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October 3, 2012

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Movie Review – Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker (2012)

by Master Pillow

Bioware.  Yes, long time readers of this blog will no doubt know this name and if anyone has been following over the last few months they’d understand why as Mass Effect 3 has just about taken over posts and comments sending this site’s hit count soaring.  Regardless, this entry is not another Mass Effect 3 analysis but this is about Dragon Age, you know, Bioware’s other big franchise. Simply put, while Mass Effect has taken video game space opera to new heights, Dragon Age is their fantasy equivalent that retains much of the same DNA in crafting a story driven narrative that is highly influenced by player dialogue decision-making.

Nevertheless, as other video game companies have shown, Bioware has turned to expanding the Dragon Age franchise to other mediums first with comic books and now to its first feature film Dawn of the Seeker a somewhat puzzling collaboration with American company Funimation and Japanese vet Oxybot that eschews traditional Western 2D animation for Japanese 3D anime.  Diehard anime fans will immediately recognize the name Oxybot as the studio that uses a unique combination of 3D where the characters themselves are fully modeled in the anime style best seen in their film Vexille.  For video gamers who aren’t into anime the best analogy would be to think of cell shading techniques seen in such titles like Jet Set Radio for a fair comparison although the level of detail is obviously much higher in Dawn of the Seeker.

This style is at once incredibly polarizing as it feels inherently like a stripped down Pixar movie except the characters are all influenced by Japanese anime rather than traditional Western art forms thus viewers should expect large accentuated eyes that are always the focal point of any shot and obviously fabulous complexions where everyone looks either like a male or female supermodel.  Even grizzled old men seem to have youthful skin but then again I have no issues with this as I’ve always adored anime starting way back in the 1970s with Star Blazers (aka Space Battleship Yamato).  However, visuals aside, anime is known for much more than its visual élan but also its propensity to create narratives that skew to more mature audiences with no holding back in terms of violence or even sexual relations.  This makes anime a natural fit although the differences in art styles are like night and day as evinced by the way lead character Cassandra has changed from a rather mature imposing knight who spent the entirety of Dragon Age 2 interrogating a dwarf to an infuriated hot babe who would easily stir any man’s loins in this new movie.

Dawn of the Seeker attempts to draw in laymen to the franchise with a rather condensed opening narration that tries to describe the Dragon Age world to newcomers and sets up the main narrative thrust from both games by showcasing the various factions as they jostle for power and influence.  At the heart of Bioware’s fantasy world is the eternal struggle between mages and non-mages but unlike other fantasy works like Tolkien or Warcraft magic-wielders are looked upon with great suspicion and a sense of dread.  The lore goes that long ago rogue mages stormed through the gates of Heaven to usurp power but failed in their plan invoking the wrath of God who basically turned them into evil darkspawn and banished them underground.  The population came to fear mages as they saw that wielding such power had a tendency to corrupt them thus the world created a system to keep them in check.

First there is the Chantry that is basically the major religion that binds the world together and is ruled by a head priest named the Divine who acts as the leader of the organization.  The Chantry is flanked by two militaristic arms, one of which is named the Templars, highly trained knights whose job is to protect the Chantry as well as hunt down rogue mages called apostates.  At the same time they keep a keen eye on the Circle of Magi, the world’s formal mage organization and whose members pledge full allegiance to the Chantry.

The Circle of Magi scours the world for children who show any magical prowess and is given political authority to take them from their families by force if necessary to properly train them to control their powers as well as to ensure that they are educated with upstanding morals and ethics so as to follow the ways of the Circle and the Chantry.  Once these children reach young adult age they must undergo a final trial called the Harrowing where they are forced to face their inner demons alone.  Failure to pass this test results in what is called the Tranquil process which is basically the mage form of a lobotomy where their souls are cut off from the magical realm so that they can never again wield paranormal powers.  However, a nasty side-effect is that they become completely emotionless yet retain their free will although it is a state that most humans would usually never submit to voluntarily as it completely eviscerates whatever personality they used to possess.

The last legal political force are the Seekers which can best be described as the Chantry’s secret service or if you love Mass Effect they are basically Spectres who wield great power because they report directly to the Divine himself/herself.  Their job is to keep an eye on both the Templars and the Circle of Magi as a kind of check and balance system to ensure corruption is rooted out and dealt with.  Another way to look at them is to think of the Police Force’s Internal Affairs department that is tasked to investigate officers who may or may not be totally just.

Finally, there are the Blood Mages or apostates who are fallen Circle Mages or those who have managed to elude the Chantry’s forces and grown up amongst the public secretly hiding their power.  The Chantry treats these people with extreme prejudice and has long standing orders to hunt them down to kill or capture them.  At the same time the public itself is already dubious of magic wielders so these outlaws cannot really depend on anyone else but themselves or shadow societies.  The Blood Mages are the most dangerous as they practice forbidden magic that is based on the use of blood.  Think of the dark side from Star Wars as an example as Blood Mages pose a threat to everyone as their magicks have a high chance of corrupting their souls and turning them into vile powerful demons.

Politics is very much a large part of the Dragon Age world as all these legal and outlaw forces are in constant friction with one another jostling for power or riches.  With a check and balance system such as this everyone certainly has a heightened sense of suspicion towards other divisions yet at the same time it manages to keep the majority in check out of sheer fear that if anyone tried something untoward that the other divisions will quickly find out.  Not to mention just about everyone is always weary of Blood Mages and Apostates that works well as a narrative crutch in order to rally every faction together to eliminate a common enemy.

The movie itself is basically a prequel story following a young Seeker named Cassandra Pentaghast whom fans will know plays a minor role in the game Dragon Age 2.  It might seem like an odd choice to focus on a side character yet it is understandable since trying to make a film based on the main protagonists from Dragon Age 1 or 2 would be next to impossible as these are player created avatars meaning there would be hundreds if not thousands of variations from basic factors like gender to fighting class to physical appearance.  Cassandra is your prototypical hotheaded firebrand with kick ass fighting skills and a burning hatred for mages so much so that she is single-minded in her actions, a negative trait that audiences will surely understand will eventually get her into trouble.  Yet her dedication to the Seeker cause and her total devotion to the Chantry are exemplary making her an almost ideal candidate for promotion.

The movie centers on Cassandra who is thrown into an undesirable alliance with Galyan, a Circle Mage, when it is revealed to her by her mentor that nefarious forces are conspiring to do harm to the Divine and the Chantry in general.  It should come to no surprise that rogue Blood mages are behind the evil plot yet there is also evidence that someone inside the Chantry has ulterior motives since both Cassandra and her magic companion are branded traitors sending them fleeing for their lives while attempting to piece together the diabolic scheme before it is too late.

Dawn of the Seeker is incredibly fast-paced much to its detriment as what appears to be a much grander story is condensed into a relatively curt 90 minute runtime and that’s counting the entire length of the end credits.  On the plus side it means there is nary a wasted scene yet often times the ridiculously speedy pace creates occasions where scenes seem to have been prematurely cut short.   The film also does a poor job in explaining its unique geography, a fact that plays havoc with Cassandra and Galyan’s flight from capture since there is no process included in which to educate the audience as to where they are going.  It would have helped immensely if there was a short scene or even longer take shot of a map so that viewers would have an innate understanding of what exactly is transpiring.

While the movie contains some magnificently lush visuals the problem is that overall quality is wildly inconsistent with some scenes having incredibly bland details that are almost painful in their simplicity.  Case in point, Cassandra and Galyan spend much time in the first act trudging through a forest that for the most part consists of minimalistic trees and a flat ground texture that even doesn’t bother to have grass or other vegetation making it look inherently one dimensional.  Contrast this spartan look with the final twenty minutes and the difference in quality is staggering as the ornate intricate detail of the city of Orlais and the magnificent skin texture work on multiple dragons is outstanding making it feel like a totally different film.  It certainly gives the impression that the filmmakers decided to hoard the majority of their budget for the last act and try to make do with table scraps everywhere else

At the same time, while fans of other Oxybot films will no doubt already know, the animation itself especially from the human characters is incredibly hit or miss depending on what they are tasked to do.  Director Fumihiko Sori is a veteran and understands the limitations of his art so he spends much of his time focusing on the upper torso of all the major characters especially their heads so there are tons of shot compositions which feature just Cassandra and Galyan from the shoulders up talking to one another.  There is certainly enough facial and eye movement to convey their mood well enough yet the problem comes when the camera pulls out to a long shot especially in slower paced scenes such as having Cassandra walk where the jerkiness of her movement becomes all too apparent.  In other words the physics seems incredibly off in certain moments as if weight and momentum do not apply creating unnecessary hilarity when characters pull off moves that seem far too stilted.

This effect is not so much an issue when the action begins as the hectic pace and rapid editing masks the somewhat robotic motions but everywhere else is decidedly hit or miss.  This particular form of 3D also has a few other issues such as some oddly lit segments which have far too much emphasis on shininess of objects which might sound great if the film is showing the sparkling metal armor worn by the Templars yet is incredibly laughable when horses ride on screen that appear too shiny as if they too are made of glossy metal.

The action scenes though border on the spectacular as director Fumihiko Sori makes ample use of three dimensional space in placing his camera in areas where no physical unit can ever hope to go such as having it whiz around Cassandra before moving behind her back as she is in mid stride following her as she ploughs head first into a throng of Ogres and Golems making a rather generic scene simply pop with kinetic excitement.  That said while the action soars in tempo whenever Cassandra is fighting it’s the exact opposite with Galyan’s magic that is portrayed more like a peashooter as spells just do not visually or aurally have much impact and force.  One would expect a simple fireball to fly forth and strike with authoritativeness yet it feels much more like a giant wet noodle flopping ignominiously onto the floor.

Considering Bioware has carved out a reputation for having great stories and creating rich characters it has to be said that Dawn of the Seekers is a bit of a letdown in both departments as the main plot is incredibly predictable especially if one has played both games.  The machinations of the various political factions doesn’t deviate one iota from what has already been portrayed in the gaming world and watching yet another narrative revolve around rogue Blood Mages and their threat to the Dragon Age society feels inherently stale.  We’ve seen how this plays out before and this movie mirrors those narrative beats almost verbatim.

The speedy tempo doesn’t give the film enough time to properly gestate all the different political forces a fact that is sorely apparent the longer the movie plays as these subplots begin to fall away to be replaced by outright action.  Considering all the trouble in setting up the world for newcomers the film doesn’t follow through in explaining certain elements such as who or what the Divine really is beyond that she is the leader of the Chantry and I am certain laymen are going to be feeling adrift as they have no way of knowing what she has done or even represents to warrant such affection.

In terms of characters while Cassandra and Galyan are basically based on hoary old archetypes at least their enormous amount of screen time allows the film to develop their friendship in convincing albeit painfully standard fashion.  Any viewer will immediate clue in that their initial distrust and hatred will give way to understanding and a hint of romance.  As the lead herself, Cassandra certainly doesn’t start off on the right foot being incredibly aloof and having next to no ability to reason events out especially if mages are involved.  Her coldness certainly dissipates as the movie progresses but it acts to give the first act an inherently distant tone as she isn’t your prototypical sympathetic heroine.  On the other hand Galyan is squarely from the Han Solo School of roguish charm armed with sarcastic quips for virtually every moment and though his act might grate some at least he adds some needed comedy and a bit of sexual tension that adds fire to narrative.

In terms of the actual romance it is mostly confined to a lot of innuendo driven by Galyan’s dialogue such as one instance when Cassandra straddles him on the floor and he deviously smiles and comments, “So, you like to be on top?”  Thankfully, the script knows exactly where these characters come from and instead of blushing she merely slaps him in the face for his obvious breach in gentlemanly conduct.

Sadly, every other character is exceedingly one-dimensional as there isn’t enough time to properly flesh them out.  This makes the film inherently feel like a kind of stage play with only two leads as they monopolize 90%+ of the running time making sure all other characters get short shafted.  Subplots that are hinted at such as the long feud between the commanders of the Seekers and the Templars are unceremoniously shunted aside and confined to people glaring intensely at one another in lieu of providing convincing exposition.

This lack of characterization applies to the major antagonists who are woefully underdeveloped turning them into snarling madmen or merely power hungry individuals that do no favors to the film that is already completely unsurprising.  When one of the antagonists basically explains his nefarious scheme to our heroes most viewers will probably slap their foreheads that here we are getting yet another ridiculous reveal not unlike the ones found in James Bond movies where the villain’s ego gets the best of him, gloating and then launching into an inexplicable elucidation of the entire plot even though it would make more sense to just shut up and shoot Bond in the face with extreme prejudice.

Still, for all its faults, Dawn of the Seeker manages to at least provide an interesting enough glimpse into Bioware’s fantasy world, one that is more politically defined than other similar fare.  It’s certainly lamentable that Bioware’s intricate attention to plot and characterization has more or less been dumbed down to its most basic elements but that is more the fault of screenwriter Jeffrey Scott who comes from American cartoons not Bioware’s internal staff.  Yet one would have hoped that more emphasis was placed on what exactly this film was meant to accomplish as having mostly cardboard characters trudge through an incredibly generic narrative probably isn’t the best avenue in which to lure newcomers to the series.

While the visuals vacillate in quality at its best in the third act the film is a real stunner including one eye-popping slow motion shot where two dragons ram into one another that is simply breathtaking to behold.  Cassandra might not exactly be the best heroine to focus on but at least her character grows in a believable light and when the movie ends with a portend to future adventure I have a feeling most will be more than receptive to watching the sequel.  Dawn of the Seeker is a decent start to a film series based on one of Bioware’s big two franchises but one hopes that the filmmakers lock themselves into a small room to craft a much more poignant narrative that can truly match its gaming pedigree.

** out of ****

2012, Japan, 90 Min, Funimation/Oxybot/Bioware
Directed by Fumihiko Sori
Screenplay by Jeffrey Scott
Produced by Justin Cook, Makoto Hirano, Carly Hunter, Tomohiko Iwase, Lindsey Newman, Fumihiko Sori, Adam Zehner
Executive Producer Mark Darrah, Gen Fukunaga, Takeichi Honda, Mike Laidlaw, Chris Moujaes, Yui Shibata
Original Music by Naoyuki Horiko, Reiji Kitazato, Shogo Ohnishi, Masafumi Okubo, Tetsuya Takahashi
Film Editing by Jeremy Jimenez, Daniel Mancilla

Colleen Clinkenbeard: Cassandra Pentaghast
J. Michael Tatum: Regalyan D’Marcall
Chuck Huber: Frenic
Brina Palencia: Grand Cleric of Orlais
Christopher Sabat: Knight Commander
Pam Dougherty: Divine
Luci Christian: Revered Mother
R. Bruce Elliot: High Seeker
Mike McFarland: Lazarro
John Swasey: Byron

© 2012 The Galactic Pillow

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