How’s the movie?
Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian may not be a great movie, but it is the best (and most accurate) adaptation of Conan yet, and that includes the ’80s films, the TV show and the video games. It’s low fantasy, meaning the magic side of things is downplayed, but perfectly-cast Jason Momoa’s Conan exists in a well-realized fantasy world that’s lean and mean and very different than the hulking, loin cloth world of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan. It’s got sweeping, elegant sets, masterful costume design, remarkable stunt work and a quite capable cast, but because it’s all in service of bloody combat scene after bloody combat scene strung together by a generic revenge storyline, it’s easy to dismiss the film as mindless.
But how can you dismiss a Conan movie where he actually lives up to the barbarian in his title? How can you hate on a Conan who uses severed heads as weapons or who uses a damsel in distress as bait against her will and then later she thanks him by shagging him? Frankly, I don’t agree with the statistic consensus below. Conan is an entertaining (albeit narratively simple) and finely crafted film, more so than the averages would have you believe, and I hope on Blu-ray it finds the battle-hungry audience it couldn’t in theaters.
Rotten Tomatoes: 23% Fresh with critics, 37% Liked by audiences
Box Office: $ 49 million worldwide
What are the vitals on the disc?
Studio: Lionsgate Films
Release Date: November 22, 2011
Edition: 3D Blu-ray / DVD Comb Pack (a 2D BD/DVD Combo is also available)
Number of Discs: 2 (1 x BD, 1 x DVD)
Digital Copy: Yes
Runtime: 113 minutes
Video: 1080p, 2.40:1 Aspect Ratio
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
How does it look and sound?
Marcus Nispel is a director known for his slick and eye-catching style, but even Conan the Barbarian makes his Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes, two films that look far better than they have any right to, look like warm up acts. I have little doubt that in theaters the unnecessary post-production 3D blurred so much of the film’s fantastic visual composition, but in 2D on Blu-ray, it looks absolutely stunning. The fidelity of detail that’s captured both in camera (the opening battlefield scene will make video quality purists perk right up) and extended with visual effects in post is remarkable, making this one of the better Blu-ray transfers of any of this year’s summer films. It’s a testament to Nispel’s eye that this movie, including its digital work, often looks significantly better than the much higher budgeted likes of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Thor.
Having said that, a lot of the quality of the film’s look is owed to the fact that so much of it was shot on location in stunning sets in Bulgaria, which makes for an excellent double of Hyboria. The film’s finale, however, takes place in the underworld of Hyboria and required extensive, almost entirely digital sets and often looks terribly fake and unfortunately marrs what would otherwise be one of the most remarkable HD transfers of the year. It’s like the vfx effects department just ran out of budget at the end, and that’s a shame. The only saving grace here is that these rough digital creations are entirely confined to the last ~15 minutes of the movie and aren’t a fault of the transfer, they’re just not up to snuff in the first place.
The audio side of things suffers from a similar state of uneven quality. The individual elements are edited together wonderfully, particularly Tyler Bates score, but the sound mix isn’t quite balanced enough to keep his almost superhero-worthy composition in equilibrium with dialogue during battles. There are only a few moments where you’ll find yourself reaching for your remote to maybe jockey the volume level during battle sequences (it’s not like Conan is holding casual conversation while chopping fools to pieces), but they’re there and do hold back the otherwise awesome DTS-HD Master transfer from being demo-worthy material.
What about special features?
To put it simply, I was not expecting the features on this Blu-ray to be as uniformly great as they are. Even if you don’t like Nispel’s film but like Conan as a character and a historical piece of popular culture, you are going to want to get your hands on this Blu to, at the very least, check out two of the featurettes below. And, as if those weren’t reason enough, both of the commentary tracks on here are thoroughly enjoyable.
Note: Only the 3D Blu-ray, which includes the movie in 2D and 3D on a single disc and costs $ 5 more, has these special features. In order of quality:
Audio Commentary with Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan - Who knew that the most entertaining thing on this disc would be a feature-length commentary with stars Momoa and McGowan? Even though the two barely share any scenes together, this is a thoroughly entertaining track that has laugh-out-loud moments from beginning to end. That’s probably because Momoa and McGowan mention this is their first time doing a commentary, so perhaps they’re a bit more open about what production was like than most actors would be. But that just means it’s awesome to hear them swap stories about shooting in Bulgaria, which netted them all kinds of strange experiences, like when Momoa had to pick Rachel Nichols’ body double for their sex scene and basically unknowingly selected a prostitute who thought she was going to be having real sex on camera and was unsurprisingly disappointed to find out the day-of that they would just be acting.
They’re also quite happy to point out filmmaking flubs (Momoa is almost too giddy when he points out a continuity error on Stephen Lang’s face during a fight because it proves it wasn’t his sword that cut him) and lazy logic in the script. Honestly, it’s one of the most enjoyable commentary tracks I’ve heard in a while, and just because you get to hear Momoa say stuff like, “And here’s another time a f**king horse almost killed me” or listen as McGowan tries to top Momoa’s bar fight scar story by describing her car crash facial reconstruction.
Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan (11 minutes, HD) - A compact, objective look back at the life of Conan creator Robert E. Howard and how his living in middle-of-nowhere Texas fueled the creation of the icon and his escapist desires. There’s a lot of interesting insights about this fascinating man contained within, so much so that fans will surely wish this featurette had been two or three times the length.
The Conan Legacy (18 minutes, HD) - This featurette focuses on the entire Conan legacy, addressing objectively how it evolved from Howard’s pulp stories to the Arnold version that almost irrevocably altered people’s idea of what Conan should be and look like. This is more comprehensive than you’d expect on the historical side, and doesn’t have the press kit fluff you’d expect when it comes time to covering the new movie. Plus, it includes clips of Momoa’s audition footage, which is him swinging a sword at potted plants in Nispel’s front yard. It’s hilarious.
Audio Commentary with Marcus Nispel - This director’s commentary has more dead parts than Momoa and McGowan’s early on, but once he gets into a groove he has a pretty great sense of humor (more than I was expecting consider he has a reputation for being a gruff) and knows exactly what kind of movie he was trying to make. It’s funny and informative, offering some surprising insights– even Nispel was shocked to learn from his editor, who he borrowed from Michael Bay, that Conan had more visual effects in it than the first Transformers.
There are two more featurettes, Staging the Fights (6 minutes, HD) and Battle Royale: Engineering the Action (10 minutes, HD), but they’re standard promo stuff.
Conan the Barbarian may not be a thoroughly impressive movie the first time you watch it, but it’s the kind of movie you appreciate more and more as you learn more about its production. To that end, this is one of the most entertaining Blu-rays I’ve come across in a while, mainly because the special features, particularly the commentary tracks, aren’t just love fests that make the movie out to be a flawless production (Momoa sums it up great on his commentary, “I loved doing it, but it was f**king gnarly.”). They’re more than happy to address what works and what doesn’t and in the end they paint a perfect picture of Conan the Barbarian as a movie that does everything in its power to hide how crude the production was, and that, “Hey, love it or hate it, we rolled with the punches” attitude makes me respect the movie even more.
Plus, it’s just a damned good looking HD transfer. On that ground alone, this Blu-ray is worth a priority spin in your player.