Look, I get the whole “those who can’t do, criticize” thing. I understand that if it was easy to make a good movie, there would be a lot more good movies. The same goes for just about everything from novels to cheesecakes. The great ones always make it look easy.
Still, there’s something very frustrating about the opportunities wasted in Hollywood. The other day on a plane I watched the remake of Conan the Barbarian. It was stunningly mediocre. It looked like it was a SyFy movie of the week, along with the obligatory scenes that lend themselves to a video-game tie-in. What is so vexing is the simple fact that the difficult part shouldn’t be the writing, casting or acting.
I do have a theory about the original Conan movie. According to legend, the reason Jaws was so great was that they had so much trouble getting the shark to work. Because it didn’t, Steven Spielberg had to spin the camera around and shoot much of the movie from the shark’s perspective. Creativity is often greatest when your options are limited. I think the same holds true for the original Conan. John Milius (and, yes, Oliver Stone) had to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who couldn’t act and could barely speak English effectively. He was the human equivalent of the broken shark, and it counter-intuitively made for a much more believable movie, by Crom. Schwarzenegger’s crazy physique and caricaturesque face gave Conan a rough-hewn plausibility. The other actors, including James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow carried a big chunk of the load, as did the cinematography which was used not just for action sequences but to move the story along instead of dialogue.
In the remake, it’s all so familiar. Everything feels like it’s in the movie in order to comply with some studio checklist and to guarantee that the studio will make a profit thanks to foreign-market sales in Bangalore and Ukraine. Conan is made to look like a gruff underwear model with rebelliously long hair (he’s played by Jason Mamoa, more well-known as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, which shows that he could have played a more interesting Conan if the studio wanted him to). Instead of Mako doing the narration it’s — wait for it — Morgan Freeman. I half expected Conan to hug Andy Dufresne on a Cimmerian beach in the final scene.