Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cinema File #53: "Age Of The Dragons" Review

I'll be honest here, I've never actually been able to finish Moby Dick. I had to read it in school at some point, but I could just never get through it. I know its a classic story of revenge and hubris and so forth, but you know what, I already know that those things are bad, and I don't need to slog through thousands of pages about whale hunting to gain any sort of new insight about them. Besides, this is a story that has been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times in other media, so I know the gist: Guy wants you to call him Ishmael, Ahab hates on some fish, etc. Simple enough. Age of the Dragons is another such reinterpretation, basically Moby Dick with a White Dragon instead of a White Whale. Its a novel approach, though it seems so obvious that I can't imagine it hasn't been done before, and there are enough little touches that I enjoyed, but in the end, it suffers strangely enough from hewing too closely to the source material that inspired it.

I know that criticism probably sounds odd, given that I just described this movie as Moby Dick, but with a Dragon, but when I read that description before I saw the movie, I assumed it was going to be a loose thematic resemblance with a by and large original story. Hell, Wrath of Khan is inspired by Moby Dick too, but it isn't the same story, just in space. This is the same story right down to the names and the action beats (to the extent that I know what they are), though naturally in this case the ship is a giant medieval tank designed to withstand Dragonfire. That's one of those little touches I mentioned, and there were just enough of them to sustain me through this rote retelling of a classic borefest, in addition to the much more interesting, if somewhat ridiculous new setting.

The story follows Ishmael and Queequeg, here morphed into two bad ass harpoon chucking dragonslayers, who sign on to Ahab's crew in search of fortune, only to follow the mad captain on a journey of revenge against the dragon that burned him and killed his sister. It's almost a bit shocking to me that they didn't do more with Queequeg, considering in the novel I'm pretty sure he's some kind of mystic cannibal, while here he's just a silent warrior with only the vaguest hints of an interesting backstory. Danny Glover is easily the best part of the movie as Ahab, talking every opportunity to chew the scenery for all its worth, of which there are many, in the form of a series of powerful dramatic monologues that I would guess are largely taken straight from the book, or changed only slightly. Vinnie Jones shows up as a jovial first mate and the first casualty of the mission, and the movie also introduces Ahab's adopted daughter, who I am almost certain is not in the book, and is there largely to provide scenes like this:

Not that I'm complaining mind you.

The translation of a story set in the realistic world of 19th century whale hunting to a story set in a mythical fantasy world of dragons is clever and I would say mostly well done. Instead of carving up whales for their blubber to turn into oil, their harvesting "vitriol," the highly explosive chemical inside a dragons's body that lets them breathe fire, turning it into a power source. Again, I'm sure this movie gets a lot blasphemously wrong if you're a fan of the novel, but just based on my cursory knowledge of the story and the genre, I'm surprised by how much worked carried over to this new setting. The introduction of a love story between Ishmael and Ahab's newly invented daughter is unnecessary, as it always is in movies like this, but its done so often that I can't really get mad about it anymore, and its made a little better by the fact that, as Wikipedia has now told me, she is evidently named Rachel after the boat that saves Ishmael from drowning at the end of the book. Spoilers for an old as shit book by the way.

Naturally, anyone who is enough of a literary snob to actually be offended by the liberties this movie takes with Moby Dick isn't the kind of person who would ever bother watching a movie called Age of the Dragons anyway. I for one enjoyed my time with it, and certainly found it a lot easier to take in then the book. Its well acted by straight to DVD standards, more stylish then most, and best of all, never outright boring, which is the only truly unforgivable sin I can apply to a movie. I'm never a good judge on special effects, because as far as I'm concerned, if it conveys what its trying to convey such that I know what the thing is, I'm fine if it doesn't look completely realistic. I'm not one to complain about not being able to suspend my disbelief in situations like this because of bad CGI or what have you, because at the end of the day, its a movie, and one about dragons to boot, so any demands for realism kind of go out the window. It looks fine, though picky people are going to pick at it and say the dragons look hokey because they don't have the big budget level of Pixar-esque detail with every scale individually crafted. Ultimately I found the experience relatively enjoyable for the most part, and if you get a chance, what the fuck, you might as well give it a shot.

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