It probably looked like a really clever idea on paper. And when they pitched it to the studio, they probably all sat there thinking ‘wow’. On paper, it has everything: low-brow and high-brow appeal. It’s Moby Dick but with… dragons: a great American novel and epic fantasy. Instead of obsessing over the great white whale, Ahab obsesses over the great white dragon. And just in case any of the viewers miss what they’ve done, they’ll even use the same names as the characters in Melville’s novel. Except for the female lead, of course… You can’t have a fantasy film in the 21st century without a feisty female in it. After all, you get two demographics for the price of one with a feisty female character – someone for the young women to identify with, someone for the young men to lust over.
In the cod-mediaeval world of Age Of The Dragons, the titular mythical beasts are hunted and killed for their ‘vitriol’, in which there is a thriving trade. Dragon-hunters travel far and wide in land-ships, great wheeled and armoured vehicles. The dragons are harpooned and then, when dead, eviscerated by the land-ship’s ‘extractor’ for the gland which holds the vitriol. Ishmael (Corey Sevier) fancies himself as a harpooner, and wants to sign on with Captain Ahab (Danny Glover), whose fame as the best dragon-hunter has spread far and wide. Ishmael admits as much in a tavern, within the hearing of the mate of Ahab’s land-ship Pequod, Mr Stubbs (Vinnie Jones). Stubbs challenges Ishmael to a quick harpoon-throwing contest, but even though Ishmael demonstrates his skill, Stubbs refuses to sign him… until Rachel (Sofia Pernas), Ahab’s daughter, steps forward and over-rules Stubbs. With Ishmael is his ‘native’ companion, Queequeg (Kepa Kruse), who says little and does less.
Once aboard the Pequod, Ishmael meets the rest of the crew – Starbuck (David Morgan), and extractor Flask (Larry Bagby). The land-ship leaves town. Ahab remains in his cabin. Later in the journey, he appears – he bears severe burn scars. These were inflicted by a white dragon when Ahab was a young man. The dragon also killed his sister. He has obsessed over the creature ever since, and is determined to kill it. Not all of his crew agree with him, however. Also adding to the tension is Flask’s desire for Rachel, but, of course, she fancies Ishmael…
The Pequod trundles on, the film trundles on… Ahab chews the scenery with gusto, Ishmael gurns prettily, Rachel poses feistily. They find a flock of dragons and kill a couple. Ahab chews more scenery. It all gets very intense. Members of the crew are killed – by dragons, by each other. The scenery is snowy and stark – Utah in winter, apparently. The acting is not very good. The dialogue is worse: the cast speak in that faux mediaeval style beloved of bad fantasy novels – it doesn’t add verisimilitude, it just sounds ridiculous.
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Throughout the film, Rachel fails to fit. There is no woman aboard Melville’s Pequod, and yet that, ostensibly, is what the land-ship is. Right from the start her presence fails to convince. For example, after signing on Ishmael and Queequeg, the three leave the tavern. Rachel is attacked by two men, who she promptly beats up. Later, she requires Ishmael’s help to rescue her from Flask – it seems her combat skills had deserted her.
But Rachel is only one of the many things about this film which do not work. The story drags interminably, the character dynamics are entirely predictable, the acting is either over-the-top or underwhelming, and the central conceit simply can’t carry 94 minutes of screen-time. Some ideas should stay on paper. True, the CGI dragons in Age Of The Dragons are done reasonably well. And the land-ship looks quite cool, although I suspect it’s not the all-terrain vehicle the script would have the viewer believe. So, if you’re a fan of Moby Dick, you’d best avoid Age Of The Dragons. If you’re a fan of fantasy films, you’d best avoid it, too. If you like films in which dragons appear – like them uncritically, that is – you might find Age Of The Dragons worth watching. But I did warn you.