DVD Review: Age of the Dragons

'While Age of the Dragons is based on a fun idea, the tone of the film is relentlessly somber.'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

“You’re Ishmael, right?”

“You can call me that.”

Ryan Little’s Age of the Dragons is a fun idea: Take Moby-Dick, and transpose the setting from the high seas of the 1840s to a medieval Middle-Earth like realm, and turn the whale into a great white dragon. If you know Moby-Dick (and what American over college age doesn’t, really?), you’ll spend the bulk of Age of the Dragons spotting the similarities, checking off the cute references to Herman Melville’s original classic. In this version, The Pequod is now an enormous, armored, land-bound tank (complete with anchors) equipped with harpoons designed to take dragons out of the sky. Melville’s endless descriptions of whale oil, ambergris and the history of fisheries is now replaced with a few cursory lines about dragon vitriol (a glowing blue fluid) which is highly valued in this universe as lamp fuel. The oceans are now played by a remote, wintry tundra.

The characters are all pretty much the same too. Well, pretty much. Ishmael is still our wide-eyed narrator, and is played by a lugubrious and blandly handsome Sam Worthington/Taylor Kitsch type named Corey Sevier in his first film role. I never picture Ishmael as a dashing charmer, but more a hard-working observer, but whatever. There is still Captain Ahab, played by a deliriously overacting Danny Glover, who takes a lot of his dialogue directly from Melville. I would accuse Glover of chewing scenery and padding his part, but he is playing Captain Ahab, a role not known for being subtle; that would be like criticizing Hamlet for being too wordy. There is a Queequeg, played by John Kepa Kruse, only he’s just a grumbling silent type whom people call “savage,” and not the exotic Maori warrior of the original. Since there’s no water in this version, Queequeg’s coffin will not prove to be Ishmael’s salvation. Starbuck (David Morgan), the first mate, is pretty much the same, and only exists to tut-tut over Ahab’s mad quest to find the whale – I mean dragon – that scarred him years before. There’s a crazy prophet named Elijah. There’s even a Tashtego. Vinnie Jones plays Stubbs, the amusingly fatalistic second mate, and seems to be the only actor having any fun.

Indeed, while Age of the Dragons is based on a fun idea, the tone of the film is relentlessly somber. Every line of dialogue is delivered with an aching broodiness, and every reaction shot is of faces rife with a sort of blank tragedy. Not that Moby-Dick is known for its levity, but I would argue that a goodly portion of it is at least a raucous seafaring adventure. Not all of Moby-Dick is dense introspective religious symbolism. Age of the Dragons would have greatly benefitted from a lighter tone. So many fantasy films these days (and I’m looking at you, Harry Potter; you too, Frodo) seem to be filmed in such a dreary, muddy, colorless style that it’s a wonder why the filmmakers chose to photograph their films in color to begin with. Maybe someday fantasy films will push the dreary aesthetic so far that the movies will end up resembling tinted silent movies from the early 1920s. That would be cool.

Age of the Dragons’ cool idea is further offset by a largely unnecessary addition to the story in the form of Rachel (Ali Larter-type Sofia Pernas), Captain Ahab’s hot daughter. I guess the story needed a little sexing up (there is more than one ogling shot down Ms. Pernas’ fetish corset), and also a few opportunities for Flask to attempt rape. Oh yeah, Rachel will also serve as Ishmael’s love interest. I once wrote an article about how every film is a love story. This now applies to Moby-Dick as well. Rachel is a harpoon chucking badass who plays dragonslayer right alongside the boys. Her character is too clichéd to be interesting.

I will credit the film for capturing much of Melville’s prose; much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book (just substituting “dragon” for “whale”), and the ancillary dialogue has an ambitious poetic flair. Clearly the screenwriters were trying to make this film a little more than a gimmick. Sadly, the dour tone and goofy story alterations weigh the film down a little too much for its own good.

Those dragons sure look cool, though.

The DVD is a frills-free affair, having only the usual previews. There’s no commentary track.