One of the last shots of Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea is a very bad CGI shot of an arrow flying up through the clouds. It’s emblematic of all that’s wrong with this movie: obvious, flat, thunderingly dull, and just plain fake at heart. It’s no small feat to make a boring movie about Genghis Khan, but lo and behold they’ve gone and done it.
Or maybe I have it backwards. Maybe it is all too easy to make a boring movie, no matter what the scope or the subject: it requires far less effort to reuse the imagery, the beats, the sentiments from the other movies you’ve seen than to come up with something personal. The end result is, literally, nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s all concept and ambition and pretty pictures, realized by people without a shred of real imagination or curiosity about its subject.
Temüjin's childhood and adulthood are explored with the same formula beats
that have been wrung dry in countless other, better movies.
Khan wastes no time being an old-fashioned epic, right from the conveniently-labeled map of Asia before the opening credits. Every beat of Temüjin’s life — the man who would be Khan — is laid out with painful sincerity: his undignified birth, his conflicted childhood, his clashes with other tribes, his ascendancy to chieftainhood, and on and bumptiously on. The few moments that have a germ of something interesting — like an early sequence where Temüjin rides off to steal back some horses taken from him — quickly turn into business as usual. The “personal” moments, like the stuff with Temüjin and his bride-to-be, are agonizing: we’re being asked to care for people who don’t even have the depth of a colorful celebrity walk-on in a Quentin Tarantino film.
Movies like this make me wonder. How is it that a film can contain all sorts of conflict — betrayals, jealous rivalry, warfare, etc. — without being the least bit interesting? Maybe because the conflicts themselves aren’t here to make the characters interesting, but to just kick the story along its predestined path. Too many scenes unfold as static preordainments; there’s never the surprise of seeing the characters react with spontaneity. Maybe because, again, filming such things requires real creativity and curiosity about the material, and not this movie’s relentlessly routine busywork approach that drains everything of real suspense or psychological insight.
Even the big battle scenes don't get us interested,
because they're not happening to people we care about.
The whole thing breaks down into a succession of good-looking but ultimately uninvolving moments. Actors stand around in lush-looking costumes against terrific scenery, then mouth banal platitudes at each other about destiny and glory in one matching-eyeline shot after another. Even the battle scenes are nothing special: we’ve all seen this stuff done before, and it takes real ingenuity to show thousands of people on a battlefield in a way that isn’t either total chaos or about as absorbing as a football game on TV. The latter is more often the case, because none of it is happening to people we’ve been compelled to care about.
I never imagined I would find myself getting nostalgic for John Wayne in The Conqueror, but here we are.