March 22, 2010

Justify My Netflix: The Gamers: Dorkness Rising

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

The Gamers: Dorkness Rising

Today's movie: The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, 2008 (Official site | Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it sounded like something that'd be right up my alley, a fan-produced ode to the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons that also gently pokes fun at its most intense players, made available to the public through the increasingly fantastic Netflix Streaming online service.

The reality: Wow, where do I even begin with how marvelous this film is? Well, for starters, let me make it clear that this is actually both a wry character-based dramedy and a wacky fantasy adventure at the same time, cleverly cutting between a group of slightly loserish D&D gamers who meet each Friday in the back of a suburban hobby store (conveniently owned by one of the group's members) and the actual blood-and-boobs medieval quest they're currently on, with the actors from the first group playing the heroes of the other, only with such notable cosmetic differences as a shaved head, a full beard, and in one case a change in gender. This then lets writer/director Matthew Vancil cut very smartly between the milieus, showing how each are informing the other, which in the case of the fantasy campaign allows him to insert literally hundreds of insider jokes regarding the world of roleplay gaming; just to cite one of the pages' worth of examples that I could mention, the way that combat in D&D is actually a laborious and slow-moving process of mapping, dice rolls and the working-out of proper attack orders, leading our fantasy heroes to spend huge amounts of time standing still in the middle of fights, watching one warrior at a time have their sword swing while having pithy conversations with each other to break the monotony.

And in fact, this is technically a sequel to an earlier fan film simply called The Gamers (sadly not available through Netflix), which apparently uses this premise for its entire plot, cutting back and forth between actual tabletop gameplay and how such a thing would appear in the real world if actually acted out, existing as not much more than a goofy comedy about all the weird tics found in D&D's elaborate rules system; but like I said, here Vancil expands the script so as to take a deeper look at the people themselves who are actually playing, turning in unexpectedly serious and affecting scenes regarding the mass social dysfunction that runs rampant within the entire gaming community, and how these multiple antisocial behaviors sometimes wreak havoc within a community expressly based around the act of social gaming. For example, one of the ongoing conflicts among the real-world characters is of an ex-girlfriend of one of the regulars being invited to play in this most current campaign, a non-gamer but genre fan (you can just picture her being an obsessive reader of Ursula K. Le Guin) who's always been curious about this thing that used to keep her boyfriend away from her for days at a time; and near the end of the movie, even as their fantasy characters face the climax of the dungeon-based campaign they're playing, chaos erupts among the real-world players as well, when this ex-boyfriend suddenly unloads on the woman for making a decision he considers ignorant and naive, which quickly turns into an ugly harangue against female gamers in general and the ineptitude of the "gamemaster" who has designed the adventure in the first place, causing a literal freeze on the climatic fantasy side of the movie while the real-world characters work through some much more blase personality issues.

The movie is full of such moments, which is why it's so phenomenally better than a typical fan-produced film: the gamemaster in question turns out to be a frustrated author in real life, the owner of the store (playing a cuckolded, easily killed madrigal singer in the game) turns out to be a real assh-le when it comes to his employees, and the growing secret romance between the adventure's creator and his buddy's ex has all kinds of profound repercussions on the group's actual gameplay. It was a smart thing of Vancil to do, and is what elevates this into a film worthy and deserving of a general audience, no matter whether or not you happen to be a gamer yourself (although make no mistake, you'll need to be at least a former gamer to get most of the jokes seen here [although not a recent one -- I myself, for example, haven't played D&D in almost thirty years, and I was laughing out loud throughout the entire thing]). Thank God for Netflix Streaming, it seems I'm always saying these days; thank God such a useful and inexpensive service like that exists, which allows tiny little undistributed films like this to have a national audience, requiring no more effort to obtain and watch than to press a button and wait two minutes. I encourage all my fellow nerds to watch The Gamers: Dorkness Rising as soon as they have a chance, and just in general for my fellow Netflix members to subscribe to that company's "New Releases" RSS feed, so that you too can watch for random hidden little gems like this one, exactly the way I myself happened to discover this movie. It was literally one of the most unexpectedly delightful viewing experiences I've had in years, and further proof of why I am such a happy and satisfied Netflix customer.

Strangest piece of trivia: The success of the original Gamers inspired multiple gaming companies to get involved with this sequel, including Wizards of the Coast (current owners of Dungeons & Dragons) and Goodman Games (which actually created and sells the very campaign being "tested" in this movie).

Worth your time? Absolutely

And P.S., a bonus clip today, this one showing off more of the gamer-centric humor found throughout.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:06 PM, March 22, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |