Smackdown: Conan Vs. Spartacus!
You like movies about gladiators...?
Actually, I do. Is that so wrong??? In fact, Starz's over-the-top gladiator series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, was capable of reducing me to an emotional 12-year-old every week. I would stare at each new gore-and-nudity-laden episode in a sort of mindless rapture, thinking, "Look... breasts... sword fights... also breasts..."
Hoping for a similar experience of ecstatic regression, I tried out the recent remake of Conan the Barbarian a few days ago. And let me add that I'm a big fan of Robert Howard's original Conan short stories, which really are excellent entertainment. And let me also add that there was no shortage of beautiful naked women and good sword fights here as well. But the movie's a dud. Conan the Disappointment. Not terrible or anything, just sort of flat and ho-hum.
What's the difference between Spartacus and Conan? It's the story, brother! In Spartacus—the first season more than the second, but the second too—the writers had a knack for stating genuinely interesting moral dilemmas in terms of sword fights and sex. That's what hits that 12-year-old spot—because when you're a 12-year-old... Okay, when I was a 12-year-old, I sort of thought all moral dilemmas should be solved through sword fights and sex. I mean, how cool would that be?
So—in the spirit of the final fight between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in the original Spartacus film—the TV Spartacus would, for instance, show friends forced to fight one another, posing issues of loyalty, duty, survival, etc. It would put people in situations where they had to be unfaithful to their loved ones in order to save their loved ones' lives. And so on. Silly at some level, I understand, but massively entertaining and involving and... dare I say it? Tons of fun! Which is what I was watching for.
The Conan movie, on the other hand, regurgitates one tired plot point after another. A childhood grudge, a magical sacrifice, a princess who must be tamed and yet who earns the hero's respect... Really, who cares? Sounds like some producer or executive read Joseph Campbell or some book called "The Eight Essential Plots," and thought he'd figured the whole thing out. Big mistake.
I wanted to love the Conan film cause I dig this sort of stuff. But if you want to do the sex-and-swordplay thing, you gotta make it matter. You gotta tell a good story.
(Cross-posted at Klavan on the Culture.)