“In between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world. Then came the dark empire of Acheron, where cruel Necromancers sought ‘Secrets Of Resurrection’. They crafted a mask from the bones of kings, and awakened its wrath with the pure blood of their daughters. The mask summoned spirits of unspeakable evil, giving them power that no mortal man should possess.”
The character started as a pulp fiction serial by Robert E. Howard in the 1930’s. But Howard killed himself in 1936, and the character stood still for a time. There were several attempts to revive him, but it was likely Marvel Comics that gave Conan his greatest popularity in the 1970’s. By 1982 the character was huge enough to justify a major feature film. That movie would start the movie career of a bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie would return to the character a couple of years later for Conan the Destroyer. The franchise was doing well, but a third film fell into development hell, and nothing much happened for a while. Rights would move around, and finally the property was rebooted in 2011 with Jason Momoa in the lead role. He appeared perfectly cast. He was a somewhat barbarous alien in Stargate: Atlantis and was a hit in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Conan appeared to be a good fit for the action actor, and it was. Momoa is quite good in the part, helping return the character more to his Howard origins. But that’s about all that went right with the reboot.
“But prophecy spoke of the man who would someday try to reassemble the mask and rule the world. So came the dawn of Hyborian Age, a time both bleak and brutal. And so came a child, born of battle…”
This is very much an origin film. We witness Conan’s birth to his mother, mortally wounded in battle. His father, played by fan favorite Ron Perlman, raises his son in the art of making strong swords and training to be a strong man. That life, along with its lessons, are cut short by the arrival of Khalar Zym, played by Stephen Lang. Khalar is in search of the pieces of a skull mask that will bring back his murdered witch wife and ultimately make him a god. Young Conan must stand by as his father sacrifices himself in the end.
We jump 20 years later. Khalar has his magical mask, but he has been searching for a pure-blood woman who is needed to activate its power and serve as a vessel for his wife. That woman is Tamara, played by Rachel Nichols. Tamara has received a prophecy that her path will cross with that of a strong warrior, and we all know who that’s going to be. Conan must protect Tamara from Khalar and his mysterious witch daughter Marique (McGowan). She’s the power behind the warlord walking about with a Freddy Kruger glove she uses to taste the blood of women for a pure blood. Short of protecting her, he must make sure the ceremony never takes place.
All of this leads to a rather silly confrontation in a skull cave. Conan and Khalar fight on a disc on which Tamara is spread-eagled and chained. In a scene more appropriate to a Pirates of the Caribbean gag, the disc falls and flips as the warriors fight on the surface. This is merely a symptom of the problems with the entire film.
There is little chance for any kind of character development. Momoa is actually quite good when he’s given something worthwhile to deal with. Unfortunately for both him and us, that’s rare in this film. Dialog is something you literally might pull from a comic book, and there is zero chemistry between Momoa and Nichols. Their scenes are horribly awkward throughout. There are certainly emotional beats to the story, but there’s no emotion in the writing or performance. Thus there’s little to drive these characters beyond what we might internalize as “bad”. The plot isn’t adopted from any part of the Conan mythology and is contrived at best.
There are some nice vistas and a few good computer f/x, but the film appears flat with everything from the awkward pacing to the score, which doesn’t rouse much from the viewer. Director Marcus Nispel dumbs it all down and just goes through the motions here. The result is truly uninspired and a question mark for an early adoption UHD release.
Conan the Barbarian is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an average bitrate of 50 mbps. This ultra-high-definition image presentation can actually be impressive if not for some odd lighting choices made in the production. The light washes away most color, and images tend to be too dark or too bright in exterior shots. Grain is usually a welcome element, but it’s washed into appearing more like digital noise. Black levels suffer, and again so much detail is completely lost.
The Dolby Atmos presentation defaults to a tame 7.1 track. There are moments where the upgrade in audio is at its best. Battles now have a fuller presence with some beefed up sub response. Dialog cuts through just fine. The score kind of just sits there and adds nothing to the mix. I wouldn’t call this much of an immersive mix, but at least it’s clean and clear.
There are two Commentary Tracks to be found here, one by the director Marcus Nispel and the other with Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols.
The extras are actually on the UHD disc:
The Conan Legacy: (1802) There is a nice history of the character to be found here.
Robert E. Howard – The Man Who Would Be Conan: (11:25) Here you’ll find a wealth of information on Howard, who created this world.
Battle Royal – Engineering The Action: (9:56) This feature deals with the stunt choreography.
Stunt & Staging The Fights: (9:56) Pre-Viz presentations.
The film failed badly at the box office, neglecting to capture the attention or imagination of the legion of Conan fans. In 1982 the original film made $40 million on a budget half that size. This film cost $90 million to make and pulled in less than half of the original film. Those are not dollars adjusted for inflation. That’s a bad sign. I don’t see any more success happening in the home video market. There’s just not enough here to be worthy of a 4K presentation. “Behold and despair.”