less is more, especially when you’ve got the kind the commanding presence these two share.

Okay, what was actually good about this movie was the set design. Here was something that also reminded me of Game of Thrones, and it was the picturesque castles and landscapes the movie’s animators came up with. Most of the time, they are pretty cool, and don’t look particularly phoney or out of place. This cannot be said for the final scene where Conan and Zym fight it out in the “Cracks of Doom”, but otherwise the setting looked pretty good. And they did manage to make a lot of the settings look and feel like something out of the original story, giving things a dirty look and feel that calls to mind Biblical allusions, or scenes out of Orientalist art. This was something the original movie did quite well in spite of a limited budget, and this movie did it quite well too.

Reception/Recommendation:

Other than that, sorry to say, but this movie did not live up to the original or the graphic novel which inspired it all. It was a good attempt, but clearly a combination of things were working against it. For one, you can’t take something like an original cult-classic and just redo it! Something like that takes dedication, vision, time, and energy. Throwing writers, a director, some actors (albeit good ones) together and saying “get on it” just isn’t enough. And in the end, the results spoke for themselves. In addition to being almost universally panned by critics, this movie made only 20 million dollars, and that was with a budget over 70! Given time and with DVD sales, I’m sure the studio will recoup its dough, but for the moment, this re-release has done little aside from riding off the coat tails of Game of Thrones.

Speaking of which, it was recently announced that Nonso Anozie will be in season 2 of GOT, playing the role of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. It’s also been said that Momoa’s been talking to the writers about bringing the character of Khal Drogo back. The ties between these two projects continues to astound me! In any case, if you’re looking for some cheesy entertainment, pick this one up and help the studio make its money back! If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the original though, something with sword, epic fantasy and a touch of realism, I strongly recommend you rewatch the original, maybe even with the commentary. Or you could just check out Game of Thrones! Whatever floats your boat…

Conan The Barbarian (2011):

Entertainment Value: 7/10

Plot: 4/10

Direction: 6/10

Overall: 5.5/10

Conan, Then and Now

Conan, Then and Now

When I first started doing sci-fi movie reviews, I knew I wanted to tackle Conan sooner or later. It was one of the Fantasy entries I was making room for, and I thought a comparative analysis, old versus new, would be a cool idea. Well, I finally got around to seeing the new one recently, and am all set to pit the original against the remake. I’m not sure if there’s a word for fans of an original beating a remake, but I think the word Fanbashing (which I might have just made up) will suffice! And by that I mean the beating of something BY fans, not the beating OF fans.

Okay, first up, the original version!

Conan The Barbarian(1982):
This movie is a cult favorite for many reasons. On the one hand, it was a pretty good fantasy epic that adapted the long-running comic book series by Robert E. Howard to the big screen. On the other, it was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role. Prior to this, he had spots in B-movies, tv shows, and the cult hit Pumping Iron. After this movie, he would go on to do The Terminator, Predator, Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins… in short, every A-movie that he’s known for. But to me, the strength of this movie lies in its direction and storytelling. I tell ya, there are traces of quality and genius that are not commonly acknowledged.

For starters, the casting was superb. Arnie excelled as the brooding, badass known as Conan, James Earl Jones as the hypnotic, charismatic villain Thulsa Doom, Max Von Sydow as the Northman King Osric, and Mako as the narrator/wizard. Hell, even Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez were good as Conan’s love interest and sidekick, Valerie and Subotai. In addition, the story itself was quite creative, weaving epic fantasy and adventure in with real-world history and Nietzschean philosophy.

Despite its small budget and less than pristine production values, you got a real sense that there was a lot of talent and attention to detail went into making this movie. For one, it was directed by John Milius, who’s credits include being the co-writer or director of such movies as Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, Red Dawn, Flight of the Intruder, and the HBO series Rome. Oliver Stone (Born of the 4th of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Alexander) was also attached as co-writer next to Milnius, and famed producer Raffaella De Laurentiis (DuneDragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart, and The Forbidden Kingdom) helped produce it. In short, a lot of talent went into the creation of this film, and I personally felt it showed!

For many, this movie is a guilty pleasure, being one of those B-movies that’s fun in spite of being cheesy. But for me, this movie is also a sleeper hit and a true cult classic, being smart in a way that few people recognize.

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Mako, the famous Japanese-American actor, begins narrating and identifies himself as Conan’s chronicler. He sets the scene by telling us that its the “Hyborian Age”, which takes place “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryus…”, meaning somewhere between the mythical pre-historic age and the invasion of the Aryan conquerors into the Mediterranean (ca. 40,000-10,000 BCE).

We are then shown an extended scene where a sword is being forged (an apt metaphor) and Conan’s father explaining to him the Riddle of Steel. This “riddle”, which we are never told, runs like a vein through the movie, something which the viewer is no doubt meant to figure out for themselves. After being told of this riddle and of the war-god Crom, both of which are very important to the Cimmerian people (of which Conan is part) we then see his village being set upon by marauders. After killing everyone in the camp, Conan’s mother attempts to shield him when the leader of these attackers shows himself.

We then get to see the villain make his first appearance. Clad all in black, his green eyes beaming, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) manages to hypnotize Conan’s mother and take her sword from her. He then decapitates her in front of the young Conan and sells the poor into slavery. Conan is thus left with only the vague impression of who these men were, which is taken from their black standard of two snakes standing before a black sun. What is most effective about these scenes is how little dialogue takes place. Everything is conveyed through the visuals, the sense of horror and confusion coming through with glances and music instead of lines and declarations.

The next few scenes catalog Conan’s formative years as a slave: pushing a massive wheel in an open field until he is the only slave left (and six feet of pure muscle!), being thrown into the slave pits to fight for the entertainment of others, and then becoming a warrior schooled in the arts of swordplay, hand to hand combat and letters. In keeping with the movie’s Nietzschean theme, we see Conan growing stronger from all this, his hard labor, life of violence and education forging him like his father’s sword.

But the big inciting event happens when one of the slavers, someone he has known since he was a boy, sets him free. Not knowing where to go, Conan runs into the wilderness and chances upon a burial tomb belonging to an old Cimmerian King. In there, he retrieves a sword which he keeps for himself, and sums up the fortuitous experience with one word. “Crom!” That says it all! In this one encounter, Conan is reminded of his people, what his father taught him, and chooses to retrace his origins and find those people that killed his people.

This journey leads him to another chance encounter with an old witch who tells him of a prophecy. In short, the prophecy speaks of a man who would come, who would be king by his own hand, and who would drive the snakes from the land – you know, basic prophecy stuff. But its this last part that intrigues Conan. Remembering the enemy’s standard, he asks the woman what she knows of these snakes. But as always, there’s a price! In exchange for sleeping with her, she tells Conan that he must go to Shadizar in the land of Zamorra – crossroads of the world (a clear reference to Gomorrah and possibly Babylon) where he will find his answers. Having consumated, she then does the black widow thing, turns into a demon and tries to kill him. Conan narrowly manages to toss her into the fire, and which point she becomes a specter and retreats. “Crom…” he says. Yeah, that’s getting to be a real catch-all at this point.

Onto the next scene, where Conan wakes the next day to set out. But before taking to the wilderness again, he finds an archer named Subotai (modelled on Ghengis Khan general and clearly meant to look like a Mongol archer). He claims to be a thief and offers to help Conan, and the two become fast companions and travel buddies. Over a dinner of wild game, Conan tells Subotai of Crom and the Riddle of Steel. Like all Cimmerians, we learn that Conan must tell Crom what the riddle is when he travels to Valhalla, otherwise he will be tossed out. Again, we are given hints but never told of the significance of this. Much like Conan, it seems this riddle is something we are meant to determine for ourselves. This is definitely one of those points of unappreciated quality I mentioned earlier. The genius is there man, it’s there!

When they arrive, they find a city that lives up to its inspirations – big, walled, decadent, and smelly. Replete with whores, drugs, and tons and tons of vendors. And of course, the snakes, which come in the form of snake cult that worship Set – a snake demon-god that was inspired by actual mythology. They decide to break into the temple, and in the process meet Valeria, a beautiful thief who is also determined to steal from the cult’s richess. The scenes that follow are like something out of Caligula or the Old Testament, people in long robes sacrificing a virgin to a giant snake who lives at the heart of the temple. And of course, plenty of rubies, precious stones, and a giant gem (the Eye of the Serpent) that the snake itself protects.

In any case, Conan, Subotai and Valeria manage to kill the giant snake, thwart the sacrifice and steal the prized jewel, narrowly escaping by jumping off the temple’s high tower. Celebrating their new found riches, Conan and Valeria experience a budding romance, and Conan gives her the prized jewel in the form of a necklace. However, the good times are cut short as Shadizar’s ruler – King Osiric, a northman like Conan – has them arrested and brought before him. They suspect their heads are going to roll, until Osiric tells him their audicity in robbing the temple has earned them his respect. Seems the cult of Set had taken his daughter away from him, and he’s prepared to give them enough jewels to buy a small kingdom if they would kind enough to fetch her back.

Subotai and Valeria would rather cash out now, the latter even telling Conan that she would like to settle down with him now. However, Conan still wants his revenge for what Doom did to his people, and sets off alone. In the course of journeying forth, he comes upon a strange hermit who lives next to an ancient burial ground where the bones of dead warrior have been arranged in battle formation next to standing stones. Seems the hermit is none other than Mako, the wizard who is Conan’s chronicler. After getting acquainted and  learning of the location of Set’s followers, Conan is off again, leaving the wizard with the distinct impression that they will meet again, and that he will play an important role in Conan’s sage.

What follows are some rather hilarious scenes as Conan finds his way to the cult and tries to infiltrate them. First, he finds them wandering in the wilderness like a bunch of revellers. One of the priests takes an obvious, and borderline homosexual, interest in him. After asking him to speak in private, Conan then beats the snot out of him and steals his robe. He then travels back to the Temple of Set, dressed in the ridiculous robe, and attempts to pass for a priest. “What do you see in there?” some woman asks as he stares into a pool of water. “Uh… Infinity?” says Conan, which the woman seems to approve of. Then, Doom reveals himself along with his chief followers. Conan recognizes them all from when they murdered his people, and slowly approaches them up the Temple steps. However, during a big speech in which Doom, like a true cult leader, predicts the End Of Days, Conan is attacked, beaten and brought before him. It seems they smelt the intruder…

After getting a lecture on how bad he was for ransacking Doom’s temple in Shadizar, Conan then tells Doom exactly who he is – the boy who survived the massacre of his people, and how has come for revenge. Doom’s response is nothing short of perfect. He admits that he does not remember, that he must have done it in his younger days when he too sought to understand the riddle of steel. However, he explains, he’s found a new power that puts steel to shame: the power of flesh! He demonstrated this by asking an accolade to come to him from the cliffs above, and the accolade jumps to their death! “That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste…” He then orders Conan to be crucified, so he can contemplate Doom’s role in making him what he is, and how he squandered it for reasons of revenge.

Conan then dies pinned to a tree, but not before Subotai and Valeria find him and bring him back to the wizard – aka. Mako! He then performs some ritual whereby his spirit is pulled back from the netherworld, and Conan is resurrected. However, they are warned that their will be a price, life for life, etc. But Valeria says she’s willing to risk it because she loves him, which foreshadows what’s to come. The three then set off to invade Doom’s temple and save the princess, but Conan once again has his own plans. In the course of breaking in, they come upon Doom’s men and a big ol’ brawl ensues! Doom is absent from the fight since he morphed into a giant snake and slithered from the room (bit hokey, but okay!). The three then escape with the princess, but Doom makes an appearance on the cliffs above and fires a poisonous arrow/snake into Valeria’s back. She dies, and Conan and Subotai take her body back to the wizard to give it a warriors burial – a big pyre on top of a mound!

Conan, Subotai and the wizard then prepare for an assault, as it is clear that Doom’s men will track them back to the wizard’s home. Turning the standing stones, the warriors remains and every inch of the place into a fortified encampement, Conan then prays to Crom for the first time in years. He asks Crom to grant him revenge, to look upon their valor as they stand against many. He finishes with a line that is both badass and appropriately Conan: “And if you do not listen… then TO HELL WITH YOU!” It takes a special kind of person to tell a god to go to hell, doesn’t it? In any case, battle ensues and its the best part of the movie!

One by one, the bad guys fall as they are either unhorsed by Conan’s sword, shot by Subotai’s arrows, stabbed by the Wizard’s spear, or killed by the booby traps they’ve set up. It all comes down to Conan and Doom’s chief thug, who is wielding Conan’s own father’s sword! Conan is very nearly killed, but is saved at the last second by what appears to be Valeria’s spirit. In keeping with Norse mythology, she appears as a Valkyrie, a warrior spirit since she clearly made it to Valhalla after all! Conan then chops the thug up, breaking his father’s own sword in the process and taking what is left of it back. He then sees Doom ride back to his temple, and decides to use what’s left of his father’s sword for one last duty.

Confronting Doom on the steps of his own temple, Doom tries to pull his hypnotic routine on him. He tells Conan that he is essentially his son, that he made him what he is, and asks him what will he be when Doom is dead. Conan appears to be genuinely falling for it, but then swings his father’s sword around and cuts Doom at the neck! Doom then falls to his knees, where Conan proceeds to hack his head off and toss it down the steps to his followers. He then sets the temple ablaze and marches down the steps and off into the night, Doom’s followers looking on in awe. Conan and Subotai then rides off with the princess, returning to the west to bring her back to her father.

The movie then ends with a picture of an older, bearded Conan sitting on a throne, the epilogue saying that he would go on to become a king himself, as was profesied. But of course, that is another tale 😉

Strengths/Weakness/Impressions:

As I said already, this movie is a personal favorite. One of the best selling points for me was the low-budget, high-quality nature of it. Yes, the production values weren’t the best, and some of the acting was a little B-grade too, but the writing, direction and plot contained unmistakable signs of quality and even touches of genius. Rather than going for a pulp fantasy movie, a la Xena and Hercules, John Milius, Oliver Stone, and Raffaella De Laurentiis seemed committed to creating a story that was grounded in history and realism as well as epic adventure. In this respect, the movie was keeping with Howard’s original vision of the franchise. Howard, like Milnius and Stone, had a passion for history and enjoyed working with settings that were real enough to be credible, but still vague enough to allow him to be inventive while at the same time unconstrained by the pressures of historical accuracy.

But of course, this critique would not be clear without some examples: One, Conan’s people are clearly inspired by Norsemen. They live in wintery forests, wield heavy iron swords and worship the “God in the Mountain” Crom, who is apparently warden of Valhalla and keeper of the Riddle of Steel. Doom’s men, the black riders, were clearly inspired by the Huns – dark riders and conquerors who inspired terror and rode over their enemies. James Earl Jones costumes and appearances were also designed to look as Asiatic as possible, his long hair, green eyes and robes adding to the sense of mystique that surrounded him. It was also a testament to his character that he didn’t speak until well into the movie when he is reintroduced.

Ah yes, and the men that Conan takes up with after becoming a warrior slave were also a clear reference to the Mongols. Their costumes, talk and values are all indicative. Consider the following scene where Conan is in the “Mongol” camp:

Mongol General: “What is best in life?”

Mongol: “The open Steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.”

General: “Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?”

Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”

Yep, Mongols clearly! The city of Shadizar in Zamorra was also a brilliant piece of set design, calling to mind all kinds of Orientalist, Arab world and Sodom and Gomorrah type motifs.

But perhaps the biggest strength of the film was the thematic consistency of it. The quote by Nietzsche at the beginning not only previewed the plot, it was present throughout the movie as a constant theme. When Conan confronts Doom near the end, he is confounded by the twist Doom puts on his terrible deeds. Would Conan have really grown up to be the warrior-badass he is were it not for the actions of Doom and his henchmen? Hell, Doom even sounds perfectly sincere when he claims that he MADE Conan what he was, and that Conan would be lost the moment Doom was no more. Rather than being some evil megalomaniac, he seemed to capture the essence of Nietzsche’s amoral philosophy quite perfectly.

And lets not forget the Riddle of Steel, which fits in with this philosophy like one of them round pegs! Though we never are told point blank what it is, enough hints are given as to what it might be all about. For one, steel is strong and formidable, unlike flesh which seems weak by comparison. However, steel is useless without flesh, a mere object that is dependent on the hand that wields it.  On the other hand, it could be said that steel is much like people in that it is forged. When it is first extracted from the Earth, raw ore is much like a raw person; but tempered and shaped through constant exposure to extremes and violence, it becomes a deadly instrument, capable of great and terrible things. I tell ya, the metaphor is thick here!

In the end, the worst that can be said about this movie was that it was a tad cheesy, a tad hokey, and that at times a little wooden in terms of its acting. That and the low budget nature of it all, which was quite apparent throughout. But for anyone who doesn’t mind looking a little deeper, this movie had plenty of respectable stuff just waiting to be noticed. And really, it made Arnie’s carreer and probably didn’t hurt Stone’s, Laurentiis’s or Milnius’ either. Granted, the studio then made the horrible mistake of producing Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, two horribly dumbed down sequels that did very poorly, but time has been kind to the original. It has made many a list as one of the top sci-fi fantasy cult classics of all time, and even inspired a re-imagining this past year.

But that, as they say with this franchise, is another tale… 😉

Conan the Barbarian (1982):

Entertainment Value: 8/10

Plot: 8/10

Direction: 9/10

Total: 8.5/10