Wednesday, June 06, 2007



"A cheap jack, shot in Lithuania with an affordable unknown cast, direct-to-video sequel to one of the decade’s biggest flops is actually pretty darn enjoyable. " - David Cornelius, eFilmCritic.Com


100 years have passed since the first Dungeons & Dragons movie (just long enough so that both the viewers and the characters mercifully don't have to give it much thought) and all is going pretty well with the kingdom of Ismir. At least until the villainous Damodar (the only character worth bringing back from part one), finally freed from the curse of the undead, reappears with a plan to rain vengeance on the city. Using a magical black orb, Damodar intends to awaken Faluzure, the dragon deity of energy draining, undeath, decay, and exhaustion, so that the monster can do that voodoo that he do so well. Forewarned, the rulers of Ismir assemble a team of five champions to find the orb, overcome Damodar, and defeat the dragon god. And all that's just the setup in the first five minutes; after that it really gets complicated.


Before Nintendo dropped the first NES on the world in 1985, Role Playing Games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons ruled the gaming industry with players numbering over 20 million. According to a recent BBC news article that number has fallen to around 3 to 4 million, which is a staggering drop, but still leaves enough people to make RPGs a $2.5 billion dollar a year business and provide a sizable ready made audience for a movie bearing the D&D brand name. Unfortunately, the first attempt to cash in on the game was 2000's Dungeons and Dragons, a movie so painful to watch that I can hardly bear to even mention it. (If you feel the need to self-flagellate and just have to know more about that film you can head over to Rotten Tomatoes and wallow in the glory that is its 11% approval rating.) Instead, we're taking a look at the sequel, which turns out to be a different story altogether in more than one way.

First off, thanks to the one hundred year jump in movie time, Wrath of the Dragon God is viewable as a stand alone film. There's no need to watch anything like, say, some other preexisting film you'd rather forget nearly scarred you for life. And Second (and more importantly), unlike that other film I'm loathe to mention again, Wrath of the Dragon God is enjoyable in its own modest, retro way. This movie is, quite appropriately, a throwback to those old 80s style sword and sorcery flicks which were themselves inspired by the success of the D&D game to begin with.

What this means is that you get good guys who are heroes in the old sense, honorable men and women who accept a mission and see it through no matter the cost. There's not one single brooding tortured semi-sociopath on the roster. Neither are the bad guys misunderstood or possibly right, they're just rotten scumbags who deserve a butt kicking. There's a kingdom that needs saving, an adventure filled quest to find the object that will save it, and a mad dash to get the object back home with only seconds to spare. All of the old fantasy clich├ęs are here, but without the self-aware smugness and excruciating attempts at irony that have sullied so many current fantasy films, especially that one I dare not mention anymore for fear of doing myself mental harm. Sure, Wrath's budget hurts a little. The acting is entry-level and most of the effects look like they came off some graphic design student's MacBook, but none of it is a real deal killer. You're not likely to pick up a movie like this expecting the depth and quality of Lord of the Rings anyway. But if you dig the likes of Beastmaster, Deathstalker, Krull, etc., you'll feel right at home in this movie.

While it's true that Wrath of the Dragon God can be enjoyed by the casual fantasy fan, the film goes out of its way to give winks and nods to those viewers who have actually played Dungeons & Dragons. (And yes, back in the day I was among those 20 million. Geek credentials assured, I now move on.) There are references to old adventures like Expedition to The Barrier Peaks and The Ghost Tower of Inverness. There are recognizable monsters like the color-coded dragons and the squid-like Darkmantles. There's cool loot like the Gem of True Seeing and the Ring of the Ram. And best of all, the heroes all have recognizable character classes with appropriate skills and abilities. I'm majorly geeking out right now remembering all those Thursday nights spent rolling dice, planning strategies, and just plain hanging out with good friends.

I'm sure there's more than one reason video games siphoned off so many players from RPGs. Video games have pictures and sound, they can be played alone, and let's face it, they’re not quite as associated with being a “geek” as RPGs are. But if I was forced to pinpoint one thing in particular, I'd have to say it's all of the blasted rules in RPGs. As one article put it, “the biggest game in the field…Dungeons & Dragons…grew into a mass of consistent and inconsistent rules, explained in as many as fourteen different hardcover rulebooks.” Fourteen! Start making video games that require fourteen rulebooks, and I’ll show you a bunch of kids who put down their gamepads, turn off their TVs and go outside to play ball. Most people hate having too many rules.

Except for, maybe, the ancient Jews.

According to written Jewish tradition, The Torah (our Old Testament) contains 613 precepts, or practical rules, that are derived from the original 10 commandments, and instruct the Jews on how to lead a holy life. (There are more rules in the oral tradition, but we’ll stick with the 613 written ones for now.) By the time Jesus came along, the Pharisees, the Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Law, had arranged these precepts into 248 “thou shalt” commandments and 365 “thou shalt not” prohibitions. There were even rule sets such as the Kashrut which instructed the Jews on what they could and could not eat. Most of us are familiar with a few of these guidelines such as no eating meat at the same time as dairy products or no eating pork at all. But most modern people, even a large number of Jews, have gotten the idea that the Kashrut were simply primitive health regulations that don’t apply since we invented things like the refrigerator. And it’s true that some of the dietary laws do have healthy benefits, but that’s not really the reason behind the Kashrut. Or any of the other rules for that matter.

In his book "To Be a Jew", Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the Kashrut are meant to be a call to holiness. “The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is very important in Judaism. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self control, requiring us to learn to control even our most basic, primal instincts.” As good Catholic boys and girls we should recognize this same principle behind some of our own practices during Lent.

The problem was that the Pharisees in Jesus' time had become focused primarily on performing these external practices perfectly while apparently giving little attention to the inner reality the rules were supposed to be pointing to. In short, they had adopted the attitude that the rituals mattered more to God than what was going on inside the hearts of his people. But, as Jesus correctly points out when questioned in Matthew 22 on what is the greatest commandment, the Law was founded upon the internal attitudes of love (charity) which were required to be present within a person’s heart. From the two most basic of commandments to love God and to love mankind, all the other 600+ regulations stem. The Pharisees knew this, but forgot it. I have to admit that sometimes, as a Catholic who prefers and argues for many of the Church's older devotions and rituals, I have to be careful not to do the same.


We Catholics are no strangers to memorizing rules. In its final version, the old Baltimore Catechism had 1,274 questions and answers, many of which the students had to learn by heart before being allowed to receive confirmation. This probably seems a little frightening to today’s post-Vatican II generation, but in its day it was highly effective in training Catholics to respond to the over-zealous evangelizing of their Protestant neighbors who considered Catholics to be “mindless” followers of the Pope with no real knowledge of Scripture or doctrine.

The potential problem of this type of Q & A instruction is the same one we see with the Pharisees in Matthew 22. The catechist can become so focused on making sure the student knows “what” all the right answers are that they forget to examine “why” they are the right answers. In today’s cultural climate, “why” something is the right answer is more important than ever. On issues like abortion, assisted suicide, the death penalty, social justice, and even the environment, rational intelligent people (who never seem to make it on the TV talk shows) can look at the same set of facts and reach entirely different conclusions based on their experience, worldview, and preconceptions. Merely parroting the Church’s view on such issues will never convince anyone of the “rightness” of the Church’s position, we have to be able to explain the “why”.


D. G. D. Davidson said...

I don't know how you do it. You managed to go from Wrath of the Dragon God to a comment on D&D's excessive rules to a thoughtful discussion of Jewish Law to a thoughtful discussion of Christian morality and practice. Pure genius.

I hope, EegahInc, that you're planning to one day gather up all these essays, arrange them topically, maybe expand a few, and put them in a book. The Sci Fi Catholic would proudly display The B-Movie Catechism: Exploring the Best of the Catholic Faith Through the Worst of the Popular Culture on his bookshelf.

EegahInc said...

My favorite thing about this comment is that you've already named the book :)

I'm trying to picture this on the shelf of my local Catholic bookstore next to Aquinas and Chesterton,and I can't quite see it yet. But you never know where the Spirit will lead. Anyone who told me five years ago that I would be writing a religion-oriented blog probably would have been dismissed as a lunatic, so who can tell.

D. G. D. Davidson said...

The title was just a suggestion of course.

Rocket Scientist said...

One of your best! And if you publish 'The B-Movie Catechism: Exploring the Best of the Catholic Faith Through the Worst of the Popular Culture' I'll be first in line for a copy.

arvindswamy said...

Thank you for using my Guide and if it work for you that makes me happy

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