Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In Review: LDSFF '09 Part 3 - Dragon Hunter

I'm glad I finally have a chance to get back to this. Sorry it's taken so long.
Being at the same time as the 24 hour screenings, I didn't think I was going to get to see Steve Shimek's Dragon Hunter. Probably because of popular demand, however, the festival's producers decided to put in in the TBA slot immediately after the 24 hour films. So I stayed.
I have to disclose that I tend to be a sucker for fantasy, and was consequently predisposed to like this film. I was intrigued by it to no end. A Mormon film about hunting dragons? How "Mormon" would it be? Would it be an overwrought morality tale? A complex allegory? Or nothing of the kind? How "big" would the film be? Would it look like a Hollywood fantasy-action movie, complete with realistic CGI monsters and carefully choreographed fight scenes? Would it be more like something you shot in your backyard with sock puppets? The posters certainly didn't look that way. I had a lot of questions and didn't know quite what to expect, but I was excited to see it nonetheless.
Because I'm not very good at summarizing plots, I've pasted the synopsis from the festival site below:
Orphaned as a baby when his parents were killed in a vicious orc attack, Kendrick of Elwood was raised by his elder brother, Darius. Though only nine at the time, Darius devoted his life to Kendrick's care and to purging orcs from their land. As Darius grew into a great warrior, he sheltered Kendrick from all possible harm. Now, after years of absence, a new danger emerges, more lethal than the threat of orcs or men. Reports of dragon attacks spread like wildfire through the panicked land. In memory of his mother's prophesies of a mighty Dragon Hunter in their bloodline, Darius leads Kendrick on a perilous journey to the castle of Ocard - the Dragon Hunter training grounds. Will dragons completely decimate the countryside? Only the Dragon Hunter will decide!
In spite of being patterned after films like The Lord of the Rings, this film, to paraphrase Maclain Nelson, its executive producer and star, was not the most riveting action-adventure movie ever. It was made to make money, Nelson said in his presentation later in the festival. Fantasy, he pointed out, does better in foreign markets than in the U.S., and so, for Americans, does not lend itself to art for art's sake. This, however, does not mean that quality craftsmanship is not involved. In fact, the very first thing I noticed about the film was the stunning cinematography-a-la-T. C. Christensen of the opening sequence in particular. I was surprised later to learn that not only was the script submitted by a student, the film was crewed entirely by students to keep costs down. Nelson and his team essentially said to the BYU media arts department, "We want to do a fantasy film. If you can come up with a script we like, we'll produce it."
This might just be every film student's dream come true - although not necessarily this genre - and I have to applaud Nelson and his associates for making the offer, regardless of other considerations.
Getting back to the film, let me say a few things generally to answer what I imagine some of the surface questions about this film may be.
The special effects were good enough to not be cheesy. The fight sequences were shot in such a manner that I never knew who was hitting whom for all the quick cuts, and motion blur. It was a bit melodramatic and slow-moving, but not unbearably so. Many of the characters could have been taken from any number of other fantasy films (or even video games), notably the orcs and the overdone, heavily painted, scantily clad female elf. Who really goes on a battle quest dressed like that? Honestly. The main protagonists, Kendrick and Darius, were original and well done. I particularly liked the captain of the travelling band the two brothers meet up with, though his name escapes me. The character played by Isaac Singleton, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame is also pretty good. The story has potential, but doesn't always live up to it.
With that out of the way, there are two aspects of Dragon Hunter I'd like to discuss particularly: the language, and the intertwined moral themes, namely courage and the motivation for fighting.
A lot of fantasy films have every character speak in British-like accents in order to get an archaic sound to the words. At the very least, they try to eliminate accents that are clearly modern, such as the distinct speech patterns associated with people from Brooklyn. They also avoid modern slang, contractions, and other linguistic artifacts that might give the piece too contemporary a feel. While the effectiveness of this approach is debatable, it is nevertheless a common creative choice. Although some actors did have (it seemed) native accents, this was not the format of Dragon Hunter, in which the main protagonists noticeably sounded just like everyday Americans - though not crudely so, and I spoke with Nelson individually to ask why.
He said that he didn't feel such language lends any extra credibility to a fantasy film. Indeed, my linguist sister-in-law once told me that people in medieval times probably sounded more like Americans than Britons, although popular perception is the reverse. Nelson didn't think the choice hurt the film at all, and I, after getting into it, agreed. But I do remember being surprised by it, nonetheless. For the first several minutes, the world created effectively by cinematography, costuming, and sets, was made less believable by the sound and content of some of the lines. In many cases, good or fairly good acting made up for what I considered somewhat weak dialogue.
And yet, aside from being occasionally forced, the primary reasons I considered it weak go back to this same concept of setting and perception. I don't think the accents would have thrown me as much if the words being spoken had sounded less modern. With the conglomeration of voices and speaking styles in the film, the return to everyday English felt out of place at times, especially since the characters who did this did not do it consistently. Some lines, in content and delivery, sounded tailor made for a big fantasy action film. Others sounded like they were written for a suburban sitcom. This is probably a realistic reflection of life, and it ended up being a minor issue, but it was harder for me to commit to the film because of the language.
Courage and Fighting
Here I want to shift gears a little bit. While I want to discuss these themes as they apply to the film, I want to also discuss them as they apply to the LDS filmmaker.
Dragon Hunter opens and closes by making assertions about the relationship between courage and fear. In the beginning, Kendrick admires Darius' bravery, but Darius claims to have none. Instead, he claims that his will to fight comes from the fear of what will happen if he doesn't fight. In many cases, this means that he simply fight to stay alive and to kill his attacker. In fact, he's devoted his life to hunting orcs for this reason. His primary motive in life is the fear of dying at the hands of an orc. Therefore, he becomes an orc hunter. The topic of his daring deeds and those of others comes up repeatedly in conversations throughout the film.
In almost every case, the person in question denies fighting out of valor or some sense of right or righteousness, and instead cites fear, vengeance, hatred, or plain necessity as the driving motivation. Regarding fear, I want to make it clear that this is not fear for the welfare of others, but simply an (arguably) utterly selfish concern for one's own life. In the end, when Kendrick becomes the legendary Dragon Hunter and devotes his life to bringing about their extinction, he monologues the same reason Darius gave. He chases down and confronts dragons because he is mortally afraid of them.
So how does this apply to LDS filmmakers? I wonder if sometimes we have these same motivations for creating our art.
For example, no one is surprised to hear an LDS filmmaker express a desire to combat the immorality common in Hollywood films, or at least provide an alternative. We tend to applaud and encourage these desires because we want more beauty and goodness in the world. But how many LDS filmmakers (or viewers, for that matter) are motivated by fear of the influence of immorality in their own lives or the lives of others? Do we combat these things to avoid being destroyed by them? Is that an appropriate motivation?
Similarly, like a masked vigilante, do we harbor a deep hatred of filthy entertainment and want to see it eradicated? Do we view the battle as inevitable or the alternative to fighting as unacceptable? Have we or a loved one been hurt by it so that we desire vengeance? This may not be common, but I doubt it's impossible.
Further, how do we define the dragon?
I don't propose to answer these questions for anyone, but I think we would do well to ask ourselves why we make films and why our audiences want them. Are any of these motives at the core? If so, is this appropriate from a personal or gospel perspective?
Closing Note - including spoiler, in case you care.
Dragon Hunter provides, if nothing else, a lot to think about. Let me say one other thing really quickly. I often have a hard time with seeing LDS actors who have been in official Church films playing roles in worldly movies. In Dragon Hunter, the villainous "wizard" who tries to control the dragon and gets eaten - a topic which might make for a good post another time - is played by (I'm terribly with actors' names) the same guy who plays one of the apostles in Finding Faith in Christ. For some reason, I couldn't take him seriously as a demented, bloodthirsty maniac. He always seemed like an apostle in costume. However, if I had seen the two films in reverse order, I have a hunch I may have felt differently. What do you think about that? Does acting in Church films limit an actor's credibility in other roles?


Mahonri Stewart said...

The actor you're talking about at the end is David Morgan, a theater professor at BYU.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Thanks, Mahonri. I knew that at one point, but I don't even remember most big Hollywood actors' names for very long. Don't know why.