So, here comes one of the oldest stalwarts of fantasy literature, roaring in from the horizon for another crack at the big screen.

Now, call me a grump (it has been known), but I think this is a pretty bad trailer. Not because of its impact on my desire to see the film – it looks like DVD fodder for me, but I thought that before the trailer ever saw the light of day – but because of the way it’s put together. The thing looks, to my aged eye, like it was cut and pasted by a toddler with attention deficit disorder. In the main, it’s a succession of bogglingly brief images of people shouting, fighting and bonking, intercut with horses and writhing cgi tentacles; some of the action is so brief, particularly in the second minute or so, it hardly has the time to register on the retina, let alone the brain, before it’s snatched away. The only extended (using the term loosely) scene is of some witch summoning up sandy ghost things to fight our hero, and it doesn’t look too bad, but the rest of the trailer’s a pretty formless stew.

It all screams ‘brainless spectacle with no interest in narrative or character, made for those of limited attention span’, which may or may not be an accurate representation of the movie. As it happens, I quite like a bit of brainless spectacle with no interest in narrative or character now and again, and my attention span is certainly not what it once was, but if you’re going to go that route, you still ought to have some spectacle coherent and spectacular enough to last more than a fraction of a second in the trailer, surely? If you’re going to rely on the wow factor to compensate for the absence of substantial content – which is a fair enough approach to trailers – at least give the images enough breathing space to elicit a wow. As it is, all this elicits in me is ‘oh, look what’s that … wait, it’s gone, what’s this now … no, gone, we’re back to those tentacle-things again … oh, no, it’s the beast with two backs … damn, I’m starting to get a headache …’ Maybe I’m just getting old.

Which may also be the reason for my increasing dissatisfaction with the technological sheen of movies these days. CGI and 3D just don’t really do it for me. Especially 3D, which I increasingly think is the curse of 21st century movies (true, I’ve only seen a couple of movies in 3D in the last few years, and neither of them was Avatar, but I stand by my only lightly informed opinion).

My anti-CGI inclination is a bit more surprising to me. As I said, I like spectacle, and I certainly like the way the advances in special effects have freed up cinema to do sf and fantasy on a grand scale, but there remains – with a few honourable exceptions – a weightless, inconsequential quality to even quite sophisticated CGI that somehow distances me from the images on the screen. For all the technologists’ talents, they still can’t quite replicate the texture and presence of reality inside their magic boxes, and I find myself noticing it more and more. There have been a few rare occasions in the cinema when I’ve totally, 100% forgotten that I’m looking at wholly digitally-created images – now and again with Gollum in LotR, for example – but generally, even when the CGI is done quite brilliantly, there’s always some tiny, near-dormant niggling part of my brain that is distantly aware that what I’m seeing isn’t real, and that can sometimes be just enough to dilute the immersive effect of the movie.

All this technological genius applied to films has produced a medium that looks, to my jaundiced eye, more than a little decadent. Awash with money and capabilities that have induced a kind of wanton frenzy, admitting of no restraint, that creates weightless, rather debased, wonders on a gargantuan scale.

Enough moaning, though. It’s more pleasing to reflect on the source material for all this: Howard’s original Conan stories. I re-read a few of them not so long ago, in the decidedly not weightless, very much real, collected edition that’s one of my favourite book-as-objects I possess.

I’m by no means an uncritical fan of this stuff.  Some of the stories feel a little over-extended, their length not quite justified by the content, and some of the racial and sexual assumptions don’t exactly jibe with modern sensibilities.  But still, I find a good deal to enjoy.  There’s an energy and conviction to the stories that’s very engaging, and on the whole they’ve aged remarkably well, considering how the world and the genre have changed since they were written.  I suspect the discerning fan of fantasy might well find their time better spent going back to source and reading or re-reading Howard’s original tales rather than sitting in a dark cinema being beaten over the head with 3D CGI.  But that’s just me, grump that I am.

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3 comments

  1. Tom Gatto’s avatar

    I agree.

    Although a few adaptations remain faithful to their original works Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft, and their contemporaries, are probably turning over in their graves at some of the mush produced in their names.

    I have to give credit, for example, to the recent Dark Horse Comic Adaptations of the Conan stories, they take painstaking care to remain faithful to the original stories, while expanding them only to tie them all together.

    I hope, if your works are ever produced on the big or small screen, that Hollywood leaves creative license behind and produces your stories as you intend them to be told. Otherwise I’ll just re-read my copies and miss only the movie popcorn.

  2. evilsteve’s avatar

    Looks rough. I think CGI when used sparingly in the right way and in the right scene can be great for a picture. Hollywood has yet to figure this out. For films like Batman or 300 it works. It’s almost the point of the picture.

    Is the movie industry running out of ideas? Conan again? Not that I think it can’t be done right or even shouldn’t be done. However, it seems we are rehashing a lot of films over and over while I’m sure there has to be plenty of new creative stories to be told out there. I guess they want to play it safe. Protect their money while the audience suffers for it.

  3. Brian’s avatar

    Tom: Funny you should mention the Dark Horse Conan comics – the collected editions are on my (very overloaded) list of comics to check out at some point, since I’ve heard/seen a number of folk say they’re better than you might expect. I’ll add you to the list of recommenders, I guess …

    evilsteve: Yeah, you’re right, there is a category of exceptions to what I said, and I think 300 is a good example of it (not quite so sure about Batman, though). Sometimes, the artificiality of CGI isn’t a problem, it’s a deliberate artistic conceit on the part of the creators. I had no real problem with all the technological weirdness applied to 300 because, like you say, that, rather than an attempt to simulate reality, was kind of the point of the whole exercise.

    And I suspect there’re just as many brilliant, original ideas running around Hollywood as there were in the 70s (or whenever you want to pick as the creative high point), but yeah: the big money doesn’t get put into them very often because the sums involved are just too mind-boggling these days to be risked on something with no track record. You can understand why the studios have got stuck on the sequel/remake treadmill, but it’s a real, real shame.

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