I fell a bit behind in my summer movie-going, but last week I caught up with two remakes that met wildly different receptions at the box office. On one hand, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the biggest hits of the late summer season, while Conan the Barbarian turned out to be a big-budget disaster.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really more of a “reboot,” to use the preferred terminology of an entertainment industry that has real trouble coming up with fresh ideas, and has therefore taken to devising a whole new language for retreads. Actually, since Tim Burton already tried rebooting the Apes franchise with his lavish but unloved 2001 film, this is technically a re-re-boot. It makes a few cute nods toward the original films through repurposed dialogue, but it sets up an entirely new version of the POTA universe, which was originally (spoiler alert for those who somehow missed the earlier films!) a massive temporal paradox.
Despite its copy-of-a-copy pedigree, the new Apes film is terrific, because it found something fresh and original to do with its venerable material. The rise of the Apes is now a result of bio-engineering run amok, rather than time-traveling chimpanzees giving birth to their own predecessor. Within this framework, tough moral questions are asked about the nature of loyalty.
James Franco gives his best performance to date as a scientist whose enduring love for his father, and resulting determination to cure Alzheimer’s, leads him to cut some corners that should not have been cut. He’s right and wrong, admirable and worth of censure, in equal measure. In fact, all of the human characters in the story make the epic mistake of underestimating a technology that has the power to rewrite not just DNA, but history itself.
This technology leads to Caesar, a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee brought to life with an astonishing motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis – the undisputed grand master of an entirely new form of theatrical performance. Caesar’s loyalty to the humans he sincerely loves is pitted against his sense of duty to his species, and his growing hunger for personal dignity.
What results is a tragedy that becomes all the more powerful because it seems so horribly inevitable. Great special effects and stunt work are placed in the service of a solid, thoughtful script. It’s great science fiction, because it takes a single hypothetical – and not entirely implausible – bit of technology, and weaves an entirely believable story around it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is so good that even its amusingly obvious efforts to lay the groundwork for a sequel can be forgiven (besides the ape rebellion, there’s a big science-related news story playing out in the background that’s very clearly meant to pay off in the next movie.) Sequel-mongering works if the audience wants to see that sequel.
By contrast, poor Conan wound up meeting cinematic oblivion in a movie whose first big mistake was being a reboot. It’s been a long time, and I think the world has gotten over Conan the Destroyer. Robert E. Howard wrote many fabulous Conan tales, and other writers have kept the Cimmerian busy since Howard’s death. There was no need to retell his origin story. This was not a franchise that needed its own Casino Royale or Batman Begins.
As it happens, the early scenes retelling Conan’s youth are the best parts of the film, because they’re filled with a kind of grisly vitality. From the unpleasant Cimmerian version of a C-section, to a ten-year-old Conan unleashing a truly shocking level of violence against barbarian raiders, the first reel of this movie is really weird, which means it’s also interesting. It helps to have Ron Perlman around to lend a dash of heroic-fantasy credibility.
Unfortunately, the whole picture just drops dead once Conan grows up. The first Schwarzenegger film had a kind of stern, mythical power. It was a Viking opera without the music, and it unleashed a horde of B-movie imitators that rampaged across the 80s without ever capturing its unique flavor. The conflict between Conan and the evil sorcerer played by James Earl Jones was a clash of titans.
The remake, unfortunately, is a bland shaky-cam festival with a couple of neat action scenes. It feels like a big-budget remake of a mid-80s “Conan” ripoff. The iconic musical score and chiseled-in-stone dialogue of the original is replaced by a boring soundtrack, forgettable characters, and pedestrian script.
The failure does not lie at the feet of our new Conan, Jason Momoa, who is a fine choice for the role – much closer to Howard’s description of the character than the hulking Ahhhnold. Momoa practically begs the director to hold the camera still, so he can show the audience what he’s capable of. The script and direction fail the actor. In the original film, Schwarzenegger didn’t have a lot of lines, but they were all chiseled in stone. Momoa also says little, but speaks entirely in banalities. He spends an inordinate amount of time telling people to shut up.
The villains are a snooze too, despite some energetic scenery chewing from the actors. The Big Bad has one of those vague “Underpants Gnomes” strategies:
1. Summon ghost of dead witch wife with magic mask.
3. Become a god.
His weirdo evil sorceress daughter gets off one really neat magic spell, which summons a horde of surprisingly ineffective but cool-looking sand devils. Apparently this is a one-shot deal, because she spends the rest of the film doing nothing more fearsome than scratching people with her Freddy Krueger fingers. She can scarcely hold her own against Conan’s bland love interest… who would have been a voluptuous damsel in distress in a real Conan story, but feminist Hollywood has strict rules against those, so she’s soon taking down the front-line warriors of the ancient world’s most formidable army.
Another strange aspect of the new Conan’s bloody, but bloodless, adventure is the decision to jettison its fantastical religious trappings. One of the most memorable scenes from the original film was Conan’s up-yours prayer to his grim war god Crom, but the new film makes a point of having the villain declare that Conan’s people have no gods. The Lovecraftian demons who frequently orbited Howard’s tales decided to take this adventure off. Morgan Freeman inexplicably pops into the soundtrack as a nameless narrator to download a few megabytes of tedious and unnecessary backstory, instead of letting the evil demonic mask melt somebody’s face off to establish its sinister credentials. There are geysers of gore in Conan the Barbarian, but little flavor.
There isn’t much of a moral conflict for the audience to sink their teeth into, because Conan is roughly as much of a sadistic brute as the villain. In the original, the sack of Conan’s village seemed like a dastardly ambush, and the murder of his mother was both pointless and creepy, nicely establishing the antagonist’s villainy. Conan becomes a will-to-power superman who also never really stops being a wounded child – an interesting conflict of innocence and savagery that reflects the barbarian existence.
The new Conan is kind of a jerk, and it’s not really clear why the audience should be on his side. It would help if the script gave us some idea of how the world would suffer if the bad guy wins, but his evil mystic artifact appears to have only two powers: resurrect his wife, and cause his headquarters to collapse. The same actor, Stephen Lang, played the psycho military commander in Avatar, and for the second time I found myself feeling sorry for his character – a badass bravely fighting a doomed struggle against his scriptwriters.
Remakes aren’t always bad, although it would be nice if Hollywood could dip into the oceans of sci-fi and fantasy literature to film something audiences haven’t seen before. It all depends on whether the filmmakers can find a fresh take on older material. Caesar the chimpanzee got a reboot, while Conan the Barbarian got a retread.