"Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker": Seek, But Don't Expect to Find
I can understand (if not entirely agree with) the continuing fascination with turning video games into movies even though the hit-to-miss ratio is so abysmally bad. In theory, at least, such adaptations can springboard off the characters, settings, and stories of a game, filling in blanks or expanding on aspects left underdeveloped, in addition to having a built-in audience of fans of the video game who will be pre-disposed to see it. Unfortunately, in practice, most (all?) of the movies made so far from video games have been some of the biggest cinematic stinkers in history, and the DTV market hasn’t yielded much better results. So, the good news is that FUNimation’s Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker, adapted from Bioware’s Dragon Age, may be the best movie adaptation of a video game franchise to date. The bad news is that it still isn’t a very good movie.
In Dragon Age, magic and its practitioners are carefully regulated and controlled by the Chantry, the dominating religious body of the world. Their enforcers are the Templars: knights charged with ensuring the Chantry’s doctrines on magic are being obeyed and hunting down and exterminating apostates, or those who practice magics outside of the Chantry’s graces. Watching over both the Chantry and the Templars are the Seekers, an elite group of warriors tasked with seeking out and eradicating corruption and wrongdoing. The lead character of Dawn of the Seeker is Cassandra, a Seeker from the famed Pentaghast family of dragon hunters. On the eve of the Chantry’s ten-year festival, Cassandra and her order of Seekers discover a mysterious plot driven by Blood Mages, the worst form of apostates, who consort with demons and engage in human sacrifices for their magical power. This plot seems to be getting help from an inside source, possibly even within the Seekers themselves. Cassandra is drawn into the plot by her elder Seeker mentor Byron, but their first action goes horribly awry, making Cassandra the quarry for Seekers and Templars alike. Her only aid to clear her name and stop the Blood Mage plot is Regalyan D’Marcall (“my friends call me Galyan”), a smart-mouthed but good-hearted mage who was assisting Byron in his investigations.
I haven’t finished it yet, but two of my favorite things about the Dragon Age: Origins video game are the fascinating cast of characters and the surprising nuance in the socio-political drama that dominates the game. Dragon Age: Origins has a memorably idiosyncratic cast, such as the tart-tongued witch Morrigan, the laconic and exceptionally stern warrior Sten, and the beatific Leliana hiding a more shadowy past. Half the fun of the game is exploring the complex dialogue trees to see how they affect relationships and present more iconoclastic points of view. In a genre that tends towards simplistic black-and-white moral choices, Dragon Age: Origins also presented conflicts driven by differences in perspective, where the “right” or “good” choice was rarely easy and had substantial impact on the outcome of the game. Unfortunately, despite substantial involvement by Bioware, this sensitivity to characterization and plot is almost entirely absent from Dawn of the Seeker. Cassandra has exactly one character trait (anger) and one response to any problem in front of her (hack at it until it dies). Neither makes her a very interesting protagonist, and the attempt to give Cassandra a backstory explaining her deep-seated hatred of mages is thin and obvious and clichéd. She compares quite unfavorably to a character like Black Lagoon‘s Revy Two-Hands, another memorable anime character marked by hair-trigger rage and a deep capacity for violence. Revy’s anger reflects her depth, being the tip of an iceberg that marks a profoundly damaged human being. Cassandra’s anger reflects her shallowness, turning her into little more than a petulant and slightly dense cavewoman.
Everyone else in Dawn of the Seeker shows even less nuance than Cassandra. With exactly one exception, everyone can be divided into noble good guy or sinister bad guy immediately, and the one exception ends up squarely in one of those categories soon enough (I dare not reveal who this character is for fear of removing the one surprise the movie has and because the character is so inconsequential to the plot that they might as well have been named “Surprising Plot Twist”). Galyan makes a somewhat charming stab at being a lovable rogue, but since he has to play second fiddle to Cassandra, he ends up feeling somewhat underdone and ineffectual even though he demonstrates substantial magical skill and far more intelligence than his partner. The plot is also extremely simplistic, as Cassandra and Galyan chase down a magical MacGuffin, with the plot twists feeling like artificial padding despite the movie’s relatively short running time. The aforementioned surprise character could be taken out of the narrative entirely with no impact, and the alliances that form the Bad Guy Conspiracy have little visible reason for being because none of the players involved have any visible affinity for each other, except for their common urges to power and double-crossing their erstwhile friends at the first opportunity.
Dawn of the Seeker was animated by the Japanese studio Oxybot using the motion-captured CGI animation showcased in Vexille. As with Vexille or the Appleseed CGI movies, Dawn of the Seeker avoids the Uncanny Valley failures of Robert Zemeckis’ hideous cinematic fumbles by emulating hand-drawn animation rather than live-action. Character faces are rendered to look more like hand-drawn anime, and character movements seem to have been simplified and streamlined somewhat to avoid making them look too eerily realistic. Even so, the movie looks and feels off for a few different reasons. First and foremost is the severe disconnect between these simpler characters and the extraordinarily detailed backgrounds they inhabit. This disconnect also happens with the fully rendered dragons, whose detailed skin textures clash with the deliberately simplified shading on the people. There is also a curious sense of weightlessness to the characters, which manifests in both technical and aesthetic ways. Technically, the characters often look like they’re hovering over the floor instead of walking on it — an effect much more pronounced on the Blu-ray. At its worst, it looks like the characters were added to the backgrounds by a poor green-screening process. Aesthetically, the mocap movements make it look like the big, bulky suits of armor fail to hinder movement in the least, with the opening scene showing fully armored footsoldiers running at a full tilt and Cassandra performing aerobatic leaps and midair somersaults. Cassandra’s ability to defy gravity extends throughout the movie in increasingly implausible ways until the climactic battle scene, where she becomes the Dragon Age equivalent of Wile E. Coyote by surviving numerous plunges from dizzying heights through entirely unbelievable methods. I’m sure the movie’s proponents would ask me to suspend my disbelief for these scenes, but beyond the self-defeating nature of that request, if you’re going to be this wildly unrealistic then the heightened realism of mocap CGI is absolutely the wrong choice of medium. To compare this movie to Black Lagoon again, the unrealistic physics and over-the-top action sequences in that hand-drawn series were infinitely more credible than anything Dawn of the Seeker does because the abstraction inherent in hand-drawn animation sets up entirely different expectations than the more realistic models and movements of mocap CGI.
The Blu-ray release of Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker includes the movie on one Blu-ray disc and two DVDs, with the English dub of the movie on one disc and the Japanese dub on the other. All 3 discs include the same set of bonus features (a tour of the Bioware studios where the Dragon Age video games are made, a “making of” featurette, concept art galleries, and trailers). The Blu-ray presentation is excellent in video and audio departments, although (as mentioned above) the high-definition image does sometimes make the visual flaws of the animation more pronounced. I would definitely favor the English dub over the Japanese, since the Japanese translation subtitles make the dialogue even less subtle, and the English voice actors (all recognizable names from FUNimation dubs) are excellent across the board. I’m especially impressed at how well Colleen Clinkenbeard can carry Cassandra’s quasi-French Orlesian accent. I’m not entirely sure why there are two DVDs, since it seems like the DVD should have been able to fit both soundtracks on one disc considering the short running time and relatively short bonuses. Even though I wasn’t entirely impressed by the animation, I’m also a little disappointed by the complete absence of anyone from Oxybot in the “making of” featurette, which instead focuses on concepts and story than the technical aspects of production.
In the end, Dawn of the Seeker isn’t much more than a surprising disappointment. A world from a video game like Dragon Age seems like it would be a better fit for a series rather than a standalone movie. Like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels (from which it draws non-trivial inspiration), the first Dragon Age video game has enough depth, complexity, and subtlety to make it nearly unfilmable as-is, and only a series would be able to adequately capture that depth. Dawn of the Seeker makes a token effort at depicting that complexity, but a one-dimensional protagonist and an overly-simplistic plot mean the movie can’t capitalize at all on its multiple factions at cross-purposes with each other. I’d be hard-pressed to think that fans of the original game would find much to love in this movie, and I’m not even sure that newcomers would have their curiosity sparked enough to try the game. I understand that Cassandra plays a part in Dragon Age II, so this story might make more sense as a prequel to her role in that game, but even if this is true, it would seem to be an incredibly limiting decision.