Homework: Dungeons & Dragons

The Assignment

When Chris told me I should watch Dungeons & Dragons my first thought was, ‘There’s a D&D movie?’.  Knowing nothing of the film, I poked and prodded a bit, to see if I could get Chris to reveal his motives for wanting me to watch such and obscure film.  I mean sure, D&D is a huge part of what makes gaming what it is today, but Chris and I never really got into the table-top thing.  As much as D&D has deep roots in gaming, they’re roots that we’ve largely ignored.  Regardless, the assignment is the assignment.  Chris’s reasoning is not for me to determine.  I put my questions to rest, sat down with some popcorn, and watched Dungeons & Dragons.

The Report

In the lead up to watching Dungeons & Dragons I couldn’t help but feel like Chris was playing some joke on me.  I had a vague recollection of the movie coming out (it was released in 2000), but beyond that I couldn’t think of anything noteworthy about it.  I kept an open mind though, and to my delight, what I discovered was a truly unique and original fantasy film, and a glimpse into our own world that had previously gone unseen.

Like all good sci-fi and fantasy, director Courtney Solomon uses the guise of a fantasy to give the viewer a look at his vision of our world.  As the film begins, the kingdom of Ismir is in a state of upheaval.  The high born mages and commonfolk are at odd, the mages seeking to consolidate power, the Empress seeking to redistribute that power to all the citizens of the kingdom.

While it may not be obvious to the average viewer, the picture Solomon paints for us early on in the film is one we’re all familiar with.  The mages represent the 1%, while the commonfolk represent the every-man in our world.  The Empress, daringly played by young white woman, Thora Burch, represents a hybrid of Frederick Douglas and Oscar Shindler, her central role in the film to champion the cause of all people, not just the power-hungry white men who control the kingdom.

Photo of the real Oscar Schindler.

The story itself is told through the perspective of a band of commoners (and one mage) who, together, are able to topple the white cis male dominated hierarchy of the mages guild.  It’s only through their cunning, bravery, and sheer force of will that our band of adventurers is able to overthrow these misogynists.  The group’s interaction makes for some of the most powerful moments in the film, and there are some gutsy directorial decisions that elevate Dungeons & Dragons beyond being simply a good film to being one of the most criminally underrated works of our generation.

One scene in particular speaks volumes to what director Courtney Solomon is trying to tell us.  It occurs when the dashing thief begins an argument with his unlikely mage companion.  As he berates her for being part of the rape culture, and allowing herself to be objectified by men, she stops him and says, “I used to think like that, but after only a few days with you, I see that I was wrong.”  They say that there is power in words, and never has that been truer than here.  With one statement we begin to see the human side of the mages, and of those like them in our own world.  We begin to see that change might just be possible, but that the change must come from a deeper understanding of those who are different from us, not from death threats via Twitter, rapey looks, or a pursuit of ethical journalism.

One of the most daring choices that Dungeons & Dragons makes is in it’s casting of Snails, the second member of our adventuring party, and the moral compass of the film.  Snails is played flawlessly by Marlon Wayans.  Wayans not only provides a bit of comic relief in this otherwise tense social commentary, but he also serves to ground the film in reality.  Wayans dialogue is all delivered in a modern-day accent creating a sort of mental connection point between the fantasy world of Ismir, and our world.  Lines like, “Yo, that elf fine as hell”, and “You know I be stealing that treasure” serve to remind us that while this is a work of fantasy, there are some very clear ties to our world.  Several times through the film, as I felt myself getting lost in the elegant tapestry of magic and sword, Wayans performance reminded me that Dungeons & Dragons was about more than just dungeons and dragons.

Yo barkeep, gimme a chalice of yo finest sizzurp.

It’s simply impossible to talk about Dungeons & Dragons without also mentioning Jeremy Irons, or his role as the Fuhrer of the mages.  Once again Solomon uses accents to tie fantasy to reality.  This time though, it’s Jeremy Irons vaguely German accent that reminds us that most white men are basically Nazis.  It’s in this hyper-realized version of our own world that we’re able to more easily see the injustices taking place around us.

In one scene, Dominator, one of Irons’ chief lieutenants stands above a helpless female mage.  As he looks down on her, raping her with his eyes, two tentacles extend from his ears and slowly sink into hers.  Through this he’s able to extract her knowledge (read: innocence) and further subjugate her.  As he does this the look on his face is decidedly German, and so again we see the subtlety in Solomon’s vision.  It’s small things like this that set Dungeons & Dragons apart.  Deep layers of allegory, metaphor and simile make Dungeons & Dragons less film and more onion.

Obvious Nazi face.

It’s obvious that this film was ahead of it’s time but the films climax truly goes above and beyond what I thought was possible.  The final battle is almost prophetic in it its delivery.  As dragons fly headlong into the towers of the city the Empress can only watch as her people plummet to their deaths.  What I find so chilling about Solomon’s obvious depiction of 9/11 is how accurate it is.  Even the implication that it was the mages (read: George W. Bush) that had called the dragons forth from distant sands to decimate their own kingdom was spot on.  You have to wonder, after watching Dungeons & Dragons if this film was ill-received or if the powers that be had it buried.  Is it coincidence that Courtney Solomon, has had few directing credits after this film?  Maybe, or then again, maybe this generation’s Nostradamus is being silenced by a power wielding majority desperately clinging to an outdated way of thinking.

Again, it’s obvious that Dungeons & Dragons is a lot for the average viewer, and it certainly isn’t the film I was expecting.  Still, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the characters, moved by the story-telling, and left questioning by this truly visionary work.  Perhaps Chris knew that a film like this would hit me hard.  Perhaps he knew that the social injustices of this world can’t be solved simply by open dialogue, or informed opinions but that Ismir, like our world, need more people willing to stand against Nazis, the misuse of female tropes in fiction, and other profitable social injustices.  Whatever his reasoning I’m glad that Chris gave me the opportunity to have my eyes opened by such a moving piece of cinema.  I, for one, will be starting a Kickstarter campaign today to help educate the world about these and other important social issues.