The original 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian is almost perfect. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave bulging, rippling life to Robert E. Howard’s muscle-bound pulp hero, and director John Milius built a credible representation of Howard’s prehistoric fictional realm of exotic kingdoms, forbidding ancient temples, and remote, barren landscapes. Plus, it had Basil Poledouris’ unforgettable, pounding score, gratuitous violence and nudity, the inimitable Japanese actor Mako, and Conan’s classic response to the question, “What is best in life?”:
“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”
For American men of a certain age group and demographic (i.e., mine), Conan the Barbarian ranks alongside Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Chris Claremont’s early ’80s run on Uncanny X-Men as one of the defining pop culture icons of late childhood and early adolescence. That its impact (and Schwarzenegger) survived the sloppy, potentially ruinous 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer, indicates just how deeply the movie affected a generation of 10- to 14-year-old boys.
So the news that Lionsgate would reboot the franchise prompted both anticipation and anxiety. Could digital technology create an even more awesome version of Howard’s Hyborian Age? Would the new version stay faithful to Howard’s chronology and mythology? And who could possibly compare to Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough performance?
The answers to those questions, from Marcus Nispel’s new Conan the Barbarian, are sort of; kind of; and Jason Momoa, that’s who.
Momoa, at 6-foot-4-inches even bigger than Schwarzenegger, is the best reason to see the new movie. Fresh off his performance as Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Momoa offers a more playful and worldly take on the character than his predecessor did, substituting a knowing wit and mischievous sparkle for the Schwarzenegger Conan’s foggy barbarian bemusement. In short, it is a better performance and a fuller interpretation of Conan than what Schwarzenegger delivered 29 years ago. More importantly, Momoa simply looks more like the character as he was described by Howard, and as he has been depicted in comic books and on paperback covers for decades.
It’s just too bad that Momoa’s Conan didn’t get a better movie to showcase his performance. Conan the Barbarian is an adequate adaptation and even has flashes of excellence, particularly Stephen Lang as the warlord-wizard Khalar Zym and the CGI octopus monster near the end. But, in addition to a clunky, almost embarrassing opening 15 minutes, the new movie suffers from the same crippling claustrophobia that plagues most modern action movies. The fight scenes are cramped (and gory), the pace relentless, and there’s little sense or scope of the world the characters inhabit beyond a few wide shots of fantastic, digitally rendered cityscapes.
The 1982 Conan was based on a composite of Howard stories and original updates, including the destruction of Conan’s childhood village by a marauding sorcerer. The new movie keeps that origin story—and Conan’s subsequent quest for vengeance—and adds a twisting, convoluted plot about Khalar Zym’s search for an enchanted mask that will resurrect his dead wife and give him the power to rule the world. (Along the way, screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood include passing references to some of Howard’s original source material, like the story “The Dweller in the Pool.”)
Even though it is largely based on new characters and new stories, the movie feels relatively faithful to Howard’s creation. Nispel hits the right notes in his creation of the Hyborian Age—vaguely exotic costumes and sets, all shot through with the flavor of ’30s pulp Orientalism—but he rushes past the details. The constant (and too often generic) thrills overwhelm the sense of awe that should accompany some of these scenes.
Howard, like J.R.R. Tolkien, was a meticulous world-builder; his 4,000-word reference essay “The Hyborian Age,” the equivalent of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, details more than 10,000 years of fictional history and lays out both a comprehensive timeline and a working system of cultural development. That immersive world and its internal coherence are significant parts of Conan’s geek appeal; Nispel’s lack of attention drains the proceedings of Howard’s distinctive charm.
Still, Conan the Barbarian is a new Conan movie. Momoa saves it from anonymity, and it is far better than the worst-case expectations. It could have been better, but it is still the second-best Conan movie ever.