It's cool to see a lion in a cage at the circus. It's even cooler to see a lion in an enclosure at the zoo. It's FUCKING INTENSE to be out in Africa and be thirty feet from a lion with nothing protecting you from it. You're aware of its voltage, your vulnerability, etc.
A story is similar to a lion. The more confined the less powerful the experience.
Conan the Barbarian for all its scenes of Jason Momoa killing things is nothing more than a Ringling Brothers attraction.
Director: Marcus Nispel
Conan: Jason Momoa
Scary little Conan: Leo Howard
Girl: Rachel Nichols
Annoying bad guy: Stephen Lang
Christina Ricci: Rose McGowan
OF COURSE HE'S IN THIS MOVIE: Ron Perlman
Accuse me of being a hypocrite if you want. I said: 30-Minutes or Less wasn't really a film (it's a vehicle for its comedians), so no one should judge it as one. Why am I not letting Conan off so easy? Because I think it wanted to be a good movie (where 30 made no such effort).
Every single scene in the movie is driving the plot or blatantly characterizing. Nothing's there just because. And this is one of the "rules" tossed about in screenplay writing. Make sure every scene is "doing work." See: this is showing Conan is DEADLY even as a child. These dudes are talking now, and their entire conversation is relevant to the bad guy's characterization (I want to be a god) and the conflict of the plot (I'm going to bring back my dead wife). Conan can't just forge a sword, he has to forge a sword and have it be SYMBOLIC OF THE THEME.
Later it's: oh look, Conan and the girl sort of like each other, so now we have to solidify their romance, so everything that happens in the next 10 minutes is developing them liking each other: watch how she's helping him in battle, AREN'T THEY JUST THE CUTEST COUPLE?!?!!?!? Now they can have sex!
I didn't think one event or line of dialogue felt natural within the context of the characters and the world. The entire movie felt manipulated rather than alive. Okay, one thirty second conversation didn't. It's where the bad guy's daughter (McGowan) tells the bad guy her magical powers are growing stronger; essentially hinting they don't need to resurrect her mom, she could be the one standing beside him; very incestuous. Of course, this subplot is dropped.
What would I recommend doing differently?
Eradicate the dialogue completely and have it be like a music video.
Yeah. There's nothing that was said that wasn't demonstrated.
Example 1: Bad Guy kills Conan's father. We don't need to hear Conan say, "He killed my father, I'm going to kill him." Conan attempting to drive a sword through the guy is enough.
Example 2: The Bad Guy explains his daughter has special powers that will lead her to find the crown fragment. Then she goes around the room with her steel-clawed hand reaching out like an antennae until she finds the fragment. The dialogue wasn't necessary.
Example 3: Rachel Nichols is the one pure blood monastery novitiate from a Necromancer line, which is why the Bad Guy needs her specifically. We didn't need to be told this because The Bad Guy's Daughter tastes the blood of other monastery novitiates and makes ugly faces clearly showing they're "off". Eventually she tastes Nichols' blood and makes a happy face. If we hadn't known why she was tasting the blood, the facial expressions would have been all the more weird and Nichols' lineage a mystery.
I think three examples is enough.
My other recommendation: write better dialogue.
For instance. Think about The Lion King. How do we know Scar is a bad guy? Well, first, he has a black mane. Then he's trapped a cute little mouse and is going to eat it. When Zazu comes (to Scar's) to announce Mufasa will soon be arriving, Scar tries to eat Zazu. Then Mufasa makes Scar spit out Zazu.
Why! If it isn't my big brother descending from on high to mingle with the commoners.
Sarabi and I didn't see you at the presentation of Simba.
[Faking Astonishment] That was today? Oh, I simply feel awful. Must have slipped my mind.
Yes, well, as slippery as your mind is, as the king's brother, you should have been first in line!
Well, I was first in line...until the little hairball was born.
That "hairball" is my son and your future king.
Oh, I shall practice my curtsy.
Don't turn your back on me, Scar!
Oh, no, Mufasa. Perhaps YOU shouldn't turn YOUR back on me.
[Roars and literally jumps in front of Scar, barring his teeth for the first time]
Is that a challenge?
Temper, temper. I wouldn't dream of challenging you.
Pity! Why not?
Well, as far as brains go, I got the lion's share. But, when it comes to brute strength...I'm afraid I'm at the shallow end of the gene pool.
There's one in every family, sire...two in mine, actually. And they always manage to ruin special occasions.
What am I going to do with him?
He'd make a very handsome throw rug.
And just think! Whenever he gets dirty, you could take him out and BEAT him.
[They exit, chuckling. Pan out into open savannah]
The important thing here is what happens after Scar leaves. A caged movie would cut to the next scene the moment Scar left. The "work is done": cut. What's The Lion King do? It continues to follow its characters. The conversation between Mufasa and Zazu isn't doing traditional "work". It's not progressing the plot. It's not revealing motive. It's not characterizing in a major way (we already know Mufasa is good). The moment is there to allow us to spend time with these characters. To see, hey, Zazu has a sense of humor, that Mufasa is concerned. This is the depth I'm talking about that Conan lacked. Conan is so obsessed with PROGRESSION that it avoids developing character.
Last thing for writers: your story is either in a cage (all basic progression and characterization), in an enclosure (think A Knight's Tale), or free (Eurotrip). Ideally, you're free and you're following your characters around and showing us things we have never seen before. You don't have to show us every minute detail, but it can be more than just high-octane action. No two lives are alike. Show us what's unique and interesting. If something incredible happens to happen, include that too. Remember people love people-watching, and most people-watching is innocent: you sit in the food court of the mall and you observe.
A story can work at any level. But, here's how it works. If a caged story works, it works because the thing contained is that spectacular. If I saw a dragon in a cage, I'd be like "HOLY SHIT THAT'S AWESOME." But, a dragon in an enclosure is cooler. And a dragon completely free is coolest. I think A Knight's Tale is a good movie because it's enclosed and not caged. Eurotrip isn't brilliant but it's free and doing its thing. If it were enclosed it'd be more run-of-the-mill; if caged, it'd be cliche.
Okay, the very last thing: if no one knows the "real life" of a lion, seeing it in the wild is cool. "That's a lion! Neat!" But it can get boring if the lion is just...lying in the shade of a tree for four hours.
We're waiting for it to take action. And hopefully it's an exciting action. Like a chase.
"Oh cool, the lion is hunting, it's running, it's got the zebra!" But how many times is it cool to see a lion hunt? When you've watched the lion do all the things a lion can do, the lion becomes pretty boring.
Unless you get to know that lion. Once that lion goes from the general (lion) to a specific (Christian), the story is all the more special (see Christian the Lion on youtube).
So yes, plot and novelty can be really cool. But getting to know the character can make fascinating the common. Watching THE AVERAGE PERSON go to the grocery store could be really lame. But what about watching BILL MURRAY at the grocery store?.
Also, some things just aren't that interesting. A slug, by itself, isn't going to entertain me for too long. But if the slug has a funny personality, I'll stick around. Or if the slug is really angry and wants to go kick someone's ass but, being a slug and all, can't move fast enough to kick ass right now so is doubly angry, that's pretty interesting (why's it so angry? who is the would-be victim?). I won't wait 7 hours for it to slide on mucus to its target, but I would leave and come back. Now give me a funny slug that's angry and on its way to exact revenge, add some key edits, and some interactions with ants and spiders and such on the way, and I'll spend an hour and a half. If only Conan had been so interesting.
Did I like it:
No. I didn't care. 75% into the movie, this guy in the row behind me got up and left. I was jealous. Then he came back. I guess he had just gone to the bathroom. I was still jealous. That makes it sound like I hated it. I didn't hate it, I just wanted to be doing other things with my time.
The action scenes were cool. And Momoa is likable. The directing was fine, except we have another director that loves to CUT CUT CUT CUT during any action sequence, but at least you can still follow what's going on--it's no where near as bad as Batman Begins.
Some cool sets. In the last fight, I felt the influence of Pirates of the Caribbean (action with precarious footing).
I absolutely hated Rose McGowan. First, I thought she was Christina Ricci. Second: how she moved and talked and looked at things all felt like someone thinking "what can I do that shows how odd I am"; basically, I thought she acted like an amateur.
I would say wait and rent it.
Oh, and enough with characters YELLING WITH RAGE. And with YELLING FOR VICTORY. Twice Conan yells when no one is around, and holds his sword into the air. Okay, people yell. Do people hold swords in the air when no one is around? "Dude, it's cool!" Yeah, it might look cool but I can't help thinking how stupid it looks when you have to lower the sword and look around and no one is around....you let out this yell and struck this pose and then you just...sheathe the sword and walk away? I find it a little stupid. It's one thing to hold up a sword and yell when there's a crowd of people there to cheer on the action. Or enemies to frighten. Or Naomi Watts to impress (King Kong after the T-rex fight). But when you're alone? Meh.
What It's Good For:
-seeing sword fights
% Character / % Actor's personality
Momoa: 50/50 (Conan/Momoa)
Nichols: 85/15 (A guess, since I don't know her)
Stephan Lang: 85/15
Rose McGowan: 90/10
Ron Perlman: 60/40
The original: John Milius, Oliver Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Momoa: Stargate Atlantis; Game of Thrones
Killing with a sword: The 13th Warrior; Braveheart; Mongol; 300; Kill Bill; Scorpion King; Troy; Gladiator; King Arthur
Lion King: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid
A Knight's Tale: Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany, Mark Addy, Brian Helgeland
Eurotrip: Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg, David Mandel