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Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God – “From the ultimate evil comes the ultimate quest”

Part two of this installment of Franchise Week. Enjoy. (Also, at some point in the future, whenever it releases, there will be a review of the second sequel in this series – yes, they are (apparently) making a third Dungeons & Dragons movie.)

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God picks up exactly nowhere where the first movie left off. One hundred years after the metaphorical fall of Profion and the literal fall of Damodar in the original D&D movie, Damodar (Bruce Payne, Dungeons & Dragons; Miss Marple: Nemesis) has returned, cursed by Profion to remain in a permanent state of undeath. After finding an ancient orb which contains the powers of a black dragon god, he returns to Izmir to wake the god and wreak his revenge. Meanwhile, the king of Izmir learns of Damodar’s plot, and tasks his advisor Berek (Mark Dymond, Rage of the Yeti; Die Another Day) with assembling a party of adventurers to thwart Damodar’s plans. At the same time, Berek’s wife Melora (Clemency Burton-Hill, Dark Relic; The Lady Musketeer) races to help her fellow mages find a way to defeat the dragon god before a curse placed upon her by Damodar turns her into an undead abomination. Pretty standard stuff.

Top left – Damodar, looking good after a hundred years and a hundred-foot fall; top right – Berek; bottom – Melora, pre- and post-curse; recommendation – sunscreen

The best part about this movie was that it was undeniably better than its predecessor in just about every way. The acting was better across the board, the plot was not a rip-off of a recent popular release, the dialogue, while still hokey, didn’t contain jarring slang from the real world, and the dragon renderings were mostly better. That being said, the CGI overall was a step down in this movie compared to the first one, which was unfortunate.

Exhibits A-E

But best of all, this movie was what I would want from a Dungeons & Dragons movie, were I to request one. While the original installment of the franchise more or less tried to distance itself from the source material, Wrath of the Dragon God embraced its roots, including creatures, gods, and lore from the role-playing game (RPG).

Not only is that picture of a kraken taken straight from the source books but they also included darkmantles. Frickin’ darkmantles!

While this definitely increased the nerdiness of the movie, it also increased my appreciation for it, and made the movie stronger overall by recognizing that it was a movie based on a tabletop RPG. Thus, when Berek calls Nim (Tim Stern, Dirty Filthy Love; Santa Claus) a “rogue”, it makes sense to people who have played the game (rogue is one of the classes available) as well as to those who haven’t (“rogue” definitely fits his personality and actions); likewise, people are constantly yelling at Lux (Ellie Chidzey, Everyone’s Going to Die; Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God) to control her anger, which fits her personality, but difficulty controlling rage is also one of the hallmarks of the barbarian class in the game.

Left – Nim; right – Lux

However, I do have two big problems with the plot. The first is that Berek and his company are supposed to be embarking on a secret mission to save Izmir from destruction, but for some reason, the king decides to convene a full audience to send them on their way, because the best way to keep a secret is to tell fifty of your closest lackeys.

“…and while I am confident of your success, I also harbor no fears that the secret of your mission will be betrayed.”

Second, at the end of the movie, Damodar releases the dragon god from its mountain prison. The dragon then proceeds to terrorize the kingdom, breathing fire all over everything. Which is just ridiculous. Everyone knows that fireballs belong to red and gold dragons. A black dragon’s breath weapon is an acid cloud, dealing 4d8+6 acid damage with ongoing 15 acid damage every turn. Duh.

What kind of a moron doesn’t know that?

As for the obligatory science shout-out, I’m going to examine the physics of bat flight for a moment. It turns out that bats are actually really good flyers. They have economy of effort, as each downbeat of the wings produces more lift and each upbeat less drag than for many species of birds; as well, they have an abundance of joints in the wings that can allow bats to turn extremely quickly, and their wings boast a membrane that is good at repairing itself. Moreover, even with some holes in the wings, bats are still able to fly.

“Damn it feels good to be a gansta!”

So why, for a movie about dragons and adventurers and magic, am I talking about bats? Well, aside from the fact that bats are actually pretty awesome, the titular dragon god has wings that are very bat-like, at least so they seem to me; but if you look, you’ll notice quite a few holes in the wings. Obviously, dragons are not known for being real-world creatures, but it did make me curious as to how much damage a bat wing could suffer before flight would become impossible. As with most things in science, the answer depends on the circumstances – I would suspect that broken bones in the wings are a much bigger impediment to flight than rips and tears in the membranes – but I also feel pretty confident saying that, given the number of holes in the dragon’s wings, it would be really difficult for it to generate enough lift to fly, making its reign of terror a lot less terrifying.

Bring that guy down to ground level, then we’ll see how tough he really is!

And this concludes the second installment of Franchise Week. Hope you enjoyed it, and remember – Shark Week is right around the corner!

“I can hardly wait!”

Dungeons & Dragons – “This is no game”

Last week, I talked about dragons. This week, I’m adding dungeons to the mix. That’s right – I’m discussing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is, in many ways, a combination of all fantasy movie clichés rolled into one great big ball of “what the hell?”. Queen Amidala is trying to bring peace and order to the planet Naboo, but the Trade Federation, spurred on by Senator Palpatine’s manipulations of the Imperial Senate, moves to forcibly overthrow her rule.

Left – Queen Amidala; right – Senator Palpatine

…Wait a minute… That’s not right…

Dang. You know what? I was thinking of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’m not sure why I’d do that, except that THEY’RE EXACTLY THE SAME MOVIE. Dungeons & Dragons tells the story of Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin, Dorm Daze 2; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) and his sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; Scary Movie), two unassuming thieves who get dragged into a political storm when Profion (Jeremy Irons, The Borgias; The Lion King) pits the advisors of the kingdom against Empress Savina (Thora Birch, American Beauty; Patriot Games) in an attempt to gain ultimate power for himself.

Top left – Ridley; top right – Snails; bottom left – Empress Savina; bottom right – Profion

The parallels between the movies certainly don’t stop there. Profion has his own trusted lieutenant in Damodar (Bruce Payne, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God; Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire), an unmistakable mirror of Darth Maul (though decidedly less awesome than the Darth). At one point, it is explained that elves “are part of magic, as are all living creatures”, sounding suspiciously like the ephemeral Force. There’s even a fight scene at the end of the movie featuring lightsabers… I mean swords. Glowy swords. A red glowy sword and a blue glowy sword. Let’s face it, THEY’RE THE SAME FRICKIN’ MOVIE!

Left – Darth Maul; right – Damodar. No, wait – left is Darth Dam, right is Maulodar. No, that’s not right either…

This sword fighting scene is entirely original in every way ever

So what else do we find? For a start, there’s the perpetuation of the sexy librarian trope. Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan, Dirty Sexy Money; JAG) starts out the movie as one of the privileged mages, a student in the magic school. When we first see her, she is assisting her mentor in the school’s library, hair all done up in a bun, complete with nerdy-looking glasses (think Evelyn Carnahan, Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy, at the beginning of the movie, before all the adventures). As the movie progresses, she loses her glasses (but somehow doesn’t seem to notice or care), her hair becomes disheveled, and her overall look becomes more and more relatable and less arrogant and aloof. Because clearly, she was just waiting for an excuse to leave behind the shy and useless girl she was and start showing the… still timid and useless woman she becomes. Rarely does a movie have a female lead that is quite as useless during movie events as this one. She manages to save Ridley once, despite being a mage, compared with the three times she gets captured and needs rescuing.

Marina; note the change in appearance as the movie goes on (earliest at top left, latest at bottom)

Then there’s the portrayal of evil in this movie. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) is not necessarily known for subtlety (more on that below), but this movie, to my mind, goes so far trying to depict evil that the villains leave behind all (or most) of their sinisterness and enter the realm of laughable caricatures. Profion is the quintessential mad scientist of the fantasy world, spending the entire movie (minus his scenes in front of the advisors) with a wild, manic look on his face, yelling at everyone and planning to either conquer the world or destroy it. Meanwhile, Damodar is given the opposite cliché, being soft-spoken and deliberate in everything he says, clearly dictating and enunciating every. Last. Word. He also wears armor that screams menace, has a shaved head (in movies, rarely a sign of a friendly man), abstains from facial expressions of any sort other than pain, and for some reason, spends the whole movie with blue lips.

He’s also got these things in his head. Eeugh!

A perfectly sane and rational expression

Finally, there’s the trope of the antihero with a heart of gold. Ridley presents himself as a thief out for no one but himself (and Snails, of course), but as soon as he’s faced with the consequences of failing to help Marina and the Empress, he betrays that nature, stopping at nothing to make sure Marina stays safe and Profion’s plans get thwarted. And of course, he has a special destiny about which he’s unaware, because what hero doesn’t these days?

“Now, should I use this to get rich or to get laid?… Why not both?!”

On to the standards. The CGI was above average, though it definitely missed once or twice. Considering that this is not a SyFy Channel movie, the CGI was at least as good as expected. Sadly, despite involving a number of well-known actors (besides those mentioned, it also has Lee Arenberg, of Once Upon a Time and Pirates of the Caribbean et al fame), the acting was not this movie’s strong point. The writing was passable but nothing special (though it was refreshing to see overall decent line delivery for a change). The music was suitably epic, but again, nothing remarkable. Overall, this was somewhat better than most movies I review (as expected) but definitely worse than the vast majority of medium-budget studio releases.

A miss and a sort-of hit, plus the best the CGI gets with those ear things. Eeugh!

Lee Arenberg as Elwood Gutworthy, wondering why he’s in this thing

So what did this movie do well?

As many of you know, I am a huge nerd and an enormous geek (if you didn’t know that, just read… well, pretty much any of my blog entries). Dungeons and Dragons (the game) holds a special place in my heart, including some very good memories from my childhood. I know that the stereotype of D&D is socially awkward teenage boys sitting around in a basement rolling dice, and while that stereotype is not without basis (to be fair, we often used the dining room table), D&D in its best incarnation is so much more than that. I find it interesting that, in our society, gamers (of all stripes) are often derided as living in a fantasy world (and yes, this is much less true today than it was, say, ten or twelve years ago, but even today some of my good friends have difficulty understanding why I play computer games), while authors are celebrated, at least nominally. I’m not trying to imply, of course, that writers don’t deserve appreciation and recognition, as I’ve tried writing stories from time to time, and it is nothing resembling easy. However, the point I want to make here is that D&D, in its best interpretation, is a form of collaborative storytelling. All the players, both character players and dungeon master (the person who provides the setting and obstacles to be overcome), work together to create and develop a world that can be as rich and detailed and interesting as any best-selling novel. The main difference is that the story in D&D is written by several people, not just one.

“Several people, you say? Tell me more!”

The point of all this is that, to my mind, the Dungeons & Dragons movie captured this feeling very well, although certainly not perfectly. But the characters in the movie made meaningful choices that affected the outcome of the overall plot in significant ways, which is just as it should be in a good D&D game. The writers had a certain lack of imagination, of course (Ridley and Co. are trying to find the Scepter of Red Dragon Control, which involves bringing the Eye of the Dragon to the Temple of the Dragon, for instance), but having been in the position of creating a D&D adventure, I’m willing to forgive them for it, given the justice they did to the spirit of the game. So while the technical aspects left quite a bit to be desired, the essence of the movie was definitely well-conceived and interpreted.

So, I guess one of these controls dragons, and the other helps them see? Or maybe fits inside them? And there’s a temple somewhere?…

Finally, since this is Jumping Sharks, and I do try to make a point of looking at science stuff, I will bring up the one science thing I noticed. At the beginning of the movie, Profion is trying to create his own dragon-controlling scepter, but fails, resulting in him killing the dragon he had hoped to control. When its blood reaches a pool of nearby water, the water ignites, lighting up the entire river in the city. Ridley notices this, and asks Snails when was the last time he saw a river catch on fire. However, something that seems so impossible is actually not so! For instance, the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio, is probably best known for lighting on fire multiple times throughout history, most notably in 1969, a fire which resulted in passage of a multitude of clean water legislation, among other things. Additionally, some metals are so reactive in their non-ionized state that simply by placing them in water, they ignite (I’m looking at you, Lithium and Sodium!). To be fair, the water itself is not burning, but rather certain materials in the water; however, the point is that flame on top of water is not impossible.

Once more, just ’cause. Eeugh!

So that’s that. Stayed tuned for the second Dungeons & Dragons movie later this week and remember – shark week is coming!

Dragon Fighter – “It came from the past, to destroy the future”

Who doesn’t love dragons? They can be good guys; bad guys; pets; and they’re basically the sharks of the air. Sharks who breathe fire. And have legs. With claws. But I digress. The point is, dragons are awesome. This movie, on the other hand…

Dragon Fighter is not at all what you’d expect, most likely. Capt. David Carver (Dean Cain, Maneater; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is assigned as head of security for a top-secret research lab in southern California. The team, led by Dr. Ian Drackovitch (Robert Zachar, Python 2; Star Trek: First Contact), includes Dr. Meredith Winter (Kristine Byers, Dragon Fighter; Spring Break Lawyer) and various expendables, all tasked with returning species from extinction when that extinction was caused by humans. The “good” Dr. Drackovitch brings a new specimen to the lab, claiming it is the remains of what appears to be a dinosaur relative, remains which are dated only back to 12th Century England instead of the extinction event that killed all the rest (estimated to have occurred about 65 million years ago). Naturally, he insists that his team clone and hatch the find, despite David’s suggestion that it could, in fact, be a dragon. It does, in fact, turn out to be a dragon, which then does, in fact, go on a rampage throughout the facility, causing all manner of dragony mayhem.

Top left – Capt. David Carver; top right – Dr. Ian Drackovitch; middle left – Dr. Meredith Winter; middle right – dragony mayhem, not to be confused with Mr. Mayhem (bottom)

So what did this movie have? Well, it had better than average CGI for most of it (there’s some pretty awful stuff at the beginning, but the rest is decent), but worse than average acting (“average”, here, referring to the SyFy standard). The writing was passable, but definitely seemed to jump around in places, an issue accentuated by often-stilted line delivery. But the music was good, overall. Also, much of the movie was shot in a way reminiscent of Alien, which to my mind is always a good thing. The strangest artistic choices, however, were the copious use of split screens and the scene transitions that were made to look like security camera footage. Both of these were used extensively throughout the movie, and while there were occasional moments where one scene transitioned to another through a camera feed someone was watching, more often than not they made no sense and detracted from the flow of the movie. There were also computer dossiers that came up when certain characters were introduced, again being completely unnecessary, and kind of jarring to see, as they didn’t fit in with any of the action before or after.

Early dragon…

…and later dragon…

…and I swear, it was almost an hour and half of this…

…and this

This one also had clichés, as expected, the most obvious two being the I’m-a-scientist-so-your-thoughts-don’t-matter cliché, and the I’m-gonna-be-famous-consequences-be-damned cliché. As you might have guessed, both of these were embodied in Dr. Drackovitch, who spends the better part of the first half of the movie sneering at David and deriding him every chance he gets, and the better part of the second half of the movie sabotaging every effort to escape or kill the dragon. Interestingly, although Ian insults David’s intelligence and assumed lack of education or scientific insight, he ends up sharing David’s suspicion that the sample he brought is indeed a dragon, and it is later revealed that Ian spent an unknown but presumably lengthy portion of his life looking for proof of the existence of dragons. And while it isn’t explored at any length in this movie, the debate between making history and moral responsibility is briefly brought up, heavily biased towards the moral responsibility of prevent the escape of the dragon into the world. On a side note, much though I appreciate the sentiment of debates of this nature, part of me wishes that these movies would realize that their audience is not watching them for academic philosophical challenges to their worldview; we’re watching these movie because they have dragons (or Mongolian death worms, or homicidal ghosts, or enterprising aliens, or…). Not every movie that gets made needs to have a deep and profound meaning and impact on the world; in fact, most of them don’t. Take pride in what you are, B horror movies, and leave it at that.

“In Mother Russia, movie critique YOU!”

Most importantly, what this movie had was science, and not just any science, but my own personal favorite branch of science, genetics (via cloning, in this case).

We all remember back when it was this big thing that they found this mosquito fossilized in amber, and pretty soon there were dinosaurs everywhere thanks to cloning. Right? I mean, that did actually happen, didn’t it? Yeah, I’m pretty sure it did. Anyway, this movie is kinda like that, only much less awesome. Like I mentioned above, Dr. Drackovitch brings a dragon egg to the lab, from which two intact cells are recovered and combined to make a dragon zygote, which then divides and becomes what appears to be a full-grown dragon within a matter of hours. In the most basic of senses, this actually is what happens during the cloning process – the nucleus of one cell is removed and inserted into another cell, then the new combination is stimulated to divide.

“Damn it feels good to be a scientist!”

However. (There’s always one of these in here, isn’t there…)

“Not if I crush all dissent!”

After an organism dies, its body immediately begins to be broken down by various bacteria, insects, or other scavengers. More significantly for the movie, DNA begins to degrade through natural cellular processes (see here or here for broader studies, or here for an in-depth look at the chemistry of DNA degradation). What this means is that finding any DNA can be a tricky thing when looking at specimens past a certain age (though to be fair, not too long ago, DNA was extracted from bird eggs up to 19,000 years old). But here’s the key – for the cloning process to work, the donor nucleus (or, in this case, nuclei) needs to be complete; some limited amount of damage to the DNA might be overcome, but large-scale degradation would absolutely pose a problem. And while the entire genome of an organism can be deduced by examining DNA fragments from many sources, the movie scientists manage to find two completely intact nuclei and fuse them together. I’m not great at statistics, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that this is pretty much impossible to do in a specimen that’s 1000 years old, especially considering that the movie specifically says that the DNA from each cell is undamaged and intact.

“Who’s a good cloned puppy? WHO’S a good cloned puppy? You are! Yes you are!”

Since I’m a genetics nerd, I’m going to digress for a moment and discuss somatic-cell nuclear transfer (cloning) in more detail as it relates to the movie. “Cloning”, in the colloquial sense, involves taking the nucleus out of an egg cell and discarding it, and then inserting the diploid nucleus of a second cell into the “empty” egg cell (I should point out that, while vertebrates are predominantly diploid, there are a number of species known to be polyploid, including some reptiles). For the sake of discussion, I am assuming that dragons are diploid animals. What this means, then, is that combining two somatic nuclei in one cell and then causing the cell to divide would most likely either create two new somatic cells from the original tetraploid cell, or result in a permanently tetraploid animal. This latter situation would most likely be fatal (though it’s certainly not guaranteed to be so), and the former situation would, at best, probably lead to a growth of a specific dragon cell type. Either way, the method shown in the movie would all but definitely not lead to a viable, fully differentiated baby dragon.

Who’s an impossible genetic freak? WHO’S an impossible genetic freak? You are! Yes you are!

But however they did it, they created a dragon. Which turned out to want to nest under air conditioner vents, because apparently it was warm-blooded, and that’s what warm-blooded things do, I guess. But reptiles are cold-blooded, you say. Everyone knows that, you say. Right?, you say. Wrong. For a start, there’s the leatherback sea turtle, which has been shown to be endothermic. Then there’s the dinosaurs. Recent research shows that Harris lines, the classically accepted indicators of cold-bloodedness in dinosaurs, are also found in mammals, rendering them essentially useless in demonstrating ectothermy. This is not to say that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, of course; just that there is now less evidence to suggest that they were cold-blooded. How’s that for upsetting your worldview?

“Sergei doesn’t like it! Is lie, and Sergei doesn’t like lies!”

So that about does it for Dragon Fighter. Until next time, keep an eye to the skies; who knows where the sharks will end up next?